Heat Factor: It’s…extremely steamy.
Character Chemistry: It’s pretty electric and from the start you know they’re going to even though…they probably ought not.
Plot: Nicole is a driven, well-regarded, successful up-and-comer in finance and acquisitions when she’s forced into working for Raphael–one of the biggest players in the industry, kind of a bully, and very very sexy. She’s got major baggage (yikes!), he’s one of those guys everyone warns you about (not a good idea, honey) and it’s crisis after sexy crisis for these two.
Overall: I can’t review the entire plot arc, because I’ve only read books 1 and 2 out of 3–but there’s some major red flags AND some major steam in this series that I’ll happily pick apart for you.
SO! This is an odd one, because in Romancelandia one of the non-negotiables (amongst so many “whatever charges your Prius” romance plot variables) is that there absolutely must be a happily-ever-after or a happily-for-now, and in this case I can only speak for ⅔ of the plot. Normally, I would hold on the review until I could analyze the full shebang, but we do what we want here so I’m going to anyway. Happy Wednesday.
In this book we meet Nicole, who is by all accounts a gaunt workaholic who is stuck living with the grief and trauma of losing her lifetime friend and love in a car accident that left her injured and alone. What I like about her: she’s bold and intelligent, she works incredibly hard, and she has unbending integrity. She’s very loyal to her loved ones, and she has a very high sense of personal responsibility. Nicole’s red flags: she believes she killed her fiance. Oh, and it sure sounded like they met when she was four and were raised as step-siblings, so…a bit weird. Also, she really seems like she has a stress induced eating disorder…and I’m not being nitpicky here. For example, after chapters full of her not eating for entire days or taking two bites and being done, she realizes Raphael was fixated on her all day and didn’t eat and she marvels, “He’d starved himself all day? For me?” And that’s the tip of the disordered eating iceberg. Like, sincerely–she needs a therapist. Badly.
And then there’s Raphael…dear, angry, brutish, childish, probably abusive Raphael.
Raphael comes from a traumatic childhood that instills in him an, at best, cruel disregard for women in general. He’s a titan of acquisitions, ruthless, plotting, and effective. He’s also (pros!) extremely attractive, powerful, and motivated. As I’ve touched on, he’s also a pretty cruel liar who doesn’t seem to know how to have healthy relationships with…anyone. Like, I get this is an enemies to lovers type plot, but when we meet the guy he insinuates Nicole is a tramp, schedules a meeting so that she’ll walk in on him with a client on his desk, and then gets her fired and blacklisted from her industry. I’d like to transition now into the ways he’s transformed and redeemed by his growing love for Nicole, but unfortunately I cannot, because unlike Raphael I’m not a big fat liar.
So here’s the plot:
Essentially, Nicole is minding her traumatized business when she gets the opportunity to work for Raphael De’Angelo on a possible acquisition. She stays up all night for a week, busting her buns and proving her talent and skill, while Raphael tries to seduce her, acts like an HR department’s worst-nightmare, and just generally terrorizes her while also getting her inexplicably hot and bothered. (You know what I’m talking about here.)
From here, he gets her fired and she maneuvers around him, but he’s a real long-term plotter. Pretty much every time Nicole thinks she’s got an escape, she’s running into a trap. Raphael lies and manipulates her at every turn, and they just sit there and crank each other up and sizzle.
Here’s the deal–the high ratings on Goodreads aren’t incorrect. It’s an incredibly well-written book. The author is adept at sucking you in by the emotions whether you want the author to or not. I mean, think about it this way–you’re going to turn the page angrily or drooling, but you’re going to turn it regardless. It’s a dark, corporate romance, and it’s really, really effective. And I’ll tell you–if you like really aggressively possessive, brutish alpha-holes, this will be your kryptonite. HOWEVER. There are a few counterpoints I have to make regarding the resolution of this series.
First, in romance we see the main characters transformed through their journey to happily ever whatever. And in a successful romance, we as readers generally prefer to see our characters better off for having found one another. I’m not seeing it here. Nicole is constantly talked down to by industry men who are, at this point, set up to be her helpers. She’s urged to accommodate things they would never advise a man to tolerate, and she goes from being extremely well-regarded and talented to being discussed as if she were some kind of overly sensitive underling. How is her life changing for the better? She still barely eats and her career is getting awfully dull. So, thus far? It looks like Raphael will be saved at Nicole’s expense, which just isn’t very sexy at all.
Also, there have been many very considerate and thoughtful discussions about what we call “dubious consent” throughout Romancelandia recently, and this is a prime example. **SPOILER** When Nicole and Raphael end up in bed together, she’s been essentially manipulated into Raphael’s house and seduced to his bedroom. She verbally and physically shuts it down, multiple times, and he pushes her into it. She does weakly consent, and Raphael is horrified to discover she’s actually a virgin–he’s been tampering with her career and screwing with her BECAUSE he thinks she’s been sleeping around with his friend (who has told him it’s not true), and the entire reason he’s been retaliating against her isn’t actually real at all. And for the rest of their relationship, one of the reasons he insists she’s his is because he took her virginity. Suddenly, she has value!! She also lashes out afterwards and hurls out that she’s his subordinate and perhaps did it to save her job, so there’s also that gross factor in play here. Now, this is a dark, corporate romance, and it was pretty clear to me from the outset that the relationship wasn’t going to be rainbows and butterflies, but this whole chunk of the plot made me lose so much respect for Raphael that it would take a literary miracle for me to change my mind, especially since he later tries to sneakily get her pregnant and pushes her to marry him. The reason alpha-holes aren’t bad guys is that they have some thread of moral fiber that the love interest draws out of them and as the reader we can see that thread shimmer with promise. If the good guy does bad thing after bad thing and never changes, he’s not a good guy. He’s a bad guy.
Now, the story isn’t over yet–Raphael’s past ends up putting Nicole in extreme danger, Nicole realizes that Raphel does love her but he’s just really crappy at it, and when we leave off Nicole is recovering with the support of her loved ones while she chases her (constantly minimized and insulted) professional dreams and Raphael has cruelly pushed her away.
From a plot and character development standpoint, Nicole really does have to do what she says she’s going to do–refuse to engage with Raphael unless he changes. And Raphael has to actually change. Barring some kind of intensive, in-patient therapy for abusive people, I don’t know how on earth the author is going to achieve that. Am I going to read the last one to find out? I don’t know. I’m very intrigued, and it’s like 70% enraged curiosity and 30% motivated by plot and chemistry.
The thing is, Raphael ticks off virtually every early warning sign for an abusive relationship and I have a really hard time rooting for a relationship that’s THIS messed up (from RAINN):
- Demand details about how you spend your time.
- Raphael forces Nicole to take a vacation and takes over her workload without talking to her at all.
- Restrict contact with family or friends.
- Attempts time after time to prevent Nicole from checking in with her friends.
- Criticize you or what’s important to you.
- Insults her abilities, mocks her career goals, discourages her to try to seek a career independent from him.
- Control what you wear or what you look like.
- Buys her a whole new wardrobe and refuses to accept when she declines. Gets angry when she doesn’t want to wear the items. Chooses her outfits. Multiple times.
- Touch you in public without permission.
- In public, in private, basically all the time.
- Coerce or pressure you into physical activity.
- See: Nicole loses her virginity and it’s uncomfortable.
- Ignore or violate your physical boundaries.
- I can’t even begin to list how many times this has happened.
- Control your reproductive choices.
- He straight up admits to trying to get her pregnant and blames her for not being more careful when she gets upset about it.
The caveats I have for this is that, again–the book is meant to be dark, and it’s not done yet. In romance, we like seeing the impossible happen. So we KNOW in real life abusers really aren’t likely to change, because we have evidence that supports it. But in romance…maybe Raphael will, and it’s allowed because it’s make-believe.
Look, if you like the thrill of not knowing whether the hero is going to slap his love interest or kiss her, look no further. The book IS well written, and I am deeply curious to see what the heck is going to happen with these two. But I do get the feeling here that Raphael will be redeemed as Nicole is made smaller–and there’s nothing romantic about that.
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