Miss Bates is peeved by the claim, and many readers make it sheepishly eyes downcast, that romance fiction is “a comfort read.” It may very well be, and she’s happy if enjoyed as such, but it’s often used to diminish the genre. She applauds rom writers, like Molly O’Keefe, who make reading romance anything but, who make the reader work to earn that HEA (and why O’Keefe runs the risk of making it meh-anti-climactic). It’s great that romance can be visceral and uncomfortable and we have O’Keefe, and others in her company (Cecilia Grant, Victoria Dahl are two who come to mind) who offer this reader experience couched in the “pretty and titillating” many readers who don’t read romance accuse the genre of being. Convincing them otherwise? That ship sailed with the Pinta and Santa Maria for Miss Bates. Second in the Into the Wild historical romance series, Tempted, like its predecessor, Seduced, proves a fine punch to the reader-gut, tackling how the horrors of war inflict psychic wounds on men and women, obstructing and obscuring intimacy and love.
Molly O’Keefe’s slip of a romance narrative, Tempted, begins three years before the 1868 rom-action, in Georgia’s infamous POW Andersonville Prison, the site of hero Steven Baywood’s suffering and shame. O’Keefe’s opening captures the camp’s horrors, what happened to the Union’s soldiers and, in particular, what it did to Steven: “They were easy to ignore. The wounded. The dying. The battle-weary and nightmare-ridden … Whatever was left of him from before the war – gone. Lost in the heat. The degradation.” This sets up the hero, whom we met as Cole’s wounded brother in Seduced. Andersonville Prison broke Steven, though he struggled “to keep the small fire of his humanity and his dignity and hope burning in all this darkness.” We have to understand Steven through this painful lens, a man suffering from being starved, beaten, and terrified. (In many romances written in the past twenty years, we’ve tended to heroes who are haunted by what they’ve done in war, who suffer from PTSD and carry guilt. Steven, like Bliss’s hero, Lee Davis, in A Prior Engagement, is a changed man because he suffers not from what he did, but what was done to him and what he had to do to survive. The debilitating guilt is two sides of the same coin.)
Heroine Annie Denoe is also someone we met in Seduced, as Melody’s sister and the woman who nursed the wounded Steven. In 1868, Anne lives in Denver, acting as nursing assistant to Dr. James Madison and running a boardinghouse. The war has changed everything for Anne, her parents and home gone. But it offered her a freedom she would not otherwise have known: ” … in the West, she could be what she wanted. Who she wanted.” She choose to come to Denver, but is no less lonely. She bought the boarding house with Steven’s loan, though he wanted to gift her the funds. They are best friends; Anne is in love with Steven, but her perception of herself as a wallflower, unattractive and club-footed, keeps her love a deep secret of the heart. She loves working as a nurse and, with Madison, is able to perform medical procedures she wouldn’t otherwise. She’s unhappy, however, because she colludes in Madison’s chloroform addiction, covering for him when he can’t function and acting on his instructions when she can. Anne and the handsome, charming when he’s sober Madison share an attraction; in both their cases, it’s half-hearted: on her part because she thinks Steven doesn’t love, or want her; on James’s part, because his great love is for the chloroform (but he owes her and, sadly, her money is attractive to him). This thread of attraction running between Anne and James is well-played by O’Keefe, serving as a foil to what should be Anne and Steven’s love. It serves as a brilliant catalyst to Anne’s sexual emancipation. It is obvious, as soon as Steven makes his appearance, big, blond, loving, warm, and broken, something terrible blocks him from acting on his love for Anne.
When Steven appears on her boardinghouse doorstep to oversee his railroad investments, Anne’s response to him is indicative of her love: “She could not hide the happy leap of her heart, the smile that jumped across her face … filled her with surprised delight.” One of the figures Miss Bates most enjoyed was Anne’s spontaneous physical and emotional response to Steven, alluding to the “wildness” of the series title. O’Keefe rightly identifies the physicality of attraction, the heart “leap” of sheer liking, affection, and excitement. Miss Bates also loved that Anne was honest about her desires: she’s curious about sexuality and ready to explore, understand what it might mean for her. O’Keefe’s narrative quandary is pretty fantastic: Steven’s POW experiences have left him averse to physical touch. He’s not exactly impotent, but his recoiling from any touch leaves him unable to act as a lover/husband should, as he says to Anne, “I want to be what you need, but … don’t know if I can be what you want.”
When Steven realizes Anne is considering Madison’s proposal, he must take action to “give her what she wants,” or lose her forever. And so, he goes to Delilah’s, the local bawdyhouse. The whorehouse setting is a Western fiction convention, with its accompanying whore with a heart of gold. O’Keefe, however, is adept at imbuing convention with humanity, in rendering type into a living, breathing, nuanced person. Delilah’s, and the madam, Delilah, were created thus. Steven turns to Delilah to help him learn to give Anne the touch she craves and he recoils from. Anne’s appearance at Delilah’s makes for a brilliant betrayal scene, which in the hands of weaker rom writer would turn into a Big Mis for the duration. O’Keefe is anything but: Anne and Steven deal honestly and openly and painfully with each other. What this does to O’Keefe’s narrative is throw off the tiredness of the Big Mis and bring two loving, hurting, likeable people together to confront their woundedness. In a lovely twist, it’s Delilah who has an answer for Anne when she is trying to find means to help Steven. Delilah’s advice to Steven also results in Tempted‘s best line, ” ‘Sad sex is not interesting sex.’ “
Tempted‘s second half is pretty much that: Steven and Anne trying to have sex, to touch and be touched, to learn intimacy. What O’Keefe executes is to bring to life Delilah’s truth. Despite Anne and Steven’s sexual obstacles, they don’t have “sad sex.” They have awkward sex; they may even have what can be said to be “bad sex.” But they’re never sad: they’re honest. They talk and laugh and accept the awkward with the joyful. It’s raw; sometimes it’s embarrassing and far from idealized. But it’s like Steven’s comment about Andersonville: what he and Anne share in the bedroom’s privacy are the “small fire[s] of [their] humanity.” Steven and Anne know they love each other; they are already friends. To read about how they become lovers when their love and friendship are givens is a marvelous, interesting thing.
There is, in romance, and Miss Bates would say in Western culture, this dichotomy about the body. Fleshiness is titillating, or not because it must be imbued with some airy-fairy spirituality to be meaningful. What O’Keefe’s short novel accomplished is to make the flesh primary by making love, affection, and friendship givens. Anne and Steven are the best of friends; their love is deep, mature, and self-sacrificial. Their journey, and ours with them, is to understand what it means to touch and be touched, what physical intimacy entails, what it exacts, and what it gifts. Having brought them to this point, there’s no need to grovel, but declare love and agree on marriage. In that sense, there is, at the end to Tempted, a touch of let-down for the reader in an epilogue that resorts to the story-telling voice of happily-ever-after. On the other hand, it’s so very easy to envision Anne and Steven happy together … in and out of the bedroom. Miss Austen says of Tempted, “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Molly O’Keefe’s self-published Tempted releases today, July 21st, and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to the author for a courtesy copy. (You don’t need to have read Seduced to enjoy Tempted, except you should. Seduced is as good and offers an early portrait of Steven and Anne’s love.)