When last we left our hero Paul (now the proprietor of a snazzy new website of his own! Those of you who are casting directors – and you know who you are – click on over and line up to offer him work!), he was beginning to grasp once again that elemental poutiness that launched him to romance-cover stardom, after perhaps losing faith for a time and finding solace, as we’ve all done from time to time, by taking mercenary work in distant galaxies and doing some freelance paranormal gigs in New York City. Those stints offered an anonymity that was no doubt healing, but they required a heavy price in return: they required Paul to be fully clothed. For a male model, a pound of body armor and worsted wool is far worse than a pound of flesh. Paul may have executed these various adventures with the cool hand and consummate professionalism that are his trademarks, but looking at those covers, you can almost hear his luscious pecs yearning to break out and breathe free. We saw the beginnings of that self-realization dawn on Paul last time, and what started as a trickle will soon spurt to a torrent.
Like so many epic adventures, it all begins in Egypt. 1820 Egypt, to be specific, the setting for the opening scene of the delightful Deb Marlowe‘s 2008 Harlequin historical romance An Improper Aristocrat, which begins with a mysterious femme fatale spying on our Paul as he sits alone in his tent in the Valley of Kings. Her motives might be nefarious, but she’s an excellent judge of model-meat:
Narrowing her gaze, she studied him. Ah, yes. The light might be dim, but it illuminated a feast for the discerning female eye: a strong, chiselled profile, impossibly broad shoulders, rugged muscles straining the fine linen of his shirt.
He set down his pen and indulged himself in a lengthy, catlike stretch. Even in so unwary a pose, she could sense his power, feel the pull of unwavering confidence and absolute masculinity. Inwardly, she smiled. This assignment, which she had objected to with vehemence, was going to be no hardship at all.
Ah, yes indeed – she no sooner parts his tent-flap than she’s straddling him like a subway turnstile, and our boy Paul, bless his randy soul, takes it all in stride. Howard Carter and other wimpy Egyptologists would probably have complained about the heat.
Their impromptu coupling is brought to an abrupt halt by the sound of a scream, and Paul – here calling himself the Earl of Treyford – rushes outside to find his excavation partner, Richard Latimer, lying on the ground with a knife sticking out of his chest. Despite the fact that ‘Trey’ (the equivalent of the Earl of Rutland calling himself ‘Rut,’ but Marlowe – like her literary namesake, come to think of it – will have her own way) cries out the requisite “No!” Richard dies in his arms – but not before handing over a mysterious ancient amulet and making Paul swear to return to England and protect Richard’s big sister Chione.
Paul swears (in all his adventures so far, he’s never yet refused a dying request, despite the fact that they always get him into trouble – you’d think by this point he wouldn’t bend over a dying friend until his iPod was safely blasting Lady Gaga into his ears, so his friend could gurgle impossible quests until the cows come home without Paul being the wiser), even though he has no love for England – where polite society views him as an unprincipled rake and adventurer – and no love for the idea of playing squire to some old maid and the two children she chaperones.
Needless to say, Chione in the flesh upends all his expectations (Marlowe is wonderful at crafting set-piece scenes that come off without a hitch; the chapter-section where Paul meets Chione is a pitch-perfect hoot, complete with a zinger at the end), and thanks to that mysterious amulet – and the sinister ancient society that’s after it – the two of them are quickly embroiled in one adventure after another. Readers who expect the usual dinner-and-ball-room Regency romance here will be surprised right out of their petticoats. As noted, Paul himself must wrestle with similarly toppled expectations – and other, more powerful feelings:
Trey muffled a heartfelt curse. His head was still bent in the low-ceilinged corridor, an awkward position made more so by the child resting against his shoulder. Danger lay behind and the unknown ahead, and he must face it saddled with a woman and two children. This was hardly the first scrape he’d found himself in, but it ranked right up there with the worst of the lot. And despite all this, still his body reacted to the nearness of hers. To the scent of her hair. To the sound of her breathing in the darkness. For some reason he did not fully comprehend, all of this infuriated him.
Ah, that last line speaks volumes, doesn’t it? And in the end what’s important isn’t that inexplicable rage – that’s just par for the course when it comes to brooding rakehells, after all – but rather the fact that by this point in our odyssey, we can bloody well guess why Paul is infuriated. Hell, we can see it plain as day! The old Harlequin historicals (four a month, no overlapping time-periods!) all featured a separate black-and-white illustration on the inside cover that was meant to further the action of the full-color front cover, and in the case of An Improper Aristocrat, we can see the way the wind is blowing – it’s blowing Paul’s frilly shirt clean off his smooth-muscled torso!
That wind is the breath of the future, and it’s blowing Paul toward his romance-cover destiny! We shall follow that blowing job in the next instalment!