Merry Vance is an independent and rather unconventional young lady, whose parents are pushing her into marriage with her father's secretary, Ernest. While Ernest has been a good friend to Merry and is a very nice young man, Merry can't bear the thought of marrying someone who would in all likelihood stifle her free-spiritedness. She would simply rather become a spinster than give up her freedom. Little does Merry know though, that her mother is being blackmailed by Ernest's father and both have a vested interest in the match. When Merry's repeated refusals of Ernest's proposals lead her mother to make threats to dismiss Merry's favorite elderly servant and to sell her prized horses, Merry wishes nothing more than to find a way out of her untenable situation as soon as possible.
Nicolas Craven has a respected reputation as a brilliant artist, but is also a known seducer of women, especially his models. He had recently painted a portrait of Merry's father, and when he stopped by their home to repair a crack in the frame, Nic chanced to rescue Merry from being attacked. He is immediately taken by the beauty of her form, and believing her to be one of the household servants, asks if she would be willing to pose for him. Merry thinks herself so plain and unattractive, she can't believe that Nic would want her as his model. She politely refuses, but Nic gives her his business card in case she changes her mind. Almost instantly a cunning scheme begins to take shape in Merry's mind. Posing for Nic would "ruin" her in the eyes of the ton so that no man would ever want to marry her. She decides to pretend that she is visiting her best friend in Wales, but accepts Nic's offer instead. An almost instant attraction develops between artist and model, leading to interludes of steamy passion, but both Nic and Merry are afraid to believe that theirs is a lasting love and both are keeping secrets from each other which could ruin their chances of a forever relationship.
I have to admit that I was so unimpressed with Beyond Innocence that I procrastinated on reading it's sequel, Beyond Seduction, for quite some time. I am happy to say though, that Emma Holly definitely redeemed herself with this follow-up story. The characters were much easier to relate to, and the overall story was very romantic in my opinion. Ms. Holly managed to infuse the narrative with an incredible depth of emotion, while telling a tale that was not only about romance, but also about familial ties, forgiveness, and loving others in spite of their flaws. As with it's predecessor, I found a certain degree of predictability to the story. Most of the so-called "secrets," I figured out early on, but the author did manage to throw out a couple of surprises that I didn't see coming. Although Ms. Holly relied heavily on the overused romance cliches of keeping secrets, holding back feelings, and lack of communication, I still enjoyed this book a great deal. I think that was owing to the emotional nature of the story as well as a cast of flawed, but likable characters. I loved the way that Ms. Holly was able to deepen the feelings of the characters with a mere touch or glance or some other simple but meaningful gesture. In my opinion, demonstrations of emotions are very important to romance stories, but not always present, so I appreciated this element a great deal.
I found it very easy to like both Nic and Merry, the hero and heroine of the story. My initial impression of Merry in Beyond Innocence was a lukewarm one, probably owing to her rather shameless pursuit of the hero in that story. I think this also contributed to my reluctance to read Beyond Seduction, because I just wasn't sure I would like this headstrong, independent, tom-boyish girl. My opinion of Merry changed very quickly though. As I was able to get inside her head and understand her better, I felt like she developed into a kind-hearted, sensitive young woman, who in spite of her outward brash, self-assuredness, was still inwardly insecure, especially about her plain looks. All of these things made her a flawed but relatable heroine. It would have been nearly impossible for me not to like Nic, who had the sensitive heart of an artist and an eye for seeing the hidden beauty in things. It was Nic's incredible talents that eventually made Merry see herself as a desirable woman and not just an unattractive debutante. Nic also had his share of faults and difficulties to overcome. He had made many mistakes in the past that needed to be rectified, and he suffered from frequent artist's depressions. Merry became a steady and inspiring influence, helping him slowly come to terms with these things and giving him a new perspective on life. In my opinion, these two characters were very well-matched, and I really enjoyed their interactions. They just had a way of selflessly giving of themselves to one another and a willingness to forgive past transgressions, which made their relationship very beautiful to read. The only thing that could have made it better would have been Merry confessing her feelings for Nic and her deception a little sooner.
The extensive cast of supporting characters was an eclectic mix representing a full gamut of personalities. Merry's three protective brothers were almost as spirited as she was. While I wouldn't go quite so far as to say that Merry's mother was a villain, she was definitely one of the problem characters. She was far too self-centered and never fully loved her daughter in the way Merry deserved. Merry's father by contrast was a firm, but loving and forgiving man who showed respect for his daughter's intelligence and mettle. In my opinion, he was a much better person than his wife would probably ever be and she didn't really deserve him. Merry's would-be suitor, Ernest, was a kind man and an extremely loyal friend to her. I found myself wishing that he might have some kind of happy ending himself, because he was such a nice guy. This was in stark contrast to his father, a rather creepy and menacing figure, who was the real villain of the book. Nic's family played roles as well. His mother was a rather controlling woman, but not entirely unreasonable, and I greatly admired the teen-aged boy, Christopher, for his bravery and tenacity in not only going looking for Nic, but also standing up for himself and saying things that needed to be said. Nic's friends from the artist's community added a splash of color to the character palette, although there was one couple who I didn't really relate to at all mainly because of their chosen lifestyle. In addition to all of these secondary characters, there were also other interesting friends and servants who played more minor roles, but still furthered the plot of the story; all in all, a very well-rounded cast.
Aside from the cliches, which I was able to forgive because of other stronger elements which drew me into the story, there wasn't much that I would say I truly disliked. I did find Merry's fairly ready acceptance of Nic's close friendship with past lovers to be somewhat unrealistic, but not necessarily glaring. There was also a revelation about two secondary characters having an open marriage (a term which I am not even sure was in use in the Victorian era) which I could have done without, but it was a pretty minor part of the story and is really more of a personal preference on my part. Beyond Seduction is the second installment in the Beyond Duet following Beyond Innocence, but the two can easily be read as stand-alone novels. While Merry was introduced in Beyond Innocence, her role in that book was fairly small and had no real bearing on her own story. Other than a couple of mere mentions, there are no other carry-over characters from Beyond Innocence to be found in Beyond Seduction. Overall, I thought Beyond Seduction was an easy read with all the emotional depth that I tend to prefer in romance novels. It was, at times, difficult to put down and always a pleasure to come back to it. The copy I read was borrowed, but I intend to purchase one of my own for my keeper shelf. In spite of the initial misstep with Beyond Innocence, Ms. Holly has proven that she can write the type of story I like to read, and I will definitely be open to reading other books by her in the future.
Note: Like it's predecessor, Beyond Seduction reads very much like a traditional historical romance, but in my opinion, certain elements of the sexual content and a bit more explicit language (both of which some may find offensive) push the boundaries of what some readers may consider traditional, giving it a mild erotic feel.
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