Always a Stranger
eKensington / May 15, 2014 / $15.00 print / $4.99 digital
An international affair, London's Great Exhibition has taken the city by storm. As its newest Royal Commissioner, Lord Skyler Ridgemont must ensure the performers are properly contracted. Among them is the delicate and graceful Hanako Sumaki. Draped in vivid silk robes, Hanako's exotic Japanese fan dance captivates Skyler-and he longs to learn more about her...
But Hanako's enigmatic employer keeps his exquisite charge very close. The consummate artist, she shows the handsome nobleman many faces, but never her true heart, which holds a desperate secret. When Skyler learns the real reason Hanako has been brought to London, he will risk his entire world to win her trust-and save her from losing both body and soul. It's a feat that will require the type of courage only love can give...
All genre fiction, by its very definition, relies on some sort of formula. Killers are caught, quests are accomplished, and couples live happily ever after. What makes genre fiction truly interesting is when an author can take these formulas and spin them around unconventional characters. There is nothing quite like an outsider, a character who does not quite fit in to any niche, breaking free and being the champion in their own story.
What Amara Royce offers in Always a Stranger is a heroine adrift. She does not belong anywhere, she’s a woman without a home and is under the thumb of an odious man. But that does not mean she’s completely powerless. She uses her outsider status to speak plain truths.
Is there anything better than a heroine who calls out the hero? No, not really.
Lord Skyler Ridgemont was “the spare” who quickly found himself “the heir” when his father and older brother died. It’s a role he’s not entirely comfortable in, and he’s been called to duty to serve on the Royal Commission to oversee the performers at the Crystal Palace. There have been some well-publicized shenanigans, and the Commission wants no more funny business. So Skyler has been dispatched to check out a troupe of Japanese performers, only to find himself entranced by a lovely fan dancer who is more than she seems.
Hanako Sumaki is acting her way through a very dangerous game. Her employer is a vile man and Hanako must stay with him to protect her younger sister. She’s performing at the Crystal Palace at her employer’s behest while he works behind the scenes on a bigger score. Having Skyler snooping around is most unwelcome, and yet he keeps turning up, constantly crossing her path, and asking uncomfortable questions she’s loathe to answer. There are lives at stake, lives for which Hanako feels personally responsible.
As naturally happens in romances, Skyler has a job to do, is fascinated with Hanako, and yet they find themselves at cross purposes. He wants to know everything about her and she is unwilling to spill her many secrets. Bless his heart, Sklyer has a way of saying just the wrong thing to Hanako and, in turn, with her desire for self-preservation, to protect her secrets, she has a habit of calling him out when he verbally inserts his foot in his mouth:
“Tell me, Lord Ridgemont, how often, in casual conversation, do you ask ladies of the ton their ages, as you just asked me? Do you regularly, in their presence, insinuate that they are no more than concubines or courtesans, as you did the first time we met? Do you question, directly to their faces, both their brains and their morals? I would hazard a guess that such inquiries are exceedingly rare in polite society.”
Normally an outsider heroine, a foreign-looking woman in England, would probably not be quite so blunt. Hanako is smart, however, and knows her game. She’s skilled in translation, and an excellent conversationalist. What better way to throw Ridgemont off the scent then to dress him down?
“You are the most beautiful, enchanting creature I have ever seen,” he blurted.
“Do Englishwomen find it appealing to be called creatures?” she asked icily.
This tactic does work for a while, yet our hero is a man in pursuit and our heroine is a woman tired of running. Eventually they meet in the middle, thwart the villain and work their way towards a hard earned happy ending. As it should be, for outsiders everywhere.
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