One of the fascinating aspects of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca is how alive and present the title character is, even though she's dead and the story's narrator never met her. Her remembered personality lives on so vividly through others, she gets the book's title, while we never even learn the timid narrator's first name. The romance genre has a number of intriguing “Rebeccas” and though they may not receive title billing, they still make themselves felt.
Kathleen Eagle's The Last Good Man is an emotional romance between old friends Savannah and Clay, but their path to each other is complicated by their memories of Kole Kills Crow, Clay's adored older brother and Savannah's first crush — and the father of her child. A political activist and escaped convict on the lam, Kole doesn't appear in person until his own romance, You Never Can Tell. But he's rarely out of their thoughts:
Laze and graze. That was Clay’s way of slowing his half-brother’s pace. Kole was their hero, so much older and wilder. He hung out with his juniors only when he had nothing better to do. When they went riding, as soon as they got away from the house, Kole had to cut loose, “run for the sun,” he called it, chasing what was to be his unsettling destiny. The order was always the same—Kole champing at the bit out in front, Savannah dragging on the bit and bringing up the rear, Clay bridging the two.
According to Patty Keogh, Kole liked to corrupt Clay every chance he got, but what Kole actually liked was aggravating his stepmother. The part of the corruption Clay liked was the chance to share a bit of Kole’s space, any fragment his brother would allow. Savannah wasn’t sure what her part might be, except to worship the ground Kole’s shadow graced, to come to attention whenever he called her name. She didn’t want a whole cigarette. Just a puff. She was eager to put her lips where Kole’s had been.
A picture builds up of the larger-than-life Kole. Courageous, impulsive, clever, arrogant. A man who never asks anyone for anything. Always in some kind of trouble. He was a “wondrous adventurer” to Clay, who always longed for Savannah himself, yet didn't feel able to compete. Even though Kole left town at a young age and never looked back, Clay still feels that he's competing with that powerful personality:
They weren’t Clay’s girls yet. They were still more Kole’s than Clay’s. It would take some doing to make them his, even if Kole stayed out of their lives and kept all his love and his secrets wherever he was hiding them.
Savannah has grown to appreciate Clay's less dramatic qualities — “Time was, she’d thought Kole was the handsome one, the exciting and elusive one. Time was, she’d been a kid.” — but the two won't be able to have their happy ending until they accept that Kole isn't standing between them.
Indiscreet has been out of print and hard to find for years, yet readers still plead with Mary Balogh to write a happy ending for Horatia Eckert, the former fiancé of hero Rex, who makes one brief, non-speaking appearance in the book. In this case, it's not so much the force of her personality that makes her stand out. Rex's memories of the woman who jilted him are brief and bitter: “Miss Horatia Eckert might go hang for all he cared now, though he had a great deal once upon a time.” His sister is more charitable, reminding him Horatia was “very young and very impressionable” when she had been enticed by a fortune hunter.
In Horatia's one appearance, she's seen through the eyes of the heroine:
Miss Eckert. Vividly, exquisitely beautiful. She was looking back at Catherine and their eyes met for a moment until Miss Eckert looked away. But even in that moment and from some distance, the expression in her eyes had been readable. There was sorrow there, perhaps reproach. Not hatred. It was a look that told Catherine quite clearly that the other woman still loved Rex. Or perhaps the turmoil of the moment was making her read into a mere glance what she thought might very probably be there.
What had happened between Miss Eckert and Sir Howard? And why had Rex not defended her? Or forgiven her?
Perhaps Miss Eckert had not wanted forgiveness.
We never do find out exactly what happened to Horatia, but in at least some respects her story parallels Catherine's own tragic history. Catherine is aware of it: “She could feel Horatia Eckert's pain as if it were her own.” Yet Catherine gets a happy ending while Horatia does not, and the story ends with a nagging sense that things could have gone a different way. Closure is one of the reliable pleasures of genre fiction; romance readers want justice for Horatia.
Anne Winters of Laura Florand's Snow-Kissed has been luckier; she recently got her happy ending in the sequel, Sun-Kissed. Snow-Kissed was inspired by the Andersen fairy tale “the Snow Queen,” and the absent Anne takes that foreboding title role. Her daughter-in-law and employee Kai thinks of her as a formidable presence, who always speaks in “cool, clipped tones.” Her son Kurt is resentful over being a crafts guinea pig as a child, and believes that his father divorced Anne because of her ever-increasing need for control. Yet it is Anne, commonly thought to be heartless, who knew how to give Kai just what she needed in a time of great anguish — because Anne had shared that same anguish. Learning this gives Kai a whole new perspective on her:
Oh, Anne. Kai saw the frost-blond bob, the strong jaw and ever-controlled profile, felt against her cheek the little air-kisses of the woman who never let herself get too close. Whose media presence and role of perfectionism was its own force field around her, creating a bubble where she could get everything right.
Anne is so desperately sad inside her bubble; thank goodness she got her happy ending.
Perhaps the luckiest offscreen characters are those who are dearly departed — and then turn out to be not quite dead after all. Lord Darius Debenham, Dare, has a few mentions in the first of the “Company of Rogues” series by Jo Beverley. Then in An Unwilling Bride, his name turns up on the battle of Waterloo casualties list:
Beth looked at Lucien, a very sober Lucien. She reached out and took his hand. She'd only known the lighthearted young man slightly. He'd been the one who had once tried to build a champagne fountain.
Dare's death is a reminder to the other Rogues of why they came together in the first place, as a mutual protection society while at school:
“God, when I think of some of the floggings. Do you think it toughens us into mighty warriors?”
Beth stroked his hair. “I don't know, love.”
“Dare,” he said. “Dare could take the worst beating with a smile. Afterwards he'd howl, but at the time he'd keep this silly smile on his face. It used to drive the masters wild.”
He continues to be a fond memory throughout the series, and a touchstone for how much the Rogues mean to each other, as we see when we meet his mother, in Forbidden:
“We never expect our grown children to die before us, and Dare was such a delight. A scapegrace at times, but a joy.”
“He was one of these Rogues.”
“Yes, indeed,” said the duchess with a smile. “Such a collection, but a warmhearted bunch. He valued them deeply, and sometimes, I confess, I have felt that I had a dozen sons instead of only two.”
There's another very pertinent line in Forbidden: “It was so sad about poor Dare. And they never even had the solace of interring his body.” With a clue like that, it's not wonder there was a campaign asserting “Dare Lives!”
Sure enough, Dare returns in To Rescue A Rogue — no longer the lighthearted young man he once was, as you might guess from the title, but at least more than a fond memory. It was a satisfying ending for all the readers who had fallen in love with him, when he wasn't even there.