For my Backlist Glom for TBR Challenge, hosted by Wendy the Super Librarian, I picked out Bargain With the Devil by Jayne Castle. Castle, aka Amanda Quick, aka Jayne Ann Krentz is well-reprented on my TBR pile. Despite being a long-time romance reader, I had only picked up one Krentz title. See, she didn’t write highlanders, which were the only kinds of heroes I was interested in as teen. Had I known then what I know now, I probably would have enjoyed her category romances as Jayne Castle back then, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Bargain With the Devil is the story of Hunter Manning, wronged billionaire out for revenge against the man who ruined his father. Stacy Rylan puts herself in his path, pulling a Gandalf (Thou Shalt Not Pass) when he attempts to target her newly-married brother’s naive spouse as the means of that revenge. Instead Stacy offers herself up as the daughter of the man he hates, convincing him that she would be a more worthy target. She didn’t have a fake marriage in mind, but when Hunter won’t accept anything less, she agrees in order to protect the family even though she’s the black sheep.
Dell Candlelight Ecstasy romances are, to some degree at least, forgotten in today’s romance landscape. Random House acquired Dell in 1998 (thank you Browne Pop Culture Library) and while some of the romances seem to have been republished, most of them have not been digitized so it’s surprisingly difficult to get your hands on them. The line ended in 1987 and even though my favorite local used bookstore has an entire warehouse-long aisle of category romances, the only carry Harlequin and Silhouette. However, before the line went under, editor Vivian Stephens discovered Bonnie Drake (Barbara Delinsky), Rachel Ryan (Sandra Brown) and Jayne Castle (Jayne Ann Krentz), among other. She also published Own Voices contemporary romances by black, Asian, Native and Latinx women before anyone had invented the term. Her discovery of Rosalind Welles and the publication of Entwined Destinies in 1980 marked the publication of the first category romance written about a black couple by a black woman. Wikipedia even says it was the first romance period about a black couple by a black woman, but I’d want to do some research on that.
In any case, Dell Candlelight Ecstasy was a hugely important line in the history of North American category romance. But that aside, it’s also one of my personal favorites and was long before I learned any of the history or the now-famous names of some of their most prolific authors. I enjoyed the fact that the stories are set in the US. They often displayed what I would consider to be more modern social mores than Harlequins of the same period. Writers like Charlotte Lamb and Violet Winspear had been writing for decades and it showed. Their heroes and heroines in some ways didn’t evolve much, presumably because readers didn’t want them to. And while this book, Bargain With the Devil, has some of the same tendencies, there are some marked differences. The heroine is defiant with more than narrowed eyes and a raised chin. The hero is an over-bearing ass, but he cries at the end of the book. I’m getting ahead of myself again.
I do think that a reader can better understand this era of romance (the early 1980s, prior to the advent of contemporary single title; when many, many of our romance legends started writing–Nora Roberts too, albeit in a different line) if one reads even just the introduction to Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, an anthology of essays by romance writers on the appeal of romance from 1992. Attitudes that seem bafflingly regressive now are, I think, amply explained by this passage, written by Krentz/Castle:
The second, equally strong theme that emerges from the essays is that of female empowerment. Readers understand that the books celebrate female power. In the romance novel, as [Susan Elizabeth] Phillips, [Daphne] Clair, and several others point out, the woman always wins. With courage, intelligence, and gentleness she brings the most dangerous creature on earth, the human male, to his knees. More than that, she forces him to acknowledge her power as a woman.
I’m not sure I’d quite put it that way now, and it’s awfully heterocentric, but back in the 1980s when Bargain With the Devil was written, this was sometimes as far as romance got on the road to feminism. And don’t make any mistake: this is feminist book in that the heroine clearly, obviously comes out on top. And it doesn’t take the entire book to get her there. From the very beginning, she has already defied her family. Rather than rest on the family fortune, she has built her own successful business from scratch. This is not the cowering miss living with her maiden aunt, dependent on a weasly boss or an inheritance to free her.
When it comes to specifically this heroine, despite being repeatedly described as the hero’s “flower witch” and his “own private flower garden,” she is no shrinking violet. She’s also no virgin, which is slightly unusual for romance of the period.
“How much do you want it, Hunter?” she breathed tantalizingly, her green eyes glittering up into his as he lifted his head to look down into her love-softened face. She saw the storm of his male need swirling in the depths of his gray eyes, which collided with hers, and half-smiled, putting up a hand to toy with the silver in his dark hair.
“By God, witch,” he grated, clearly astounded. “Would you play games with me tonight?” And suddenly the masculine passion in his eyes hardened into something beyond the normal level of desire. Stacy saw it and wondered what she had unleashed.
While the heroine does seem a little surprised at her own power, she knows enough to wield it. She taunts him with the air of a practiced seductress. She wants him. She gets a bit more than she bargained for because we’re still living in the realm of “good girls don’t”. But the difference here is that she has deliberately tried to incite the level of passion that she gets. She’s trying to drive him nuts and it works. He’s surprised, but pleased. “Witch” in the context of this book is an endearment. There is no hint that her seductive tricks are unwelcome or that he is in any way judging her sexual prowess. While infidelity is judged harshly in the text, the basic fact of a woman enjoying sex is not. So if from the get-go, Stacy is a different kind of heroine and the hero reacts differently to her. And rather than slowly falling in love with her yet remaining basically unchanged himself, Hunter adapts quickly to the habits and desires of his new mate.
He does have absolutely medieval attitudes about how women and wives should behave, but it doesn’t take long before he is talking a big game and yet doing everything Stacy wants. See, Stacy is a vegetarian. Hunter isn’t. He complains about it at first:
“Stacy slowly replaced the phone and walked toward the kitchen, where she found Hunter peering interestedly into the refrigerator.
“Anything fit for lunch among all these roots and berries?” he demanded, sensing her quiet presence behind him.
“I think I can put something together. I don’t exactly starve to death on a daily basis,” Stacy observed, coming forward to edge him aside and take command at the refrigerator.
This scene should be seen as just as evocative as the unbuttoning of any glove. Stacy here physically uses her body to shove her way into the space he is currently occupying. She “takes command” of more than the refrigerator. Later in the scene, this happens:
“It’s okay, honey, your temper doesn’t frighten me,” he assured her, helping himself to a fat sandwich. “I’ve got one of my own.”
Not only does he willingly eat her vegetarian food, he outright tells her that she can be as strong as she wants, taking command and taking up space, because he’s man enough to handle it. This is not subtle, but it is effective. This book is saying over and over again that a woman can be as strong as she wants and a real man, a real partner, will be able to handle her in all her glory.
This point is made even more explicit late in the book. Stacy says:
“You just heard me give my father lecture number fifty-eight on the subject of how your word is your bond. Are you going to make a liar out of me? You swore once, in front of witnesses, to love and cherish till death do us part. I realize you probably had your fingers crossed when you vowed to love me, but surely a Manning would have too much pride to turn his back on all the other promises!” Once again she paused for a split second to gather her anger and her breast, and in that short space Hunter spoke.
“I didn’t, Stacy,” he said with an incredible gentleness. That which had flickered alive in his eyes was beginning to glow now, although his face was still a harsh landscape in the moonlight.
Stacy glowered at him. “You didn’t what?” she demanded.
“I didn’t have my fingers crossed during the part where I promised to love. Did you?”
The hero is gentle. The heroine is angry, glowering and demanding. And then this after their declarations:
Stacy felt a strange moisture on her face. She knew there were tears of her own on her cheeks, but with a feeling of wonder she realized Hunter’s were there also.
With a sense of deep love and compassion, Stacy lifted a finger to touch the wetness on his face an smiled tremulously up into the gray mists of his eyes. Mists that shown now with a gentleness she had never seen in them. Stacy realized that neither of them was embarrassed by the tears. For the next few moments there were no words between them, only a communion that spoke volumes. Hunter held his wife with wonder and love and promise.
So while “the love of a good woman transforms a manly man into a sensitive, gentle soul” might seem regressive by current feminist standards, he changes.
Not that Bargain With the Devil isn’t terrible in other ways. The early sexual interactions are decidedly coercive. If I had been Stacy, I would have had a very real fear that this man might rape or otherwise hurt me. If I weren’t used to these conventions in vintage romance, I probably wouldn’t have been able to make it past the first scene where they are alone together in the heroine’s home. It’s that awful. So if you are sensitive to portrayals of coercive sex or spousal abuse, this is not the romance for you. The hero also urges Stacy’s brother to take his flirtatious wife in hand and whenever he’d make those sorts of ridiculously sexist proclamations, I wanted to put him through a paper shredder. In this case, I believe these actions are in service to the larger point Castle is making about the evolution of the hero, but that won’t matter if you find his behavior triggering.
Bargain With the Devil is a fascinating early romance by a genre powerhouse. I’m pretty sure it’s out of print now, but used copies can be pretty readily had on Amazon if you’re curious. This book was strong enough that it kicked off a Jayne Ann Krentz binge for me. I’ve read 1996’s Absolutely, Positively (a terrific introduction to Krentz’s work if you’ve never read her) and last year’s Amanda Quick title, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, just came in on my library holds so I’ll be starting that one soon. If you’re a long-time fan, what are your favorite Krentz books? There are certainly no shortage to choose from!