One look at the cover art on Jenna Ryan’s latest Harlequin Intrigue and I was sunk. Creepy mansion and waves crashing against a rocky shore have always been key signals to any romance reader worth her salt that we have a Gothic in our midst. I have a major soft spot for these type of stories, so happily settled in for what I hoped would be a creepy atmospheric read. Yeah, it didn’t really work out like that.
Isabella Ross has inherited Darkwood Manor from an ex-boyfriend who drove his vintage Corvette off a cliff near the spooky old place. David wasn’t particularly close to any of his family, but Isabella is still a little surprised to be the new owner. Her family in the hotel business, she’s driving to tiny Mystic Harbor to check it out with her cousin Katie to see if they can salvage the place as a boutique hotel. Before you can say “spooky” – Katie disappears and Isabella gets warned off the property by Donovan Black.
Donovan is an FBI sharpshooter (well of course he is!) and a descendant of Darkwood’s original owner, a man who went mad and murdered his less-than-faithful wife. Donovan warns Isabella off because his uncle swears something is afoot at the manor, and Donovan has never known the man to exaggerate. However Isabella cannot be swayed. She’s not going anywhere until she finds cousin Katie.
This story didn’t work for me on several levels. First off, it’s possible that maybe I was having a slow day, but I found the writing a bit clunky in the first chapters. However once I got an ear for it, I was rolling, until Katie goes missing. This is where the book, and the characters, really stumble and never quite recover. Isabella and Katie are almost like sisters. They’re very close. But when Katie goes missing, there’s no real sense of urgency. Isabella leaves the manor (where her cousin vanished), drives into town, and talks to the local law who has fewer brains than Barney Fife and a lot less gumption. No dialing 911 from the scene of the crime. No calling the family to say Katie’s gone missing, or to even ask if they’ve heard from her. And by this point she’s encountered Donovan, who she inexplicable trusts immediately despite him warning her off, because golly he’s so dreamy. Her concern for cousin Katie seems to turn off and on as easily as a light-switch. One moment she’s harassing the local law, the next she’s sucking face with Donovan and barely giving Katie a thought.
Donovan seems standard issue Mysterious Hero and never elevates himself past that. His FBI background is never explored, other than he can make some phone calls and pull a few strings. He fears he’ll be struck with “madness” because his family is “cursed.” Yet when spooky things start happening at Darkwood he’s one of the few in town who dismisses the idea of his ancestor’s ghost haunting the place.
The problem with Gothics is that they work a lot better as historicals than contemporaries. In contemporaries you just expect people to be more “worldly” for a lack of a better word. When Isabella runs up against the incompetent local law, there’s no going to the local media, no posting messages on Facebook or Twitter, no calling the state troopers. Instead her answer is to snoop with Donovan and play kissie-face with him.
The resolution to the mystery is beyond thin, with an eye-rolling villain I’d expect out of a half-baked soap opera script. The entire thing is just too easy, and smacks of convenience. But the author does dot her i’s and cross her t’s – so at least I wasn’t left with any questions.
The romance itself is also pretty thin. Donovan is just too much of a trope. He lacks personality, and never really came to life for me. Isabella is an OK girl, but one moment she’s haranguing the local law, and the next she’s wiping Katie from her mind to boink Donovan. None of it really worked for me, and it’s a shame, because I love a good Gothic.
An estate haunted by over a hundred years of tragedy—and Donovan Black stood at the heart of it. Like Darkwood Manor, Donovan was an utter mystery. An FBI sharpshooter who couldn’t break away from his past, he only wanted to make sure that history didn’t repeat itself—especially now that the manor had a lovely new owner.
Isabella Ross had either discovered the perfect vacation spot or her final resting place. Now her only hope for survival is a man who doesn’t want her around—a man she can’t seem to resist. But the secrets in his family’s attic threaten to consume them both, and something—or someone—won’t rest until the manor house is empty….