|Erotica and erotic romance has steadily clawed its way into the mainstream over the last few years, so it’s really no surprise that Harlequin is looking cash in. Enter the new Spice line, which Harlequin is marketing as “women’s erotic fiction.” Notice the word “romance” isn’t anywhere to be found. Consider that your first clue.
Tess Wakefield is leaving behind California for a prestigious job with a Manhattan advertising agency. Basically she’s running away. Running away from parents she’s never been able to understand, and away from her disastrous relationships with men. Like any red-blooded woman, she experimented a bit in college, but has this uncanny knack for picking the wrong man. So she’s decided to focus on her career, stay away from men, and stay away from sex. Life is complicated enough.
However Manhattan is ripe with temptation. The ad agency is a sexual harassment suit waiting to happen, with secrets and lies spilling out from all corners. Then there is the enigmatic Danny Gabriel, who just happens to be Tess’ co-creative director. Danny immediately starts teasing her with his fervent advances, and even takes her to an S&M club for ideas on an account she’s trying to land. But when someone sabotages her new campaign, and breaks into her office, Tess cannot help but suspect everyone – and that includes Danny.
The appearance of Danny would suggest he is the hero of this story, but that’s like dressing up a dog in a suit. Sure you can get the suit on the dog, but he won’t be terribly comfortable wearing it. No, this is strictly Tess’ story. She’s a girl with a lot of pent up frustration and desires, but is completely uncomfortable doing anything about them. Secretly she wants to explore, but she’s afraid to give into the urge. It is not until her hand is forced that she begins frequenting the S&M club.
The use of S&M as a plot device suggests this story is highly erotic, but it’s more like erotica on training wheels. Readers unfamiliar with the sub genre will probably find plenty to titillate them here, and Forster doesn’t splash sex on every other page. However, readers who have been special ordering Black Lace books for years will likely find this rather light on the kink scale. A smart move for Harlequin looking to convert readers to the sub genre, but those who have been around the erotica block a few times may be expecting something more.
Tease ultimately works because of Tess’ awakening. The scheming at the ad agency serves as a backdrop to keep the conflict moving, but it’s Tess’ insights that will keep the reader engaged. Forster writes these aspects of the story well, and I found myself highlighting passages like, “Men had hurt her in little ways. They’d hurt her in big ways. And she had let it happen. She’d even gone back. Eventually, she’d seen the pattern. It was needing things that men couldn’t give that had gotten her into trouble. That’s when the lighbulb had gone on. Needing was her problem.” Passages like that are highly relatable to a number of real women, and Forster taps into that. The author briefly stumbles when Tess arrives at the S&M club, and she resists to the point of being petulant and whiny. After a while, I wanted the owner of the club, The Marquis, to smack her to shut her up. That said, when Tess finally lets go, it’s powerful stuff.
Danny exists on the fringe. He serves as a way for Tess to wake up, to tap into her desires. He is not there to marry her, have a passel of children, and worship her. He is there for her dreams, and for that alone he works. Forster supplies answers to Danny’s vague behavior in the end, but leaves the epilogue open-ended. It is up to readers to decide if it is a happy ending or not.
Readers looking for a traditional romance novel with more sex thrown in aren’t going to find it here. Forster hasn’t written that, and Harlequin hasn’t been advertising that. However, if you’re looking for a novel with some backstabbing office antics, and some light kinky sex tossed in – this is a good place to start. Ultimately though it is Tess’ transformation that makes this story work. She is a better person at the end of the novel – whether or not she actually got her man.