We start with a basic romance trope - the arranged marriage of convenience. The story opens with the wedding of Fern and Colin. (Actually it literally opens with Colin leaving his mistress' bed to attend his wedding, giving you an idea of how much he's emotionally invested in the marriage). Fern is a gently reared young lady and while she wants the marriage to be a success, she has no idea of how to break out of her and Colin's polite societal personas. Colin, a viscount-to-be who has gone through life on autopilot, sees his new wife with a mixture of mild interest and patronizing politness. The wedding night is pleasant enough for Colin, not so much for Fern. Her reaction to the intimacy involved in the marriage bed is to feel rebellion and a desire to maintain her sense of self.
Fern doesn't feel like Colin even registers how earth-shattering the experience was and neither knows how to communicate effectively with one another. But their honeymoon takes a dramatic turn when Fern lashes out during an argument.
Trapped, trapped forever...She had to get away now. Without thinking, she threw her body weight away from him, but his grip was too tight. She couldn't escape. Fighting down a sob of hysteria, she lashed out blindly, her free hand striking his face with a ringing slap.
Colin felt the pain, sudden and sharp, cutting through layers in his brain that he hadn't known were there. Layers wrapped around his brain...it was like a jolt of light to eyes that had always been in darkness, burning into his mind and flooding it with color that he could never have imagined.
Colin released Fern with a shove that knocked her hard against the side of the coach. In the sudden silence, they sat frozen, staring at each other. Fern was incapable of speech, shocked at what she had just done but unable to apologize as fury and rebellion still roiled, choking, inside her. Colin's expression was frozen, the livid lines that her fingers had left already outlined in red. But under the dark slashes of his brows, his eyes flared, and for the first time, Fern felt the presence of a person at the bottom of their dark depths, looking back at her.
Oh yes, precious. We likes the hint of D/s, yes we do! And everything seems to be on track for a really singular romance novel. Both parties realize that Colin has just discovered he has an appetitite for pain and that Fern has an appetite for indulging him. It's fascinating to see these two prim and proper society creatures peel back their layers and not only expose themselves to one another but also to re-invent themselves. Who do they want to be? Not who have they been raised to be.
Colin immediately decides that he can't handle dealing with the ramifications of his newfound desires in the presence of society, and the couple decamps to one of his far flung holdings. It's a property that he's never visited but he knows is isolated...perfect for exploring new boundaries. Except that rather than being a cozy but shabby outpost, it's a completely derelict and creepy deserted estate. Gothic and scary and complete with secrets and crazy old caretakers and whatnot. Unfortunately, the story gets bogged down in overly plotty mystery stuff and while the relationship between Fern and Colin continues to develop, I felt cheated. Finally, there is a plot twist (read Big Secret) thown in at the last minute that I really disliked and just could have lived without.
Overall, this was an interesting book and is worth a look, but it makes me sad to think of how awesome it might have been.