In Too Deep anthology (Brenda Jackson and Olivia Gates)

17 Aug
Cover for In Too Deep: A long chaise by the side of a pool at dusk; there's a red bikini top hanging precariously from the top of the backrest, a side table with half-full wineglasses, and some lit candles by the side

This month’s TBR Challenge theme is Blue Collar, but I’m throwing in the towel entirely when it comes to the theme. On the other hand, this has been sitting in my TBR print shelves over a dozen years, so at least that part of the challenge is working.

In Too Deep is the second of three 2010 Silhouette Desire two-author anthologies which comprise the six-novellas continuity, A Summer of Scandal, set in the Hamptons. (see footnote 1). The theme in this volume is “marriage in trouble”.

Here’s the back blurb from my print copy:

A fabulous summer two-in-one – twice the scandal all in one unforgettable volume!

Husband Material by Brenda Jackson

Beware the jilted husband: Matthew Birmingham never played fair…especially when it came to his ex-wife. When she moved across the country, he moved back to their estate – back to their bedroom – determined to win back her love…by any means necessary.

The Sheikh’s Bargained Bride by Olivia Gates

Meet the shocked groom: Sheikh Adham saw marriage as a business venture, his wife a mere convenience…until they portrayed the loving couple in public. Would finally seeing his bride in a new light shatter all his rules?

In Too Deep is just 187 pages long; when you subtract the copyright and title pages, you get two very short novellas; “Husband Material” is 90 pages, and “The Sheik’s Bargained Bride” is barely 84 pages. From where I sit, the brevity worked against both stories.

I looked around, and it seems that while Ms Jasckson’s novella is available on its own digitally, Ms Gates’ novella is not.

On to the review!

“Husband Material” by Brenda Jackson

Reader beware: early miscarriage, divorce

Here’s the blurb from amazon for the stand-alone edition:

Husband Material

Matthew Birmingham is used to getting what he wants…and what he wants is his ex-wife. When she returns to their Hamptons estate for the summer, he vows to win her back. But Carmen Akins is hiding a tragic secret from their past that will put their reconciliation to the ultimate test.

The setup here is that Matthew and Carmen worked together in a movie he directed; after that was done and over, they dated and quickly married, with everyone who knows him believing they’ll make it work. Then, a couple of years later, she files for divorce. What she doesn’t tell him, but the reader gets on the third page of the story, is that while he was off being a workaholic, she had an early miscarriage that was bad enough to require medical care.

The basic problem of the marriage is that while they talked and told each other things about their pasts, their families, their dreams for the future, Carmen and Matthew don’t communicate with each other.

For example, they both acknowledge that he works too much; cancelled plans and long days on set are more plentiful than time together. But Matthew doesn’t explain to Carmen why he needs to ride the wave now, while he’s in demand (so that they can retire in security from careers that are notoriously insecure in the long term)–and she doesn’t tell him how unloved she feels (arguing over missed dinners isn’t the same, by the by).

By the time Carmen loses the baby, alone and in a foreign country, the night she had planned to tell Matthew about the pregnancy no less, her feelings of abandonment, coupled with the shock and grief of the loss itself, come to a head. A week later, she files for divorce.

Which is very publicly contentious.

To Matthew, who feels he had been working for their future, this comes entirely out of the blue, and turns him incredibly bitter. This summer, he’s determined not to let Carmen enjoy the single life by bringing her current lover to the house in the Hamptons he bought for them to enjoy the summer polo matches together.

Of course, Carmen has no lover, and neither does Matthew; all rumors to that effect are publicity stunts. And as soon as these two share space, the powerful sexual attraction they’ve always shared raises its head.

The writing voice is engaging, and the sex is very well written, as is the longing and sexual attraction. I like that it doesn’t take long for both characters to drop their half-assed, adolescent urges to hurt each other, and that they soon start thinking things through.

On the other hand, the compressed timeline, where they go from, “I want to make you miserable because you made me miserable” to “I maybe misunderstood why you did what you did” in less than a full day, makes me uncomfortable with their chances at a long term happy relationship.

By this I mean: this couple didn’t have a spat. They didn’t have a trial separation. They went through a divorce that was bitter and involved lawyers fighting. Marrying is a serious decision. Getting a divorce? it’s a hard, even more serious one. Turning back on a dime to “let’s get married again, this time really is forever” just doesn’t fill me with confidence that they have solved their original problem: lack of communication.

I would have been more comfortable if the novella had ended with a promise to try again, rather than the announcement to the world that they’re remarrying. However, this is a category romance, and there are clear requirements to these books, and heading to marriage without delay is one of them. Which is why I say that the length here hurt the story.

“Husband Material” gets 6.50 out of 10

* * * *

“The Sheik’s Bargained Bride” by Olivia Gates

Reader beware: this novella is very much in the old skool mold, where most of the story is from the heroine’s point of view, and only at the end we learn that the hero actually really loves her, and is not the cold asshole he has been playing all through the story.

Here we have a worldly husband; not just privileged or wealthy, but literal royalty, Sheik Adham seems to fall head over heels for his inexperienced and fairly naÏve young wife. They meet as she keeps vigil at her dying father’s bedside, and marry after a courtship of weeks.

Whereupon, immediately after the wedding, Adham keeps Sabrina at arms length, dropping her in one place while he spends his time elsewhere, and they don’t even share a bedroom when he happens to be where she is.

However, whenever they are in the company of other people–including servants or bodyguards–Adham acts like a lusty, besotted newlywed–only to drop the act the moment they’re alone. Until Sabrina finally gets her fill, gets the facts behind his bizarre behavior, and the whole thing comes out.

A few pages later, a grand gesture, love declarations, the end.

I used to have a lot more patience for this type of story, but also, it generally works a bit better in a longer format. Here there was just a bit too much polo trivia, quite a lot of “this is how the politics of the made up country affect my interpersonal relationships”, and too few pages to bridge the sexytimes to HEA through relationship building.

Add that there was no character development on either side, that I couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough for the setup, and that there just wasn’t enough meat in the pages for me, so the story failed for me.

“The Sheik’s Bargained Bride” gets a 3.00 out of 10.

* * * *

1 In category romance, a continuity is when a number of authors write stories that share a premise, and occasionally even characters. In this case, it’s the polo matches.

10 Responses to “In Too Deep anthology (Brenda Jackson and Olivia Gates)”

  1. whiskeyinthejar 17/08/2022 at 1:45 PM #

    Oof, Husband Material sounds angsty as heck!

    I love the romance genre so much because reviews can include complaints about too much Polo trivia. This genre is out there including it all, lol.

    • azteclady 17/08/2022 at 1:52 PM #

      I should clarify that it’s only “too much” because we only have 84 pages, in which to set up the conflict, introduce the characters from the other stories in the continuity, develop the relationship, have some sex, hit the bleak moment, do a grand (and stupid) gesture, reach HEA.

      In a longer book, I’d have liked more polo trivia (horses!!!! gimme all about the horses!)

  2. S. 18/08/2022 at 12:36 PM #

    Ahh the dark side of a novella, not enough pages to have a solid result. I also find novellas, in most cases, to be less than good.

    • azteclady 18/08/2022 at 1:01 PM #

      It is hard for most novellas to tell a full story when that story is complex–and relationships with A. PAST are complex by definition.

      Mind you, I’ve read some great genre romance novellas (Courtney Milan does great with the format), but it’s an art, and not everyone is good at it.

      • S. 19/08/2022 at 12:28 PM #

        That is true. So far, except novellas part of series I’m already invested in, so more complement than actual individual plots, the novella I liked the best, which I feel was extremely well structured was Alpha & Omega, a prequel to the – obviously – Alpha and Omega series by Patricia Briggs. So engaging and well done, considering it is the introduction to a whole new world, if a reader has not yet read anything by the author, nor of any UF series she has (this one happens in the same universe as the Mercy Thompson series).

      • azteclady 19/08/2022 at 12:43 PM #

        It’s interesting to me, looking back, how some authors manage to set up whole series through novellas–Milla Vane does it very well in “The Beast of Blackmoor”.and Kresley Cole did it in “The Warlord Wants Forever”, for example.

        There was a time where anthologies with a theme were basically ways for publishers to introduce upcoming series to their readers via novellas. Not all were successful, but those who worked for me, generally also worked in the full-length books.

      • willaful 21/08/2022 at 11:59 AM #

        Ironically, romance novellas often start with an estrangement, apparently the authors considering it easier than starting a relationship fresh in a short format.

      • azteclady 21/08/2022 at 3:40 PM #

        I have no real problem with the story starting from a point of conflict (thought I struggle with divorced couples getting back together–personal baggage, I haz it).

        “The Governess Affair” is an excellent example of a novella with a whopper of a conflict, where the author develops the relationship convincingly up to the HEA.

        (I go on about Courtney Milan’s novellas because she’s one of the few authors whose romance novellas consistently succeed for me)

      • willaful 21/08/2022 at 11:32 PM #

        Hers are particularly good. _Unlocked_ was one of the first ebooks I ever bought.

      • azteclady 22/08/2022 at 12:28 AM #

        Yes, they are–I think she’s not particularly fond/proud of the Carthart books (they are not listed in under “books” in her website), but “This Wicked Gift” was the first novella of hers I read, and a favorite (among other reasons, because I “read” it to my mother (half-assed oral translation, my mother didn’t speak or understand English well), and she loved how Lavinia had so much agency).

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