Historicals aren’t my go-to romance genre of choice, but I sure am drawn to the silk Courtney Milan is spinning. Unlocked is a novella in the Turner series (aka the BEST series) and it’s only tangentially related because some character is casually acquainted with one of the Turners, but no matter. It’s a great little I-hate-you-but-I-love-you story that transcends its somewhat cliched underpinnings due to the strength of Milan’s writing.
Plot-wise, it’s very simple: Lady Elaine was the subject of some pretty harsh Regency-era bullying (“Your mother is too academic and it’s embarrassing us!” among other nasty missives) before one of the Mean Girl ringleaders, Evan Carlton, Duke of Westfeld, takes off on some kind of Eat Pray Love find-himself journey. The bullying by Evan and his sister essentially made Lady Elaine a pariah, doomed to never marry. Upon his return to England, though, Evan has noticeably changed, particularly in his manners toward Lady Elaine. Will she ever forgive him? WHO KNOWS?
I can’t pretend to be a remotely credible source when it comes to critiquing writing skill, but in my estimation, Courtney Milan is a gem. Across several novels/novellas, I’ve been impressed by her research and accurate detail, by her on-point social commentary, and by the genuine romance and steaminess of her writing rather than cheesy purple prose. She also excels at character psychology, which seems like a weird thing to pick out of romance novels; however, when you consider that in a lot of these novels, one of the characters is often *damaged* and needs to be *repaired by love*, it actually is really important to make that recovery believable.
That element really came into play here. It’s not the first time she’s had one character harbor some kind of hatred, resentment, or disdain for the other (Unveiled and A Kiss for Midwinter come to mind as other examples) but I don’t think she’d dealt with active bullying before. It really shouldn’t have worked, having a woman fall in love with her tormentor, but Milan really did a bang-up job of redeeming Evan AND portraying Elaine’s slow rebuilding of trust based on actually trustworthy things — not just, like, “Trust me!” “Okay!” It might not still ever happen in the real world, but in the Fantasy World of Romance, Milan earns a few merit cookies for getting as close to reality as possible.
Also, the first scene that teased at a love scene was really suspenseful and sexy and well-done and I loved it. The first real love scene was pretty hot, too.