She has no idea he is the father of the baby, because he insisted on complete anonymity, and so doesn’t twig that he is creepily control-freak stalking her, and inconveniently falls in love with him. Awks.
Update: Jodi has, in fact, written an alternative ending for this story. You can find it in the first issue of Trousseau, a zine for romance readers run by Book Thingo bloggers Kat and Jen. You can find more information, including pricing and how to order, here.
Queen of librarians, fellow romance scholar, and shallow reader Vassiliki Veros told me about this book. The exact words she used were ‘OMG!!!!!! VIRGIN BIRTH!!!!!!!’ so as BookThingo’s resident Virgin Hornypants Specialist, I knew I had to read it at once.
It did not disappoint.
Warning: this review is a) very long and b) full of spoilers. I had a lot of FEELINGS I needed to get out, which necessitated giving away plot points.
Here are the basics. Our heroine is Polly Johnson, a pregnant 21-year old virgin who is down on her luck. Trying to raise money so that her mother can have life-saving surgery, she agrees to be the surrogate mother for the baby of the hero, Venezuelan billionaire Raul Zaforteza. As soon as his cheque for babybearing duties clears, she pays for her mother’s surgery, only for her mother to inconsiderately die immediately.
Oh, and Polly is also one of three goddaughters to some woman who has made one of those ridiculous Harlequin Presents wills. All three girls will receive the sum of one million pounds provided they get married within twelve months of their godmother’s death. This doesn’t figure much into the story at all, but it does create a fundamental hole in the plot: if Polly needed money fast, why didn’t she just marry some dude instead of going to all the trouble of making herself a virgin preggo? The godmother seems to have forgotten to include the classic, Oh, and BTW, you can NEVER DIVORCE for TOTALLY ENFORCEABLE LEGAL REASONS SHUT UP clause, so Polly would have been home free.
For some reason, post-mother death, pregnant Polly goes to Vermont, where she encounters Raul. She has no idea he is the father of the baby, because he insisted on complete anonymity, and so doesn’t twig that he is creepily control-freak stalking her, and inconveniently falls in love with him. Awks.
But then — because Polly, even though she makes some questionable choices, is not a moron — she works out that he is the baby’s biological father and runs screaming for the hills.
(Polly works this out because the maid, Soledad, sick of Raul’s bullshit, tells her. Possibly this has something to do with the fact that Raul is ‘not a male accustomed to taking account of the needs or the feelings of lesser beings’. Team Soledad.)
NB: this is all backstory. It all happens before Chapter One even begins. It’s one of the more elaborate setups I’ve seen in Presents, and has the effect of making me even more suspicious of Raul than I am of regular alpha Presents heroes.
And I am not wrong. This dude is the dickiest dick that ever dicked.
We first meet Raul in the office of lawyer Digby Carson. Somewhat interestingly, we begin in Digby’s perspective as Raul rants about how the surrogate mother of his child has run off and he needs to find her before she gives birth. Digby asks, quite sensibly, why Raul went the surrogate route instead of just settling down and having babies with a nice lady. This is Raul’s response:
‘I decided a long time ago that I would never marry. I wouldn’t give any woman that amount of power over me or, even more crucially, over any child we might have!’
So yeah, Raul decided to use a surrogate mother for his child because he is a misogynist. That is LITERALLY the reason.
Because this scene is told from Digby the lawyer’s perspective, I held out some hope that he would, in fact, turn out to be the hero, and the book would go in a romantic suspense direction, where Digby and Polly flee from the villainous Raul while falling in love themselves. But no. No such luck. Digby is there purely to provide legal advice. He’s like, Raul, you’re in the UK, and there’s not a lot of rights for surrogate fathers in this country. You can’t make Polly hand the baby over, no matter what you made her sign. Besides, considering she literally fled from you in horror, she might have had the pregnancy terminated.
Raul’s response to this is, ‘Por dios… Polly wouldn’t abort my child! […] Polly’s very soft, very feminine, very caring… she would never choose that option!’
Fuck you, Raul.
And he only gets worse. After Digby tells him that he has no legal rights to Polly or the baby, I think you can guess what Raul does. She is, like, eight months preggers, so he spirits her away to some clinic, pretending he is giving her the medical care she needs or something. But basically it is kidnapping.
There is no better way I can explain the true horror of this book than by quoting from it liberally. So here we go.
A sample description of Raul (there are many)
His suit was palest grey. He exuded designer chic. In the sunlight, his luxuriant hair gleamed blue-black. His lean, strong face possessed such breathtaking sexy symmetry that her breathing quickened and her sluggish pulses raced. Raul radiated raw sexuality in virile waves. The media said that men thought about sex at least once a minute. One look at Raul was enough to convince her.
Not only am I really not sure what the whole thinking-about-sex-once-a-minute bit has to do with anything, the idea of ‘radiating raw sexuality in virile waves’ creates a very…interesting mind picture.
Also, I prefer my sexualities medium rare.
The Official Reasons Why Polly Is Still A Virgin™.
1. Daddy issues.
…her father had been a strict puritanical man, whose rules and restrictions had made it impossible for her to enjoy a normal social life. It had even been difficult to hang onto female friends with a father who invariably offended them by criticising their clothing or their behaviour… She had had a crush on a boy in her teens, but he had quickly lost interest when her father refused to allow her to go out with him.
So after being raised by a misogynist dickhead, Polly has gone and got herself knocked up by a misogynist dickhead. Oh, Polly, honey, I’m so sorry.
2. Just doesn’t get the sex thing.
She had sneaked out to the occasional party. Riven with guilt at having lied to get out, she had endured a few overenthusiastic clinches, wondering what all the fuss was about while she pushed away groping, over-familiar hands, unable to comprehend why any female would want to respond to such crude demands.
She had met another boy while studying… He had ditched her… [and] called her ‘a pathetic, boring little virgin’ and soon replaced her with a more available girl who didn’t expect love and commitment in return for sex.
This whole bit is straight out of the Virgin Heroine Playbook, but it just made me even more sad for Polly. It seems like every man she has ever met ever is an enormous dick. (In addition to all this, at the beginning of the book, her landlady is pressuring her to marry her slimy son so said slimy son can get his hands on the godmother money.) And now she is going to be forced by the story to fall in love with the biggest dick of all.
You deserve better, Polly.
Raul and Polly’s first kiss.
…at the first touch of his lips on hers she dissolved into a hot, melting pool of acquiescence.
This is relatively standard Harlequin Presents stuff, but when we read it against Polly’s previous experiences with men, it’s just kind of sad, really. She’s been trained to submit to autocrats. She has way more reasons to be a misandrist than Raul does to be a misogynist.
(Spoilers: Raul’s misogyny seems to stem from the fact that his mother was his father’s mistress and he was illegitimate, although he was adopted by his father and his wife when his mother died. Quite why his father exploiting his mother made him a misogynist is beyond me. This fucking guy.)
Raul leaves Polly’s room after their first kiss.
The instant he left the room, Polly thrust back the bedding and scrambled awkwardly out of bed. She flew over to the window which overlooked the front entrance and pulled back the curtain. She saw the limo… and she saw the beautiful blonde in her sleek, short crimson dress pacing beside it…
…Raul emerged from the clinic. The blonde threw herself exuberantly into his arms.
I’ve read a lot of alpha arsehole playboy heroes in my time, but I can’t remember one that actually kept on dating and seducing other ladies while romancing the heroine.
Normal alphole heroes appear nice when compared to Raul. THAT IS HOW TERRIBLE HE IS.
Polly dares to stand up for herself to Raul during a phone call.
‘I don’t like having this type of conversation on the phone. It’s a very female method of warfare,’ Raul drawled grimly.
1. What does that even mean?
2. HE CALLED HER. I guess phone calls only have girl germs when he says they do.
Raul wants Polly and the baby to move to Venezuela.
‘Raul… I want to stay in the UK with my baby. I don’t want to live in Venezuela, having you oversee every move I make…’ Polly admitted, watching him bridle in apparent disbelief at that statement. ‘You have the right to be involved in your child’s future… but what you seem to forget is that that future is my life as well! Anyway, you may not think it now, but some day you’ll get married, have other children –‘
Raul released his breath in a charged hiss of frustration. ‘I would sooner be dead than married!’
‘But you see…I don’t feel the same way,’ Polly shared with rueful honesty. ‘I would like to think that even as an unmarried mum I will get married eventually.’
‘Saying that to me is the equivalent of blackmail, Polly,’ Raul condemned, pale with anger beneath his golden skin, eyes hot as sunlight in that lean, dark, devastating face. ‘I do not want any other man involved in my child’s upbringing!’
Temper stirred in Polly, and the more she thought about that blunt and unashamed declaration the angrier she became. Did Raul really believe that he had the right to demand that she live like a nun for the next twenty years? Lonely, unloved, celibate.
Spoilers: Yes, he does believe he has this right.
Flames. Flames on the side of my face.
RUN, POLLY. RUN.
Sadly, Polly does not run. Instead, she tells him that the only way he’ll get her to move to Venezuela is to marry her.
Raul’s response to this OMG LUDICROUS suggestion — coming after, we must remember, he suggests that she either give the baby to him or live in a country half way around the world like a nun — is to say, ‘There is no point in allowing this offensive dialogue to continue.’
Raul walks in on Polly watching Pretty Woman.
‘I’ve never understood how a whore could figure as a romantic lead!’
I certainly don’t understand how you figure as a romantic lead, you disgusting piece of shit.
So then a bunch of stuff happens. Raul condescends to agree to marry Polly and they have a joyless, horrible ceremony at the clinic. Immediately afterwards, she goes into labour and gives birth to their son Luis. (By C-section, of course, because the narrative demands that her hymen remain undamaged.) Raul is thrilled with the baby and Polly is happy for a few days…but then she overhears him on the phone to Digby the lawyer calling her a gold-digger and railing about how she blackmailed him into marriage.
And she flees! Go Polly! She calls her friend Maxie (one of the other goddaughters of that godmother with the marriage-money-will-thing) and gets her and her Greek billionaire husband to set her up in an apartment where Raul cannot find her. Hurrah!
But then she calls Raul to ensure that he knows what the 411 is, and he promptly takes a page out of Christian Grey’s handbook for stalking 21-year old brunettes and tracks her phone. Because of course he does.
Raul threatens to shirtfront Maxie’s Greek billionaire husband over this, saying that, ‘Only violence or abuse on my part would justify such interference between a man and his wife’, increasing my already strong desire to set him on fire by a factor of ten. But Polly protests that it was all her and her friend — the Greek billionaire husband knew nothing.
This bummed me out. I feel like possibly the only other person in the world Raul would ever listen to would be another Presents hero. Though actually it would probably just turn into a dick-measuring contest.
Raul tries to seduce Polly.
…Raul closed his strong arms round her and almost casually swept her up off her feet.
‘What are you doing?’ Polly shrieked in sheer shock. Raul dealt her a slashing smile of unashamed satisfaction. ‘Husbands don’t need to control their baser urges.’
‘Put me down –‘
But Raul silenced that angry command by bringing his hungry mouth crashing down on hers without further ado.
Polly saw stars. Stars inside her head, stars exploding like hot sunbursts in all sorts of embarrassing places inside her.
I’m choosing to read this as ‘he kissed her so aggressively he literally gave her a concussion’.
Polly’s like, Um, there will be no sex here tonight, and Raul is all, You are my wife!, to which she is like, THERE WILL BE NO SEX HERE TONIGHT. And he says this:
‘Five-foot-nothing tall and you’re nagging at me like a little shrew!’
As someone who is exactly that height, and on behalf of all ladies who clock in at 5’0” — FUCK YOU, RAUL.
Then we get this stunning bit of dialogue. (NB: he is basically stripping in front of her, still being all sexytimes is on and it is on now.)
‘I want you to treat me seriously, Raul.’
‘Then say something relevant to the present.’
‘I’m not ready to share a bedroom with you yet,’ she informed him tautly.
‘I’m ready enough for both of us,’ Raul said with amused assurance.
I have never hated anyone like I hate this shithead.
But it gets worse. She pulls the I’m a virgin card, he is all like, …for reals? Whatevs. I will be your first and only lover! in an eye-rolling but pretty standard few pages.
They don’t end up having sex. But it’s not because of the repeated times Polly has said no. It’s because she says something to him that is OMG UNFORGIVEABLE.
‘…if we share a bed, Raul… I expect you to be faithful.’
The silence thickened and lay heavily.
‘No woman tells me what to do,’ Raul countered with ferocious bite. ‘And that includes you!’
He follows this up by declaring this:
‘You will not dictate terms to me. You will not demand empty and meaningless guarantees. A proper wife doesn’t put a price on her body!’
I am never going to be able to call anything LITERALLY THE WORST again. Because this guy is LITERALLY THE WORST.
Raul takes Polly to Venezuela.
This is pretty much the first thing he says to her when they get on the jet the next day to Caracas.
‘Lesson one on being a proper wife… Even when you’re really mad at me, you should always look glad to see me when we’ve been apart.’
He offers some other lessons on proper wifery to her later on in the book. They include criticising her dress sense (he accuses her of ‘dressing like an adolescent who doesn’t want to grow up’) and this stunner:
‘Lesson two on being a proper wife… If you have to be in the bath when I come home, make it one I can share. Omit the heavily scented bubbles.’
And there’s this one:
‘You don’t just need lessons on how to be a proper wife… you need a bloody intensive training course!’
You know what you need, Raul? TO CATCH ON FIRE IMMEDIATELY.
He also tells her he would ‘break [her] into little pieces for the jaguar to feed on before [he] would let any other man near [her].’ I know someone I’d like to feed to a jaguar, but it’s not Polly.
Raul tries to seduce Polly again.
Most notable moment in this scene is Raul asking Polly this:
‘What does it take to get a pleasant response from you? Thumbscrews?’
Closely followed by this:
‘Losing your virginity is not akin to a visit to a sadistic dentist.’
Oh, and then there’s this exchange, where Polly tries to explain her lack of sexual experience:
‘’My father believed girls should be modest and quiet and strait-laced, and my godmother agreed with him –‘
‘Whatever happened to the “quiet”?’
Raul also manages to convince Polly that their marital woes are all her fault because of her ‘proud defiance and… refusal to face her own insecurities and faults’. This leaves her basically begging him to sleep with her while he yells at her, calls her a ‘spiritless excuse for a woman’, and declares that, ‘Never again will I make the smallest sacrifice to make this marriage work!’
YOU GASLIGHTING SHITHEAD, RAUL.
Oh, and then he gets angry with her for letting the sun go down on this particular argument. Just to put the cherry of despair on this sundae of awfulness.
Raul and Polly finally sleep together.
He knows she has strong feelings about the relationship between love and sex. So what is the first thing he says to her after they have sex for the first time?
‘You see, love isn’t necessary to sexual gratification.’
This fucking guy.
Polly calls him on it, in a righteous speech that includes the phrase, ‘I won’t be a doormat… I won’t be walked on’, but he swiftly gaslights her into thinking that ‘her overemotional reactions’ have made their marriage ‘a virtual minefield’.
Oh, honey, you deserve so much better than this piece of shit insecure man-baby.
Raul admits what his favourite hobby is.
‘Is there any male who doesn’t relish imparting his super knowledge of a subject to a woman?’
That’s right. His favourite hobby is mansplaining.
And then the narrative kind of trickles to an end. Here is a brief summary of what happens:
- Polly gets jealous of Raul’s ex, Melina.
- Raul gets jealous of Patrick, the Perfectly Nice Stablehand, who is teaching Polly how to ride, and tries to convince her he is a serial seducer. (I’m assuming Raul is lying. He has given me no reason to think he would ever tell the truth.)
- Polly heals a rift between Raul and his grandfather Fidelio.
- They go on holiday and have a vaguely nice time.
- Raul slut-shames Melina in front of Polly.
- Raul tells Polly he loves her and buys them a house in England for when they visit.
- Suddenly all their problems are gone and they live happily ever after.
But I am not satisfied. Oh, no. I think this book needs a sequel. Because poor Polly deserves a proper happy ending.
Eventually, Polly is going to realise that Raul is literally the worst person on the face of the earth and leave him, maybe with the help of Patrick the Perfectly Nice Stablehand, who will help her sneak out of the country. She will divorce Raul and get full custody of Luis and a shit-ton of money, in addition to the money she made from her godmother’s will.
She will also get a restraining order. And perhaps some large but unobtrusive bodyguards who ensure that Raul can never come near her again.
She will go back to the UK and buy herself a nice house where she and baby Luis can live comfortably. There’ll be room for the large but unobtrusive bodyguards, and also the nanny, who will look after the baby while Polly goes back to university to finish her degree. The nanny will be Soledad, who helped Polly escape from Raul back in Vermont all that time ago.
After a semester or two at university, Polly will meet a nice boy in one of her classes. He will have kind eyes and a lovely laugh, and they will go and drink coffee in little cafes with milk crates instead of chairs. He’ll play his guitar for her (badly). And he’ll take her to parties and introduce her to all his friends — he has a lot of female as well as male friends, because he likes women and understands that they are people — and she’ll discover a whole new world, full of cheap wine and good conversation.
They won’t get married. She’s not interested in the institution anymore, and he’s not interested in having legal rights to any of her money. He understands that as a woman people have repeatedly tried to possess, it’s important that she now owns things and controls her finances so she can feel in control of her own destiny. And he wouldn’t want to own her anyway, even if she offered.
Maybe Raul comes back one day. But he has no power over Polly now. The spell is broken and he can’t hurt her or manipulate her any more. Because she’s happy now: with her son, her friends, her studies, and a boy that not only loves her, but likes her.
That’s the happy ending Polly deserves.
Yay or nay?
Reading this book was…an experience. Before-Contract-Baby and After-Contract-Baby are now distinct periods in my life. When I write my memoirs, I will probably have to divide it into BCB and ACB volumes. Nothing will ever be the same again.
Content advisory: This book features the worst person in the entire universe as a romantic lead. Oh, and also there is vomit.