Trigger Warning: References to a suicide attempt, depictions of torture
It’s the Heaving Bosoms Reading Embrace time again folks!
The first category for the embrace is “Abs, Abs, Abs, Dick!” which I interpreted as finding a book where the hero on the cover is all abs and a hint ‘o dick (aka it fades away but you Know he is naked). To fulfill this category I read Once Burned by Jeaniene Frost.
This read reminded me of why I love doing embraces/challenges/setting reading goals. I would never in a thousand years have read a book that had Vlad Tepes as the hero if it hadn’t fit the embrace description so perfectly. Dracula by Bram Stoker is one of my favorite novels and I have a longstanding anger towards depictions of him as a romantic figure and went into this book just trying to keep the two works separate, a tactic aided by the author’s own acknowledgement of that work and the hero’s derision for it because of how incorrectly it describes him. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Leila, or “Frankie”, works with some sideshow performers with her death defying gymnast acts. Also, she has a massive scar running down her face and arm and can electrocute people with her right hand and see people’s worst sins/past/sometimes future when she touches them. She’s had this power (no pun intended) since she was a young teen and got electrocuted. It’s basically a superhero origin story except the superhero is more of a Rogue from X-Men superhero in that she can’t not hurt people and it’s made her lead a very sheltered life. She lives with a dwarf vampire named Marty who has been her surrogate father due to her estranged relationship with her biological father and the fact that he can handle her occasional, accidental shocks better than humans. Everything in Leila’s life goes along about as normal as it can when acting as a carny and living with a vampire when she is kidnapped by other, much meaner vampires. These vampires force her to help them locate Vlad and once he is in her life, he doesn’t leave. He saves her from the kidnappers, takes her back to his home, and they begin to work together to track down who is trying to kill him. He also informs her that there is a connection between them (a Sexy connection) and he is correct.
A lot of this could have gone very wrong for me and somehow it never went there.
Frost makes a point of referencing the character being in her mid-twenties so even though there is clearly an age difference between Leila and Vlad, it wasn’t as squicky for me as it is when it’s a teenager. Also, Vlad’s actions never read as him being an Alphahole. He’s just a very old, very powerful vampire who genuinely does not have a connection with his humanity for the most part. He has no problem torturing people and is thoroughly confused and annoyed by her anger over it. He never lays a hand on her but he also isn’t lovesick and swayed by her pleas to be less vicious. In fact he establishes from the start that the word please means nothing to him. And this could have meant he ignored consent but this vampire overlord is actually very much about consent and does not do anything the heroine isn’t clearly, verbally, enthusiastically on board with. He never glamors her to seduce her. Hell, he barely seduces her. By the time they do anything she’s already decided that it’s going to happen and she’s up for it.
I also appreciate how the author did her best to portray Vlad as clearly being more powerful but not taking away Leila’s power or agency in the process. Also, Vlad has as romantic past and has had ex-girlfriends and lovers and Leila doesn’t get weirdly jealous about it. Leila has no sexual history but that makes sense based on her power and Vlad does make a gross comment about her virginity being a special gift but it’s just one sentence, not a consistent theme which it can be in some books. Vlad remains Vlad throughout the novel. He never suddenly becomes a new or “better” person, he doesn’t really soften a ton, and he never says I love you. The two characters are clearly having feelings for each other but there isn’t some emotionally fraught confession. His actions show his feelings for her in small but important ways and often in ways she doesn’t realize until she reads his mind.
Another thing that could have gone wrong but was handled well is that the characters can read each other’s minds/communicate telepathically. This is actually helpful in many cases and neither character really tries to abuse this. Vlad can just do it and can’t really help it but Leila is taught a way to block out people reading her mind if she wants that privacy so again she is given some agency without taking away Vlad’s abilities.
The sex scenes were… ok. Not bad! There was some terminology that took me out of them like reference to his “hot honey” and mentions of fangs grazing parts of the body I am not comfortable grazing but they were well paced and well placed in the novel.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book and will be continuing the series after I get a bit more of the challenges under my belt. If you enjoy powerful but non-asshole vampire lords and powerful, processing-her-trauma heroines, you will probably enjoy this book.