Lazaro Herrera has clawed his way out of the slums and to the top of Argentina’s business elite. But his bitterness against the family who turned their backs on him and his mother burns as fiercely as ever, and his long-planned revenge is finally coming to fruition.
Zoe Collingsworth is the sibling who stayed behind to take care of the family farm in Kentucky, USA, when her father fell victim to Alzheimer’s disease. Her trip to Argentina to visit her sister is the first holiday she has allowed herself in years. On her arrival, however, it is not Daisy or her husband Dante Galván who welcome her, but Lazaro Herrera, Dante’s right-hand man and half-brother. And instead of being driven to the Galván residence in cosmopolitan Buenos Aires she is abducted and taken to Lazaro’s remote estancia on the pampas.
Jane Porter’s Lazaro’s Revenge was the first category romance I read as an adult. At that time I was struggling with a debilitating reading slump, and this novel was one of the first I managed to complete in years.
What made me pick it up that day was a) its slimness = minimal investment of time, b) the expectation of a straightforward story = minimal investment of concentration, c) the promise of a love story with a happy ending, and, d) the non-objectionable cover – different from the typical lurid romance covers. I had never heard of Harlequin Sexy (as the Presents line is called in Australia), but remembered categories from my teenage years as quick, easy reads.
I enjoyed Lazaro’s Revenge so much it became a keeper. While these days I own all of Porter’s category romances, Lazaro’s Revenge has remained my favourite. I was curious to reread it and see whether it held up to memory.
Before I go on, I should point out that my adult self is not a fan of the category format. From its authors, the short length requires a keen sense for relevant detail, skilful manipulation of emotion, and a general stripping down to the essentials of a story. I tend to prefer fuller and more complex stories. As regards HPs specifically, in my experience their version of “big emotions” and “strong conflict” too often translates into bullies and doormats about whose HEA I have serious doubts. Driven to extremes, the typical setup of a female protagonist in a vulnerable situation and a powerful male protagonist who exploits that vulnerability to the maximum degree can become staggeringly offensive.
It has been a while since I read my latest HP by Jane Porter, but in the past her characters, too, were sometimes able to make me tremble with rage. The difference was that as flawed as her characters are and however seemingly uneven the balance of power, she usually manages to explain and redeem the hero/heroine in a way that made me empathise with both. None of her category romances have left me bored or cold.
In Lazaro’s Revenge, things are not quite as black-and-white as they at first seem to the outraged, frightened Zoe. Dante has unwittingly played into Lazaro’s revenge scheme by enabling him to set up the hated Galván as a kidnapper in addition to runing him financially by staging a hostile takeover. Zoe’s forced holiday away from Buenos Aires is in fact Dante’s idea of protecting Daisy from news that might provoke yet another miscarriage. The news? Zoe’s rumoured engagement to a despicable conman.
I really like Zoe. When Lazaro tries to calm her fears regarding his intentions and explains that he would never hurt or take advantage of a woman, Zoe swiftly disabuses him about his self-image: holding somebody against their will is harming them. (That not taking advantage of a woman is implicitly accepted here as nobler than not hurting a man deserves a rant, but I will not go there today.) She actively looks for ways to contact the outside world and tries to escape. When that fails, she challenges Lazaro into revealing enough about himself that her view of their situation, and of him, begins to change. Neverttheless, she refuses to act on her growing attraction to him until she ceases to be used as a pawn in the conflict between him and Dante. When she and Lazaro do make love for the first time it is she who initiates it. She is loving and holds on for dear life to optimism when life as she knows it crumbles around her. What keeps her together is the never-abandoned hope that things will improve.
Lazaro Herrera is a man whose quest to earn the respect of the society that rejected him leads him to seek victory at any cost. Through his act of taking Zoe hostage he gradually realizes he has become everything he most hated about the father who rejected him: hard, ruthless, and cold. Instead of elation, he feels shame and loss. I thought him a complex, interesting hero with his flaws and wounds and deep, unselfish love for Zoe. He is, in fact, on my list of favourite romance heroes.
On the other hand, I had a hard time finding anything likeable about Daisy and Dante, Zoe’s sister and brother-in-law. The author creates automatic empathy for Daisy by informing us that her all her pregnacies have ended in miscarriages, but when Daisy actually steps onto the scene she ruins her advantage. Rather than a woman exhausted by personal tragedy I saw a blackmailing shrew who dismisses her sister’s role in the life of their father and mercilessly cuts all bonds to Zoe when Zoe chooses to follow her heart. Dante is even worse. He neither apologize to Zoe nor ever evinces any compassion regarding Lazaro despite knowing the excruciating poverty and hardships their wealthy father forced Lazaro and his mother to endure. To him and to Daisy, Lazaro is simply an evil villain who has abused their good-hearted trust. (Daisy and Dante are the heroine and hero of In Dante’s Debt, which I realize as I write this I have never opened.)
This time the book did not have the visceral effect on me as at the original reading, but it absolutely reminded me of why I love this author’s category romances. Jane Porter’s language is precise, incisive, and intense. With a few words she can paint a clear, vivid image or sharply define a bruising emotion. She tugs at the heartstrings with characters who start out seemingly irredeemable, but who grow and mature through their love for each other. As Zoe might, it is not always the kind of love that makes you feel good – it is the kind of love that makes you feel everything.
(Harlequin Mills & Boon Sexy, Australian edition paperback, 2002, page 60):
“Zoe turned her head away, looked toward the splashing river with the swirls of white foam and jagged points of rock. The sun reflected off the water in bright sheets of light and seemed to illuminate even her heart.
If she didn’t escape Lazaro soon, she’d do something stupid.
She’d beg Lazaro to touch her, make love to her.
Lazaro tossed down the twig. ‘We should start back. We’ve got a long ride home.'
They rode along the riverbank,crossing the stream to travel up a grassy hill dotted with oaks and birch trees. The terrain leveled out, turning into more gold grasslands beneath an endless blue sky.
Zoe squinted. A building appeared in the distance. The building became a cluster of buildings. Buildings, fences, cows.
Zoe’s heart thudded. People who could help her. People who could call for help.
Swiftly she calculated the distance, measuring the time it’d take to reach them. Even riding hard, she might not be able to outride Lazaro, but perhaps she could attract their attention.
If she did it, she’d have to act quickly. No mistakes. No second thoughts. No exceptions. Could she do it? Hell, yes.”