Squee from the Keeper Shelf is a feature wherein we share why we love the books we love, specifically the stories which are permanent residents of our Keeper shelves. Despite flaws, despite changes in age and perspective, despite the passage of time, we love particular books beyond reason, and the only thing better than re-reading them is telling other people about them. At length.
If you’d like to submit your reasons for loving and keeping a particular book for Squee from the Keeper Shelf, please email Sarah!
My favourite romance novels of all time are the four books of Jude Deveraux’s Velvet series: Velvet Promise, Highland Velvet, Velvet Song and Velvet Angel. I first read them when I was about fourteen, and the impact of these books on my reading, my writing, and probably my love life cannot be overstated. My friends and I sat in our boarding school dorm and devoured—lived, breathed, slept, dreamed, ate up—these books and their one-for-each-of-us heroes: Gavin, Stephen, Raine, and Miles. The names still dredge up a sigh of contentment, of nostalgia for a simpler life when we could dream of meeting boys who would miraculously be just like them (spoiler alert: I married Raine).
All these years later, I have found that every hero of every romance novel fits one or a blend of two of these brothers. The hero of my first manuscript is Gavin mixed with Miles; book 2’s guy is Raine. Book 4’s is Stephen. Not because I’m copying these books, but because Ms. Deveraux gave us heroes with different strengths and flaws which make for good stories no matter what era you set them in. It’s like getting a lesson in character arcs and having a rollicking good time while you’re at it.
That’s not to say that, like 99% of Eighties romances, there aren’t serious issues with the plots these four gents and their feisty, abundantly-haired heroines get into. I’ll get to that. But Ms. Deveraux gave me a blueprint not only for how a woman should be treated (yeah, like I said, I’ll get to that), but the emotions that a good romance should evoke in a reader. I’ll be applying those rules for the rest of my life. The heroines in these books are strong-willed women who wield power in their own way. While they sometimes have to submit to the mores of the time, they figure out ways to turn them to their advantage, and generally take very little shit from the heroes. The heroes are… well, let’s get to that.
In Velvet Promise, Judith, who has been brought up to become a prioress, is forced to marry Gavin Montgomery instead. Gavin is your basic alpha male. You’d be forgiven for thinking his name is Hawk because that’s what she describes him as most often. Gavin runs the family property (and this is the best bit) badly, although he runs around like a headless chicken (hawk?) trying his best, poor lamb. Judith is used to running her awful father’s lands and so comes in and instantly makes Gavin’s life better. But first he hits her and then he rapes her. Sigh. I know. Eighties, right? He’s all kinds of sorry in a macho ‘I could have done better than that her first time’ way the next morning, but there’s no getting away from the fact that he’s a total asshole at this point in the story.
BUT. (Okay, there’s never a ‘but’ where rape is concerned, but I’m going to ask you to go with it for now.) We are given so much of Gavin’s background that all his missteps, and there are many, are kinda sorta understandable (okay, not the rape part, but stay with me). He’s been left with almost no female company his whole life, except for the manipulative and godawful Alice, who has become his version of what the perfect woman is. We know Alice is a money-grubbing harpy who’ll have people killed to get her way, but to Gavin she’s a simpering miss who wells up in big pretty tears whenever he gets close to figuring out who she really is. She didn’t even show any signs of pain the first time they had sex. She swore it was her first time. It thoroughly wasn’t. Alice likes rough, violent sex and the power she can wield through it. She is the benchmark of comparison by which the intelligent, upstanding, red-haired Judith is judged and found wanting. Even when Gavin acknowledges that Judith kicks butt, he’s all confused because he thinks he’s in love with Alice.
All kinds of dreadful medieval things happen here, including, as someone on Amazon pointed out, a lot more rape (but not by Gavin again). I honestly don’t think it’s put there to titillate, or to imply that it’s a good basis for a relationship and the woman will always forgive you. I read these books at a very tender age, and the lesson I learned is, Gavin deserves a kick in the nuts, and this is never an acceptable way to treat a woman.
Eventually, Judith loses a baby because of Alice and Gavin learns what real love, and real grief, is. He realizes his mistake and is genuinely lovely to Judith. Alice can’t stand it, goes nuts and nearly kills Judith, scarring herself in the process. It’s a great book about redemption, though Gavin is remarkably stupid at first.
Highland Velvet is about Stephen, the blond one. He is sent by the king to marry Bronwyn MacArran, who unusually has been made laird of her clan. This is the Hot Scot plot with a twist—she’s the hot scot and she schools him in so many ways it’s just… delightful. Stephen goes from being the arrogant Englishman, off to teach the heathen Scots the correct way to go about their business, to being a man proud of his wife’s power, and ready to be her helpmate in any way she needs. He embraces her clan, and her culture, body and soul. Plus he’s got awesome legs in that plaid.
But more awful things happen to people in their families, partly coordinated by Alice, who is still scarred and still nuts. She married into the Chatworth family and because of her actions, and those of her brother-in-law, the families become deadly enemies. Raine, the third brother, retaliates against the Chatworths and is declared an outlaw (because you would be, wouldn’t you).
In Velvet Song
, we meet Alyx, a wonderfully ordinary heroine, except that she has incredible hair and a remarkable singing voice. But she is forced to pretend to be a boy and goes into Raine’s outlaw camp to seek shelter as his squire. You can imagine the hilarity that ensues. Alyx is an inveterate snob and thinks herself above the people Raine is helping in the camp (though she is merchant class and also yells at Raine for the extravagance of the rich). Raine—built like a brick privy, think sexy Hagrid without the beard—is a voice for the poor and teaches Alyx their value. They make love when he’s in a fever and all that his-huge-sweaty-body-on-her-slim-boyish-
but-not-too-boyish-one is great stuff. Then when he wakes up he pretends he doesn’t remember and orders her around for another few minutes before she figures it out. It’s fantastic.
A woman who has lusted after Raine for ever, and caught him once, is jealous of Alyx and contrives to have her thrown out of the camp for stealing. No one defends Alyx because they know she looks down on them. Raine is about to leave with her, which would leave him open to arrest as soon as he leaves the forest (oh, yeah, Robin Hood anyone? You UK peeps will remember Robin of Sherwood was on TV at about this time and, I’m just sayin’, Michael Praed. Le Sigh.) So Alyx kisses another guy (her only friend) in front of Raine and pretends she never loved him so he won’t leave with her. “‘Have I been a fool?’” he says, and we all weep.
She and her friend leave and end up as minstrels at the house of the Chatworths. Alyx is heavily pregnant and has been helping out the poor people she meets on the road. See? Satisfying character arc! At the Chatworths a bad guy recognizes Alyx and kidnaps her to get Raine out in the open; at the same time they kidnap Elizabeth Chatworth, beautiful sister-in-law of crazy Alice, and decide it would be a great lark to deliver her to Miles, the last brother, whom I used to wish REALLY HARD was real.
Alyx is nearly burned at the stake, Raine’s gang rescue her, but oh noes, he hates her because she tricked him. Eventually she sends their daughter to him and that breaks the ice, and it’s all good, but let’s move on because Miles.
The Velvet Angel in question is Elizabeth, who is delivered to Miles naked in a rug. Elizabeth is pathologically afraid of men, and with good reason. Her psychotic brother, whom Alice married, would place bets with his friends on which of them could take her virginity, so she learned long ago how to fight them off, literally.
Miles, to make it all interesting, is the Pied Piper for women. As the story points out several times, no woman has ever said no to him: “Even newborn girls clung to him.” Okay, so get it? He’s a chick magnet. And Elizabeth is his polar opposite. His reputation has also exaggerated his prowess, so she believes he has an army of bastard children, and since she loves children, she hates him even more. In fact, he has four, whose backgrounds we are told so we don’t believe he’s an asshole. Also, medieval, so, no birth control! What’s a man to do??!
Miles sets out to break through Elizabeth’s fear and it’s a splendid third of the book where his actions and those of his men, who aren’t assholes either, teach her that some men can be trusted. Of course, he’s hot as molasses in July and when Elizabeth gets drunk one day, off they go. Now, you could, and perhaps should, have a problem with all the times Miles was touching her, holding her on his horse, kissing her (she wipes it away each time) and generally getting in her personal space without permission. But… if he’d sat on the other side of the room and made his points with flowcharts it wouldn’t have been quite the same story. When they do come together (*snigger*) her release of all that fear and pain is superb.
But of course that can’t be the end of the story. Elizabeth’s slightly-less-awful brother (although whether you forgive him for what he did in Book 2 is up for discussion) comes for her and she leaves with him so he won’t kill Miles. Miles thinks this is a bad idea, to put it mildly.
One of the things that makes this more than a run-of-the-mill romance is that Elizabeth’s choices are not clearcut. She has Miles, yes, but her brother has a whole other side to the story, and she doesn’t know who to believe for a while. The plot jumps the shark here a little, but the misunderstandings and reconciliations are well laid out. In the end, the women band together and save Miles from Alice’s last and most trumped-up scheme. It’s all wrapped up with a lovely bow and the promise of future books. Which I didn’t read because after Miles, there was nowhere else for me to go.
And there you have it. Four men, four women, four stories, infinite permutations. Gavin is the alpha male who needs to be schooled. Stephen, the thoughtful beta who will fight to the death for those he considers his people. Raine is the educated mountain man looking for beauty in art. And Miles is the strong, silent type whom you just can’t resist once he turns his eyes on you. I give you the Montgomery brothers. You are welcome.
The Velvet Montgomery series comes from Kimberly Ash’s Keeper Shelf! Kimberley Ash is a writer, mom, and British ex-pat, who has lived in and loved New Jersey for twenty years. When not cleaning up after her two big white furry dogs, she writes contemporary romance and women’s fiction, and contemplates ex-pat life. You can find her on her website, and on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.
The Velvet Montgomery series are on her keeper shelf because they are the benchmark for emotional trauma and hotness factor against which all other romances are compared. Also, if she hasn’t mentioned it yet, Miles.