Ruined, by Kinley Baker
Crescent Moon Press, July 2011
Jessica is one healing away from death. Under the thrall of her gift, the Court’s Senior Healer risks giving her life in exchange for her patient’s.
Vale is a rebel ruler. When his brother is killed, he’s given the throne and the decree from the Court to produce an heir or lose his family’s hold on the land—and his deceiving advisors aren’t afraid to use murder as weapon if their directive to stay away from the Senior Healer goes unheeded.
But Vale burns to possess Jessa. The heat between them leaves a wake of smoke, and even the powerful forces above want to bind them forever. Vale taking another would be a betrayal neither could survive.
Their enemies fear a child born of such a powerful Healer and Warrior, but little do they know, the true threat lies in the bond forged in shadows and fused in fire.
Jessalyn spies from the shadows while a man swims in a pond with his dog. She shouldn’t watch, she knows, but he’s beautiful, naked, and she can’t help herself. As Senior Healer in the king’s service, she knows that it’s a day of reckoning for his brother, Valerian. Their kingdom’s laws provide that the people should not go more than 45 days without a ruler on their throne, and King Zander has been missing for 44. Shortly after, the prince is summoned. His play time is over, and Jessa reluctantly returns to work.
Vale, as the rogue prince is commonly called, has labored hard his entire life to avoid responsibility, so the obligation to determine his missing brother’s fate is a heavy one. In truth, while they cared for each other, Vale and Zander were never close. The younger brother was perfectly happy being next-in-line to rule while Zander was present, healthy, and bound to have an heir sooner or later. But now, as he stands before a restricted chamber door, key in hand, he is moments from learning the king’s fate, and by default, his own.
The artifact that lies within is a massive stone fountain called The Well. Water pours into the catch pool from nine feet above, and small bubbles float in the water below. Each one holds the spark of a Shadow Shifter’s life force. The one belonging to Zander is dim. Vale is hopeful for his brother’s life, and his own freedom, only long enough to summon his sister, Arianna. Together they watch the light in their brother’s bubble go out.
Jessa is then summoned to pronounce the king dead, a stark duty of her position. Afterwards, Vale gives her a letter left behind in the chamber by the king. There was one for each of them. Zander tells tells his brother that Vale is the better man. He warns his sister not to marry a certain ambitious council member under threat that he’ll come back to haunt her. To Jessa, he shares a secret and an instruction to destroy the letter. The king’s siblings find it strange that their brother would confide in his doctor (presumed to have been his lover) and not them. But, as they both admit when their grief dulls a bit, they didn’t know their brother any better than they knew him. On the other hand, Jessa was Zander’s closest friend.
As in nearly any case when a balance of power shifts suddenly, there’re people cranking their brains to finds ways to take advantage of the situation, and there is no rest for the wicked in this kingdom. In motion are plans to marry, depose, and kill Vale before the guy has a moment to remember that he left his dog by the pond.
Unlike Vale, who can transport his body through shadows, Lady ran the whole way home in the rain. (Poor soaked dear!) It’s a pretty little metaphor for the abrupt shift in the prince’s life; he’s made a leap into a dangerous arena, while the casual life he prefers remains behind with his dog.
Adding to Vale’s concerns about becoming king, and Jessa’s about her job security, they both have a great deal of lust for each other. They are both also under the mistaken impression that the other doesn’t share their feelings. Their dance around each other dominates the first half of the book, and I was reminded of Benedict and Beatrice from Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” Jessa and Vale are intelligent, strong, even stubborn characters who flirt with denials and snark. Vale resists his desire, as getting it on with his dead brother’s mistresses is against his own rules. Jessa interprets his blundering attempts at avoiding temptation to be disdain for her. She has a less than innocent reputation, after all, and since clearing up the misunderstanding would actually cause her greater scandal than being a whore, she lives with the shadow. For her part, she resists temptation to spare Vale the same scrutiny that Zander faced during their acquaintance. Vale just doesn’t know what to do with the thought of a woman who doesn’t want him and fires her on more than one occasion, regretting the move each time. Finally, when Vale learns the truth, that she loves him…always has, and always would, he knows he’ll never be with another woman.
Of course, when you see the word “never” in fiction, it usually indicates a conflict brewing. And what’s a romance without something tearing the lead couple apart. In Ruined, that something is a heavy, multi-dimensional obstacle.
Ruined is a quick, buttery-smooth read, from a talented writer, and the execution of drawn-out sexual tension is one of the best that I’ve read in last twenty years. Bypassing this book would be a shame. Also, there’s a sequel coming.