Proof Of Their Sin is my second Dani Collins book and I am now devoted to tracking down the rest of her novels to read as I have fallen in love with her writing style. She adheres to the otherworldliness of Mills & Boon Sexy (or Presents depending on which country you are in) with billionaires, glamour settings and beautiful people yet brings a pathos, humour and reality to her characters. I am giving you a heads up that there are spoilers, relationship unravelments and all here today.
But first, the blurb:
Pregnant. Lauren Bradley’s heart stops—there’s only one man who can be the father and it’s not her late husband, the man everyone thinks is a celebrated war hero….
Ravaged with guilt at sleeping with his best friend’s wife, Paolo Donatelli closed his heart to Lauren forever. But in nine months’ time, the proof of their incredible night together will be there for the world to see. Marriage is Paolo’s answer to avoiding more scandal, but it’s Lauren’s worst fear—she still bears the scars from the first time she said “I do.” Can she trust Paolo enough to reveal the truth?
We meet Lauren as she is making her way to reveal her pregnancy to Paolo, her late husband’s best friend/frenemy with whom she slept with on the night she found out her husband died. The story slowly unravels, going back and forth in time to reveal small details of their initial meeting in a bar, to their subsequent marriages to other people and the handful of times they met before they fatefully slept with each other on a night that the rest of the world will view as a betrayal (Lauren’s deceased husband Ryan is a high profile soldier that has died at war). Lauren carries with her timidity. Though tall and thin, she does not crowd out other people, she is compliant, always putting others before herself. Lauren, is depicted as not a particularly “strong” character as we are used to seeing in so many romances. She is not kickass, she is not feisty and she struggles to assert herself but she is slowly learning how to find strength from within her introversion and though she may perceive herself as weak but she is anything but. Lauren is stoic. She looks at her situation in life, accepts her lot and makes the best of it.
Lauren’s perception of power banker Paolo Donatelli was that
Those eyes had been flipping her heart since the first time she’d seen them watching her from across that upscale bar five years ago, but he was Italian. He did that to women. It wasn’t personal.
This is signature Dani Collins prose. Reflective and cheeky.
Paolo is my favourite type of hero, flawed (not damaged), he may carry the signs of success but poorly made decisions from the day he met Lauren have left impacts on both of them. Their first meeting should have been just a guy and girl who met at a bar, flirted, went out on dates and ended up marrying. But this was no Mary and Prince Fred story as Paolo’s engagement to another woman kept him from pursuing Lauren. Instead, he introduced her to his longtime friend Ryan. Deceased Ryan plays a large part in this story, his spectre ever-present as both Lauren and Paolo struggle to reconcile themselves with their betrayal of him, as well as acknowledging his faults. Ryan and Paolo had always had a competitive friendship and Lauren became an unwitting pawn, marrying Ryan as a naive 19 year old. Ryan and Lauren’s marriage was not strong, as he was often deployed overseas and eventually we find out he had been unfaithful to Lauren. Lauren found herself marrying a man who wasn’t all that attached (though he definitely was attracted) to her.
Paolo starts as a mean, horrible hero who denigrates our heroine, denying that he is responsible for her pregnancy but as you get more insight into his character, you discover that Paolo has deeply misplaced (yet genuine) feelings of shame attached to his attraction to Lauren. Paolo loves being in control of himself as well as in control of his environment and the people around him. The reader slowly gets to meet him outside of the 1% swank New York scene and sees him interacting with his family. He shows his love to his mother, he bickers with his sisters and he plays and has fun with his nephews and nieces. The outside world sees him as a successful banker, but the insider sees him as a family man. As much as he wants to be a family man, his first wife had tried to cuckold him so he does not believe Lauren’s claim that she was pregnant with his child, angering her:
Somehow she reached through the miasma of shock to locate contempt for a man who dared to denigrate her when he’d been in that bed exactly as long as she had.
Oh but I do love this line. In so many romances, men are often angry at their perceived fall at the hands of the woman. It is all so Adam pointing at Eve “Lord she made me do it” denying their own agency. Lauren may perceives herself weak but Paolo perceives himself weakened by her power over him and she is constantly calling him out on this throughout the novel. Paolo’s ex-wife had managed to devastate him. Not because she had tried to pass off another man’s child as we initially believe, but because as we come to understand at the end of the book, Lauren by this stage was betrothed to Ryan, Paolo had lost his chance with a woman he had an instant connection. Such a connection that he begged her to leave with him on the day of her wedding to another, both of them kissing passionately and being found by Ryan and the wedding party. Paolo’s thoughts were “The degradation never left him. Best man. To this day, no one else had asked him to hold the position, always joking it wasn’t in the groom’s interest”.Paolo is filled with jealousy of Ryan with Lauren. But Lauren had not been immune to him either. Later in the book she acknowledges her years long attraction to Paolo and the guilt she carried within her when she discussed Ryan’s infidelity. Lauren is very much a trophy for Ryan to flaunt at Paolo, with Lauren eventually asking Paolo “Do you think he married me just to hurt you”?
The heartbreaking moment for me was when Paolo gives her access (shelter) in his lake home in Italy. He tells her that his home’s pincode is her birthday just to find out their first meeting had not been her birthday, her cousin, who had taken her out to that New York bar so long ago, had lied at their first introduction:
Well, didn’t he feel a fool. he’d been using that date as one of his pin codes for years.
Oh BIG HUGE MOMENT: This man fell in love with Lauren that first night they met in the bar. Oh and the regret that he introduced her to his friend who went on to marry her! The only thing left was the drawn out realisation he had loved her all along and revealing, first to themselves and then to each other their love.
She was careful about showing her feelings because she was sensitive, not manipulative.
EXACTLY! I read a lot of commentary from romance readers (at times, myself included) saying “if only these two had just communicated” or “One big miscommunication” or “OMG JUST TALK!” etc etc. Don’t most people guard themselves, particularly in affairs of the heart? Not communicating openly is not being devious, it is being protective of your deeper, private self. Lauren and Paolo are both feeling vulnerable and unsure of who to trust, particularly because their trust has previously been breached but also because they also breached their own moral code due to their attraction to each other. My only criticism is that I would have liked the moment of revealing their love and their devastation at not being together since their first meeting needed to have been more visceral and raw. This also brings me to the sex scenes. They were perfect. No mention of “penis’ or “vagina” or “her clit”, terms that are fast turning me away from authors who push the sex explicitness but write conservative, boring romances. Collins instead uses beautiful allusion and euphemisms full of desire which perfectly suited the narrative.
I do love an infidelity plot but sadly, Dani Collins plays this one on the safe side and reveals to the reader that Lauren had asked for a divorce from her errant husband months before sleeping with his best friend. This felt like a tacked on aside. Whether Collins does this because she always intended to or because it is her first Harlequin Presents (though her second Mills & Boon) and it is too soon to push those reader/publisher boundaries will be something that unravels over the development of her ouevre. Nonetheless, this is a heartfull love-at-first sight story. The narrative slowly revealed to both Lauren and Paolo the root to their devastation at their first marriages lay, not only at their failed relationships but, at their years of not being able to be with each other. It was emotional and strong and I highly recommend Proof Of Their Sin.
I borrowed a print copy of this book from a public library in NSW.