Victoria Dahl is one of my favorite contemporary romance writers. I have really enjoyed her Jackson Girls' Night Out series. She doesn't write cookie-cutter characters, they always surprise me in someway. She can be vulgar and profane one moment and gentle and sentimental in another. Last year I read Dahl's little western erotic romance novella, The Wicked West about a very innocent looking but very kinky widow who seduces the her neighbor a very straight arrow sheriff, and since then I have been hoping she would write another Western. While Harlot is a western, it is a very different kind of book than The Wicked West. Harlot is a darker, sadder, and angrier.
Caleb left two years ago to make his fortune in California, hoping to come back home a rich man worthy of claiming his beloved Jessica's hand. He returns home to find her old home empty, her neighbors and former friends calling her a whore. He hopes it is all a terrible misunderstanding but everything seems to be confirmed when finds his way to her desolate house outside of town where she lives with her tenants, Melisande an African-American former prostitute and her white lover, Bill.
Jessica accepts his scorn, his rage and his coin, punishing him and herself for all their lost dreams and hopes. Caleb's anger burns itself out in her arms, but holding him and touching him ignites Jessica's. It is the plain-spoken words of Melisande, who planted the seed of perspective in Jess, reminding her that she is not dead, and that her value wasn't in her virginity.
This little novella packs a wallop. I believed in the HEA for Caleb and Jess and I believed in their new start because she got angry, because she let him have her anger. The fact that those who victimized her don't ever fully pay for what they did is besides the point, she is done letting them define her worth. I wished we had just a little bit more Caleb and Jess, post-grovel and a whole lot more of Bill and Melisande but I loved what I got.