I’ve always liked the story of the ugly duckling. It’s one of my all-time favorites, actually. There’s something about that transformative process that just seems to hook me somehow—which might explain the strange hold that makeover shows have on me. (Come on, admit it: you can’t turn away from the screen either during those last few minutes of the show and its big reveal when suddenly Ms. The-Eighties-Called-And-They-Want-Their-Hairstyle-Back turns into a knockout in evening wear—and it only took a team of twelve stylists and a budget the rest of us can only dream of to accomplish it! How’s that for “reality” TV?)
But despite the appeal of the swan, most of the time I feel like I can relate much more to the ugly duckling. So does my latest heroine, Shannon Mahoney, in The Bargain.
Now I’m not saying that people mistake her for Quasimodo or anything, but Shannon’s not a beauty queen or a glamour girl either—which is fine by me because, quite frankly, romance heroines who are gorgeous and perfect in every way drive me a bit bonkers. (Has anyone ever actually seen a heart-shaped face with rosebud lips and a pert nose in real life? I haven’t. Well, except maybe on Christina Ricci…) Childhood teasing has left its mark on tomboyish Shannon, and although she’s terrifically confident in some areas of her life (power tools, anyone?), she is, shall we say…socially awkward. Particularly around men. Which means that Shannon is ripe for a transformation of her own—but it turns out to be an inner transformation rather than an outer one.
This ugly duckling ultimately meets her match in a handsome swan who’s in need of a little transformation of his own: Michael Kingston. Not a physical one, because this particular heartthrob makes women swoon just be walking past them, but an emotional and mental transformation. Despite his sarcasm and playboy manner, Michael is deeply troubled and full of self-loathing, and he thinks no woman would really want him for anything besides his looks.
The two initially clash over Michael’s brother Drew only to become wary allies and then—unexpectedly—friends. And then those two friends turn into something else as they each secretly begin to fall for the other, as hinted at in the scene below…
“Man, I was quite the bad seed in high school, wasn’t I?” he added more lightly, veering away from painful memories and praying she would let him.
She did, for which he was grateful. “Kind of. I don’t remember a whole lot, though. My focus was more on your brother.”
Drew again. He felt a flicker of jealousy that shouldn’t have been there.
“But I remember the way all the girls mooned over you, of course. And I remember that you got in a lot of fights.”
“Self-defense, I swear. I had a lot of angry boyfriends coming after me at the time.”
“Did you ever consider not making out with their girlfriends?”
“I was a horny teenage boy. That was not an option.” She gave an incredulous little laugh, and he liked the sound. “Half the time girls just made stuff up anyway about what happened to get attention, so I figured as long as I was going to get in trouble for it, I might as well enjoy it.”
“I suppose that’s one approach,” she returned dryly.
“Uh, oh. You disapprove, don’t you?”
“Do you care?”
More than she might have guessed. “Well, I don’t steal girlfriends anymore.”
“More like ‘recovering.’”
“Ah. On the wagon. Is there a twelve-step program for that kind of thing?”
“No. I’m on my own.” Funny how words said so lightly could suddenly feel so heavy. They hung there in the air, and even if Shannon didn’t notice any change in Michael’s demeanor, he felt a subtle shift in his mood.
But maybe she did notice, because he felt the fingers of her hand brush against his ever so lightly as if she wanted to give his hand a comforting squeeze but wasn’t bold enough to do so. He curled his hand around hers instead, wondering if she would pull away. She didn’t.
And in the end, this so-called ugly duckling might just wind up with a happy ending she never expected—with or without the makeover.