Forbidden is a sweet and compelling romance that highlights Black love in the context of post-Civil War history.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
[For Mature Audiences; Some Spoilers]
I am so embarrassed to say that this is the first book I’m reading from Beverly Jenkins! As much as I love historical romance, this is almost criminal since Ms. Jenkins has been in the game since the 1990s. Plus, as a fellow Michigan State alum, I have to give her all the props! Thanks to our friends at Avon, I’ve been able to correct my mistake with Ms. Jenkins new Old West series, and the first book Forbidden.
I love the idea of exploring African-American love in the context of history, especially giving agency to our stories and experiences during such a tumultuous time period as Reconstruction. Forbidden highlights the ways African-Americans in the post-slavery era attempt to expand on the post-Civil War gains. This is contrasted with the very real political backsliding and socio-political challenges to Black equality. Yet, there’s always family, community, hope, and love.
Eddy Carmichael is having a very difficult day. As an African-American woman in 1870 Denver, her life isn’t as difficult as some of her counterparts in other parts of the country. Eddy is born a Freedwoman and grows up with her two parents and younger sister. Though she loses her parents at 15, Eddy has been able to find work as a cook/cleaning-lady in various establishments. And after all this time, she’s saved up enough money to fulfill her dream of moving to California. She can make a new start and maybe even open up her own restaurant someday. Just when Eddy has given her notice at work and turned over the key to her room, she’s robbed and loses everything, including her train ticket to California. Even with that setback, perhaps Providence is still on her side because she’s able to hitch rides with various travelers. Eddy makes it as far as Reno, Nevada, when menace strikes again. Eddy is robbed, almost raped, and left for dead in the desert. Yet again, Fate intervenes in the form of Rhine Fontaine. Rhine is a prominent business in Virginia City, Nevada and on his way back from a trip with his business partner Jim, they see Eddy and rescue her.
It takes Eddy several days to recover, but she’s determined to make her own way. She makes a deal with Sylvie Stewart, a Black woman and owner of a boarding house and dining room that caters to the Black community. Eddy agrees to be her cook, and in time, she hopes to accumulate enough to continue West. This get complicated when Eddy becomes a hit in town, attracting a lot of praise and new customers. But even more interesting is when it becomes clear that Rhine has an interest in her. Despite the mutual attraction, Eddy could never act on it. Not only is Rhine a wealthy White man (and interracial relationships are heavily frowned upon, even illegal), but he’s also engaged. No, it’s better that she focus on work, and if she does have a beau, she’ll pick someone more appropriate.
But what the reader learns very early on is that Rhine is actually half-Black. He was born a slave in Georgia, the produce of his Black mother being raped by her White owner. As a child, Rhine learns that, with his fair skin and green eyes, he can pass as White. So after the Civil War (where he fights as a Union soldier) he decides to strike out on his own. Rhine makes the decision that the best way to prosper in business and society is to present himself wholly as a White man.
This works well for a time… but there’s something about Eddy that makes Rhine want to toss aside all his financial/social success for the chance to pursue something real with this beautiful, Black queen (his words!).
Eddy is a very admirable heroine. She’s upright, kind, and willing to work hard for her goals. And when life knocks her down, Eddy gets back up and keeps fighting. But one thing she can’t fight is her attraction to Rhine.
It’s interesting because, even as a White man, Rhine is very supportive of the Black community. He offers loans when banks won’t and invests in Black-owned businesses. His saloon is one of the most modern facilities in town, and he caters to an almost all Black clientele (only because Whites resent that Rhine doesn’t discriminate). He’s also a staunch advocate of racial equality and pushes the White leaders of the local Republican Party to stand by the values that made them the Party of Lincoln and Emancipation.
I have to stay that Ms. Jenkins gives us some very interesting history about the hopes and eventual backsliding of the Reconstruction Period. It’s fascinating to consider the ways Black communities across the country mobilized for themselves when White allies were retreating.
In any event, Rhine enjoys a lot of influence in Virginia City… though the one person he wants to sway seems immovable:
By passing, he’d gained a lot in terms of wealth and prestige, but he’d lost a lot as well. And now, Eddy. For the first time since leaving Virginia City he allowed himself to think about her fully. He was drawn not only to her beauty but to her strength and determination to carve out a better life. He thought back on the story she’d told about how hard life had been after the death of her parents and he was moved all over again. Was it any wonder that he’d become so affected by her in such a short span of time? Were he his true self, he’d waste no time pursuing her, but he wasn’t, and therein lay the problem. The man he was pretending to be had nothing honorable to offer.
“You have a scale on your cheek,” he told her.
When he reached for it, Eddy gently backed out of range and brushed it away with a blind hand.
“I’m covered with them,” she added with false amusement, in yet another attempt to keep the conversation light.
In truth, as much as she wanted to feel his touch, she didn’t want the memory of it added to the inner turmoil she was already battling because of him. If he was offended, he didn’t show it. “Have dinner with me.”
Her heart was pounding so loudly she was certain he could hear it, but she kept her wits about her. She studied him with his fine good looks and even finer clothes.
“Will your fiancée be joining us?”she asked pointedly. His head dropped.
“I had no idea you were a dishonorable man, Mr. Fontaine.”
“I’m not.” He added, “At least not usually.”
“Then you should go home.”
A long moment passed. “Eddy, I—”
“I have work to do, Rhine,” she said quietly.
“Will you at least give me a chance to prove myself?”
“To what end? A few days ago you were engaged to marry, and now you want me to believe you’re genuinely interested in me as something other than a dalliance.”
A smile played around his lips.
“You don’t plan to make this easy, do you?”
“Why should I?”
“As long as you don’t take a bottle to my head, I think I can handle the challenge.”
“Thank you for the marmalade.” She sensed he’d deliberately changed the subject.
“You’re welcome. I told Jim I’d teach him to make his own for you.”
“I prefer yours.”
“It’s the same recipe,”s he said, looking up from frosting the top of the last cake.
“Are you really that innocent?”
Eddy saw soft amusement overlaying the hunger in his eyes, and the bricks in her wall shook slightly. “Yes, and no, I suppose.”
“With yours, I want to put it on your lips and spend the night tasting it.”
Eddy swayed. Cracks crawled up her wall’s foundation.
“And if that isn’t clear enough. I want you, Eddy Carmichael, in a way that has nothing to do with race, but everything to do with me being a man and you being a beautiful woman.”
Her hand shook so intensely she almost dropped the knife. He stood and walked over to her side. Once there, he gently raised her chin. Time slowed. Needing to take a stand, even as his declaration rattled her to her core, she whispered, “I can’t give you what you want.”
“I know, little queen… so let me kiss you and I promise I’ll go.”
She knew she should tell him no, but curiosity, yearning, and emotions that had no name conspired with those little shoots of hope to keep her from denying him and herself. He lowered his mouth to hers and the kiss was so masterful and overwhelming, the knife slid slowly from her fingers to the floor. As he eased her closer, the heat of his body and the way his lips fit so sensually against her own was new, wondrous, and oh so glorious. She thrilled to the soft seeking of his tongue, the faint scent of his cologne and the gentle yet possessive pressure of his arm against her back. Soon she was drowning in emotions so riotous and breathtaking, she forced herself to take a step back and out of the embrace in order not to offer him more. Branding her with his eyes, he reached out and slowly traced her lips.
I think my biggest critique of Forbidden is that, despite the buildup to an intimate relationship between Rhine and Eddy, the pay-off isn’t very fulfilling. Yes, the sexual tension juicy, and the will they/won’t they drama keeps the reader on their toes. But when it comes time for things to progress, the intimacy is rushed and glossed over.
It’s tough because I know it’s imperative that Rhine get the time to develop his character, reconciling with his Black heritage and lingering family regrets.
We do get a very sweet HEA, which is all the more sweet because of threat at the end that tries to separate Eddy and Rhine for good (around the 92% mark). But even that resolution is hurried.
With that said, Forbidden is a compelling read, and I think all historical fiction/historical romance fans will really enjoy it.
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Many thanks to the publisher for a review copy.