Title & buy link: Stranger in Black
Author: Devon Rhodes
Cover Artist: Trace Edward Zaber
Publisher: Amber Allure
Genre: M/M contemporary
Length: Novella (90 pages, approx 22,000 words)
Rating: 4.25 stars out of 5
A guest review by Leslie S
Review summary: A sparkling comedy of errors that goes a little flat towards the end but remains a fun, enjoyable read.
Christian wants closure on his relationship with a closeted cheater, so he dons a disguise to see the evidence for himself. He attends the annual masquerade ball on the arm of his friend, looking for the Stranger in Black. But when he finds him, the farewell encounter in a back room doesn’t quite go as planned
Jarrod goes undercover, wearing the black and gold mask to ferret out Chris–the “other woman” his best friend’s fiancé is fooling around with. He isn’t prepared for his reaction to the sexy vision in the white gown…especially since he’s gay.
It’s not the unmasking that exposes their dual deception, but the gloves…and the pants…coming off. Now Christian and Jarrod need to work together to protect the innocent party in all of this. And along the way, they just might become more than strangers.
Christian attends a masquerade ball cross-dressed in an old-fashioned floor length shepherdess dress and blonde wig. His escort is his straight friend David. The ball is in aid of an influential community group of philanthropists and businessmen, and invitations are very sought after. Christian was hoping to go with his on-off lover, Carl, who is a bit of a bastard. When they were teenagers, Christian was desperately in love with Carl and Carl basically strung him along, used him for sex but wouldn’t actually admit that he was gay. They broke up but recently Carl came back into Christian’s life and nothing has changed. Lots of great sex but not ‘going out in public’ dates and no talk of commitment.
Christian knows Carl is going to the ball. Carl showed him the sexy ‘stranger in black’ costume he’d picked out for it and they even had sex while Carl was wearing it. Christian is hurt that he wasn’t invited as Carl’s plus one, so now he intends to see who’s taking his place. By doing this he hopes to finally lay the ghost of his infatuation to rest.
Meanwhile, someone else has got their hands on Carl’s costume—Jarrod, a friend of Carl’s fiancée, Mira. For some time now, Mira has known that Carl was having an affair. She’s found incriminating messages from someone called Chris. Naturally she thinks Chris is a woman. She convinces Carl to swap costumes and sets a trap, asking Jarrod to wear Carl’s costume and to wait for Chris to approach him. Mira plans on confronting ‘the other woman’.
Christian spots Carl in his costume and is dismayed to see him with a woman. He goes over and asks if they can go somewhere private to talk. But he decides he’ll show Carl what he’s going to miss when they break up, and decides to give him a blowjob. Jarrod, dressed as Carl, is a bit shocked by this, thinking that he’s suddenly attracted to a woman—and then Chris takes off ‘her’ gloves and Jarrod realises that Chris is a man. Of course, just as he gets down to it, Christian realises this guy is definitely not Carl—but they’re there, they’re ready for it, so they carry on. Christian finds it a turn-on, pretending to be a woman servicing a complete stranger. He wishes it wasn’t just a random shag but thinks he can’t tell this guy (who he thinks is straight!) the truth.
Afterwards, Mira follows Christian to the bathroom and confronts ‘her’. Christian is confused. His night is getting weirder and weirder. Jarrod is also confused, this time about the role David plays in Chris’s life. David comes over and tells Jarrod that he has to choose between Mira and Chris. Of course David thinks that Jarrod is Carl too! Mira and Christian emerge from the bathroom without drama, and Mira is the only one who still thinks Chris is a woman. Right on cue, the real Carl comes along. He’s such a moron that he doesn’t get all the undercurrents bubbling away. Christian, disappointed and fed-up, goes home. David tries to cheer him up by flirting outrageously, earning a disapproving look from Jarrod. Christian is annoyed—what right does his stranger in black have to judge him? All the same, he thinks it’s a shame—he liked his intimate moment with the stranger.
A few days later Carl comes sleazing around and is shocked when Christian tells him to get lost. Even when Christian says he met Mira at the ball, Carl doesn’t put two and two together, instead he denies everything. The guy is really a scumbag! At that moment, David calls round and Carl thinks that Christian is cheating on him with another guy. Christian and David go out for some food—and at the same time, Mira, who still isn’t certain that Carl isn’t with Chris right now, decides to go out for dinner with Jarrod. The four accidentally end up in the same restaurant, and it’s there that the masks start to come off and truths finally start to be revealed.
I really enjoyed this book. There’s a great sense of humour in it that shines through from the very first page. Coincidentally after Wave and Jaye Valentine’s post on Friday about cross-dressing, this book’s premise is based on a cross-dressing incident, though here it’s played for laughs in what becomes an almost farcical comedy of errors, with mistaken identities and misunderstandings all over the place. I’m not sure I did a good job at explaining it all above, I thought I might need a diagram but part of the fun of this story is seeing how the various characters react to one another while they think they’re someone else.
Christian was a great character. I think we can all relate to being in love (or lust) with a certain person who we know is bad for us yet we can’t help ourselves. Christian really thought that it was second time lucky for him but he ends up hurt all over again. This time he’s strong about it and just needs closure. Jarrod is also a strong character, a little aloof at first but that fits the role he’s playing at the ball.
I really liked the opening scene when Christian is being dressed and made up by David’s cousin Shenice, and she basically tells him to kick Carl out of his life. Shenice is only in that one scene but she’s typical of the supporting cast – they’re relevant to the plot and they feel like real people. I particularly liked the ballsy Mira and kind-hearted David.
The story lost some steam after the initial set-up, but to be fair the first half was so much fun that it was always going to be a hard act to follow. I was invested enough in the characters that I wanted to know what happened with Carl and Mira’s relationship. There’s a scene towards the end where Carl, on finding Christian in Jarrod’s arms, finally breaks down and admits his true feelings, but Carl is such a weasel that I didn’t believe him in the slightest (though Christian, who is a very sweet guy, does take it as the truth and feels sorry for him). That scene annoyed me because I felt that Carl got off comparatively lightly – but I won’t say more for fear of spoilers!
Overall this is an entertaining story and worth reading just for all the complications at the masquerade ball alone. This is the kind of ‘fluffy’ book I most enjoy and I’m sure other readers will have just as much fun with it.