A Long and Winding Road
Love, Chicagoland Vampires Style
As I told you in my piece about Fever Love, I love love. Not necessarily romance, not flowers and chocolates and poetry, but the obstacles that couples overcome together. The conscious decisions to be together, the experiences that build a life, the individual growth that allows two to become one.
Chloe Neill is writing one of my favorite love stories in her Chicagoland Vampires series. It’s not an easy love, it’s not universally popular, it’s often not pretty. But it is beautiful, and these two characters have to work hard to finally come together. They make mistakes, they hurt each other, they give up, they forgive, they grow, and they accept each other for who they truly are, flaws and all. It’s sometimes painful to watch; I cried more than once, and their story is not yet over. It is a remarkable journey to witness, seeing two people overcome their fears and their prejudices, and make the decision that it is worth it. Worth the risk.
Come along with me as I explore one of the most wonderful love stories I have read.
Spolier Warning!!!! This discussion does explore the main couple in CLV, as well as their problems, missteps, tragedies, and redemptions. Proceed with caution if you haven’t read through House Rules.
A Rocky Beginning
The series opened with Merit (our heroine) awakening to discover that her life had been irrevocably altered, as she had been transformed into a vampire. She was not happy with this development, since she generally had been happy with her life. Okay, once she shook off the post-transition fog, she was pissed. Understandably so. She was returned to her house a different person than the one who left it three days earlier, and felt distrust and dislike for those who changed her. That initial feeling would stick with Merit for quite a while, even after she accepted her role and her new reality.
In spite of really, really wanting to hate her maker and her new cohorts, Merit was struck by an instant and very powerful attraction to one of the first vamps she met upon entering her new world in Cadogan House.
Our gazes locked. He stared, and I stared back.Unfortunately for the still-human-at-heart Merit, she was in denial, but fortunately for us, that vampire was Ethan Sullivan, Master of Cadogan House, the vampire responsible for completing her transition. That first meeting set the tone for their relationship over the next two books, as she remained angry that he changed her without her consent, and he remained disappointed that she wasn’t grateful for the new life he chose to give her. Yet under those conscious feelings lay a powerful connection, an attraction so intense that several characters commented on the heat and chemistry these two put off whenever they were in the same room.
A chill raced up my spine, an eerie premonition of something I couldn’t quite discern. Vampires definitely had some sort of spidey sense, and mine was sending up flares — enormous, fiery flares that put the Fourth of July fireworks at Navy Pier to shame. I pushed down the sensation and the disturbing, burgeoning sense of familiarity. I didn’t want him to be familiar, to know who I was, to have taken part in my change. I wanted this beautiful man to be new to the House, a regular vampire doing a hard night’s work for the Master he secretly loathed.
Merit and Ethan’s second meeting was every bit as eventful, and disturbing, exacerbating the problems that would plague them in the coming months, and illustrating in bold strokes the tremendous differences between the 400-year-old-Master and the brand-spanking-new vampire, who was a very independent 21st-Century woman. When Ethan impulsively offered Merit the position as his Consort, he truly thought that he was offering her a great honor. But thoroughly modern Merit saw it as a huge insult, focusing on what he wasn’t offering her, rather than what he was offering.
Add these challenges to Ethan’s political maneuvering and disregard for his personal happiness in the face of protecting his House, and the first book in the series is a perfect recipe for a relationship that could be the start of either an amazing love story or a tragic horror story. But sprinkle in that eye-melting chemistry I was talking about, and I was hooked from the beginning, even as I spent the first two books stunned at what an ass Ethan was. For the record, I no longer feel that way when I read those books, because I can now see through Merit’s narration.
Starting to See Clearly
As Merit settled into her new life and her important role in Cadogan House, she and Ethan attempted to work together and establish a relationship as Master and Novitiate. It was a difficult dance because that chemistry did not diminish, and as Merit realized that Ethan was not, in fact, evil incarnate, she couldn’t help her burgeoning feelings for him. Though that did not stop her from denying those feeling existed.
As they continued to dance around one another, sometimes literally, we saw their individual issues that prevented them from opening themselves to each other. When I really look at the love developing, I see how terrified they were of their feelings, of each other, of the changes in their lives brought by the other. While it’s often frustrating to see the dance, to know where they were making missteps, and to know how they could fix them, it’s also beautiful to watch them learn to be new people with one another.
It was painfully clear that Merit projected the issues she had with her father onto her relationship with Ethan. It took many books to begin to understand exactly what the issues were with Joshua Merit, but it was clear that Merit’s feelings of inadequacy where her father was concerned were reflected in her feeling inadequate as a vampire, as a woman, in Ethan’s eyes.
...filled with the urge to run after my father, demand that he see me for who I was, love me for who I was.Repeatedly Merit thought Ethan was insulting her, didn’t like her, and had feelings for her only begrudgingly. He did perpetuate some of that to define the distance between them, but I believe much of it was Merit’s perception, not reality. Merit had a deep-seated belief that she was not the daughter her father wanted, and she also had a belief that she was not the vampire Ethan wanted, not the woman he would choose. There’s a clear, and sad, parallel at work.
I frowned, awash in the disheartening realization that I’d tried again, and failed, at playing Cadogan vampire. Was I ever going to be able to be good enough for Ethan?
For Ethan’s part in the self-preservation dance, he was a four-hundred-year-old vampire who did not know romantic love as a human, was not nurtured as a young vampire, and had spent the past few hundred years as the leader of his House. Cadogan House, and the well-being of its more than 300 vampires rested on his shoulders alone. That is a tremendous responsibility for anyone, and it was one that Ethan did not take lightly. But, as Merit observed, not only did he put that responsibility above all else in his life — before Merit came crashing into it, there was nothing else in his life.
Ethan’s biggest fault, at least so far as I was aware, was his inability to separate that responsibility from everything else in his life.We know Ethan had a relationship with his protégée, Lacey, but I find it impossible to believe that was truly, deeply love, as it is with Merit. In four hundred years of existence, that was the only romantic relationship we know Ethan Sullivan was involved in. We know he wasn’t married as a human, because he didn’t think it fair to leave a family at home while he was soldiering. We know he had a consort (I almost blocked Amber out for a second there), but that relationship came off more like a business arrangement than a partnership. It certainly wasn’t about love. Ethan had a surprisingly sad, and lonely, existence before Merit came along, but he still resisted the intimacy that a relationship with her would inevitably entail.
Everyone else in his life.
A Series of Mistakes
So as Merit and Ethan worked to protect themselves from the possibility of pain that allowing love in could mean, they each made a series of mistakes that pushed the other person away, rather than developing their relationship.
Merit really made the same, single mistake with Ethan over and over again: she rejected him. He offered her the position as Consort, and she rejected him. He offered her a physical relationship with no strings attached, and she rejected him. He offered her a relationship, and she rejected him, citing the fact that he had already “given” her to Morgan. She continuously told him no, in words and actions, which had to have been deeply insulting to a Master vampire accustomed to having whatever he wanted within his House, not to mention to the fragility that is the male ego. Merit viewed all of these rejections as staying strong, not giving in; I see it as self-preservation, an unwillingness to take a risk and reach for what she really wanted.
As I see it, Ethan made two large mistakes and one HUGE mistake in the dance to avoid a relationship while still desperately wanting Merit. The first mistake was offering her the position as Consort. The second mistake was ordering her to date Morgan, in order to further relations among the Houses. To us it’s an understandable mistake, for a Master who excels at political maneuvering. Merit had been in his life for mere weeks, and he did not yet realize, let alone accept, the extent of his feelings for this girl. At this point it was completely natural to think about the political ramifications of “giving” Merit to Morgan, versus keeping her for himself, as he really wanted to do. Merit would hold that decision against Ethan for a long time.
The huge mistake was initiating a relationship with Merit (gawd, but it was SO GOOD while it lasted!) and then very quickly backing away from that decision, for fear that his feelings for her could keep him from thinking rationally where she was concerned. Again, I hate that he did this, but I soooo understand. Having never had feelings for another person the way he does for Merit, having been responsible for his House for centuries, it must have terrified him that he could lose control of himself over this girl! But it wasn’t the loss of self-control that made his decision understandable — he didn’t choose to give her up for himself. It’s the fact that he put his House above his own wants, his own needs. He took his responsibility to Cadogan House so seriously, that he was willing to walk away from what he wanted more than anything in his life. It sucks that he felt he had to make that decision, but I cannot help admiring him for the fact that he did.
As they circle one another, there are two striking soliloquies that show me Ethan and Merit were, as Ethan says, inevitable. Each of them stated, in the simplest terms, exactly what they wanted in a partner.
First Merit, in Friday Night Bites, when she realized that she did not want to date Morgan, regardless of the reasons they were placed together:
I wanted what most people wanted — love, companionship.Then Ethan, in Twice Bitten, after he made the mistake of choosing a possible alliance with the Pack over the possibility that loving Merit would compromise his judgment:
I wanted someone to touch. I wanted someone to touch me back.
I wanted someone to laugh with, someone who would laugh with me, laugh at me.
I wanted someone who looked and saw me. Not my power, not my position.
I wanted someone to say my name. To call out, “Merit,” when it was time to go, or when we arrived. Someone who wanted to say to someone else, with pride, “I’m here with her. With Merit.”
I wanted all those things. Indivisibly.
“You think I haven’t thought about what it might be like to return to my rooms at the end of the night and find you there — to find you in my bed, to have your body and your laugh and your mind? To look across a room and know that you were mine — that I’d claimed you. Me.”They both wanted the same things from life, from love, but they were both so scared to reach for what they wanted.
He drummed a finger against his chest. “Me. Ethan Sullivan. Not the head of Cadogan House, not the four-hundred-year-old vampire, not the child of Balthasar or the Novitiate of Peter Cadogan. Me. Just me. Just you and me.”
For each of these two it took losing the other to fully realize what they wanted, and to understand that being apart was the greater risk.
Ethan’s huge mistake came immediately after he finally convinced Merit to give him a shot, and they spent a beautiful day in bed together. (Just an aside: that is one of the most beautiful seduction scenes I have ever read. Ethan has such a way with words, and they are all the more powerful for his sincerity. That scene alone is worth the pain of the entire series.) In the midst of basking in their brand-new, very tender relationship, Ethan stood up for Merit, at the possible peril of an alliance with the North American Pack of shifters, and promptly freaked the fuck out. He couldn’t believe he acted without thinking, and decided he couldn’t risk alliances for the woman he loves. He still didn’t understand that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Merit, of course was devastated, since exactly what she feared would happen, when she finally gave in, had happened. But she made it clear that if he decided a relationship wouldn’t work, there was no going back from the decision.
Now it was Merit’s turn to force distance, as she insisted on a purely professional relationship. That lasted exactly one day, before Ethan realized the extent of his mistake, and understood that not only was Merit worth the risk, but he was a stronger, better man with her by his side.
“Yesterday, I thought I’d lost you, and then we fought together,” he said. “I pushed you away for fear of what our relationship would do, could do to this House. And then we protected this House together. That is the true measure of what we could do.”Ethan made what could have been an irrevocable mistake, but what was amazing was that he immediately realized what he had done, and went about trying to make amends. His apologies were almost as good as his seductions. And this is where Ethan Sullivan became one of my very favorite heroes. In the vast majority of Urban Fantasy books I have read, the female grows and changes, while the male stays the same, providing constancy and a level of awesomeness for the woman to reach for, to grow into. Here, Ethan grew, too. He made mistakes and learned from them as he worked to become the man worthy of Merit.
“Do the things you need to do. Learn to be a vampire, to be a warrior, to be the soldier you are capable of being. But consider the possibility that I made a mistake I regret — and that I’ll continue to regret that mistake and try to convince you to give me another chance until the earth stops turning.”Devastatingly, before Ethan could get that second chance, he was killed. This was where Merit lost Ethan, which forced her to fully accept what he meant to her, what she wanted from him. On some level I’m certain she thought that, being immortal, she would have time to heal from the hurt he caused her, and then they could try again. But when he was suddenly taken from her, she realized how much time she had wasted being scared. She mourned him as a lost lover, a lost partner, and finally, finally accepted his importance in her life.
I remembered the night I’d gone to Ethan, finally sure he was willing to accept me for who I was and that I could do the same for him. There’d been no doubt then, no fear. Just acceptance of the risk that I was taking and the confidence he was worth it.The loss of Ethan was devastating to those of us who were merely reading, and we know how much harder it was for Merit to deal with. I cried with her from the evening of his death through the entire next book, whenever anyone mentioned him to her. Ethan’s death was a polarizing event for fans of this series. Many were furious, thinking Ethan was killed to show the depth of his feelings, to prove he was willing to die for her, finally making him worthy, and this was unnecessary. I disagree. I believe the point of Ethan’s death was not to show Merit how he felt, but to show her how she felt. She had to struggle to live without him, in order to truly accept her choice to live with him. As difficult as it was, I am certain this was the right thing, the best thing for Merit. Because, when Ethan came back, it was game.on!
That we would have been worth it.
Partners at Last
Drink Deep was incredibly hard to read, because it was a period of mourning for our favorite vampires, which meant that we were mourning along with them. (Here you can read about one Wench’s journey through her mourning period.) But all of that pain became worth it at the end of the book, when Mallory’s aborted attempt to make the deceased Ethan her familiar had the miraculous side-effect of returning him to life. It took some time and a few more tribulations for Ethan to be fully returned to himself, but when he was returned to life there was no more dance, no more avoidance, and no more fear. Merit and Ethan were finally willing to accept one another fully, and to actually be together.
He kissed me again, and as I began to believe that he was really, truly back, I felt as possessive of him as I’d ever felt about anything, sure in the bone-deep knowledge that he was mine, and regardless of the circumstance, I intended to keep it that way.I loved House Rules, my favorite part being Merit and Ethan, together: in a relationship, living together, working together, loving one another, making a life together. It’s not easy, and there are clearly problems still ahead (thank goodness, because I’m not ready to be done with them yet!), but they are together. I especially loved this confession from Merit:
I looked at Ethan and smiled a little.
“I love you,” he mouthed.
It was the first time he’d spoken those words to me, and I wished I had time to scream out my excitement and share the news with my girlfriends. But this was neither the time nor the place, so I gave him the only response I could.
“I love you, too,” I mouthed back.
“You want me,” he said.It has been a long and difficult journey, but worth every single step. I’ve loved watching these two dance around one another, attempt to seduce one another, and even lose one another, because it has brought them together — stronger and happier. It’s an amazing tale, and I can’t wait for the next chapter!
“I don’t stop wanting you. Not since the moment I walked into this House all those months ago.”
Well, Saucy Readers, do you love Merit and Ethan’s amazing journey as much as I do? Or do you secretly (or not so secretly) wish that they were with different loves? Tell us how you feel about their relationship below!