By Mary Margret Daughtridge
“You talk about Caleb as if he’s a friend of yours,” Judi Fennell, another Casablanca author remarked the other day. She was talking about Caleb “Do-Lord” Dulaude, the hero of SEALed With A Promise, released this month. I’d never thought about his existence in quite that light, but in a way, he is. Very early on he stopped being a character I needed for a role, and became a person I wanted to know better.
Do-Lord is the only character who has ever understood who I was and what I was. Yeah, you read that right. Most of my characters don’t know I exist, and even if they realize I’m there, they think I’m, like, the voice of their conscience or something.
Do-Lord first appeared in SEALed With A Kiss. I intended him only to be a foil for Jax–a contrasting point of view so that the reader could see what a straight-line thinker Jax was. But instead of being a character I had to construct quality by quality, as soon as I realized I needed him, Do-Lord popped, fully-formed, into existence.
There he sat, no, lounged, slowly twirling a beer bottle in the pre-happy-hour lull of a dirty, disreputable dive waiting for his friend, Jax. Despite his loose-limbed posture of idle contemplation, whatever his thoughts were, they were dark But as soon as Jax arrived, his welcoming grin held genuine affection. He shoved out a chair with his foot as an invitation to sit, and he gave his full attention to Jax as if nothing at all was on his mind.
Do-Lord saw me almost as soon as I saw him, and quickly realized I was observing him and Jax, and taking down their conversation. In one of the brilliant, intuitive leaps Do-Lord is capable of, he guessed that I was a writer, and I could write his story. I wouldn’t say he was delighted that I was a romance writer—he preferred techno-thrillers—but he had a past that was interfering with and threatening everything he cared about. He was psychologically savvy enough to understand he needed closure, and you can always trust a novelist to provide it. He thought he could handle me. He wasn’t going to let the opportunity slip.
I knew none of this at the time. All I knew was suddenly, instead of writing Jax and Pickett’s story, I was recording patient history case notes—like I used to when I worked at Mental Health. It was weird. None of it had anything to do with the story I was writing.
The case notes related the childhood of a too-smart trailer-trash kid named Caleb Dulaude who deeply loved his not-quite-of-this-world, single mother. By the age of ten he realized he was the stronger and more capable of the pair. She would survive only if he reversed their roles and became the caretaker. But a ten-year-old can’t get a legal job. They say crime doesn’t pay, but it paid better than anything else a kid that young could earn money doing. When he buried her, he buried the kid he had been with her.
To say I was hooked…God, I loved that brave, resourceful kid. I wanted him to finally have the happily ever after he deserved. I arranged for him to meet Emelina Caddington, Ph.D. She didn’t look like an ordinary romance heroine, but she was capable of seeing past all his layers and loving the man he really was—if she could get past some issues of her own.
And right there is where we ran into problems. He was not looking for a relationship. Sure, if he found the right woman he might like to get married someday, but when he became a SEAL, that was his happy ending. All he wanted was to collect one unpaid debt so he could get back to being the dedicated, honorable SEAL he was.
One of the hardest things about using a SEAL character in a relationship romance as opposed to romantic suspense is that they are so focused. Nothing is too hard and having set an objective, nothing stops them. It’s a Good Thing when they’re chasing bad guys. It’s a Bad Thing when the objective stands in the way of their happiness.
The romance genre is full of heroes who don’t want a wife, don’t want to get tied down etc., but when they realize true love is a happy ending, they change their minds. But what was I to do with a hero who couldn’t see a happy ending for what it was?
I called a time out and drew him aside for a chat. That’s when I found out he knew who and what I was.
I couldn’t shove him around like a Ken doll. I couldn’t manipulate him—as I confess I did when Jax balked from time to time. When I told him he wouldn’t get any sex unless he cooperated, he just laughed. Do-Lord knew no romance hero is going to go without sex for an entire book. A voracious reader, in Afghanistan desperate for something to read, he found a box of romances some writer’s group had sent the troops, and read them all.
He made it abundantly clear that he understood the role and would act like a romance hero as long as—and only as long as—I let him make progress toward his real goal. His goal was to destroy the powerful senator, Teague Calhoun, just as Do-Lord was convinced Calhoun destroyed Do-Lord’s mother.
I realized he had set me up, and let me tell you what, it was blow to my ego. I’m the writer. I’m the one who sets characters up! But heck, I have a soft spot for a bad-boy-gone-good, even one who’s in danger of going bad again.
There weren’t going to be any easy answers though. No sudden insight that allows a character to reverse his position.
I have long held that the romance genre is important because it offers hope that good people guided by love triumph over life’s adversities. But he believed he was guided by love.
I have also maintained that a message inherent in the genre is that love heals. Now I was going to have to prove it. Fortunately, I had help from Emmie, who by then had found her strength.
Do-Lord and I went through some dark days together as equals. It bonded us. It’s not surprising I talk about him as if he’s a friend of mine.