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The Ugly Duckling

The Ugly Duckling

4.5 68
by Iris Johansen

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If fate suddenly made you more beautiful that you ever dreamed possible, would it be the beginning of a fairy tale, or your worst nightmare?

The brutal attack should have killed anybody, but Nell Calder did more than survive. She emerged a woman transformed, with an exquisite beauty found only in fairy tales. Nell Calder deserved a happy ending. Instead, her descent


If fate suddenly made you more beautiful that you ever dreamed possible, would it be the beginning of a fairy tale, or your worst nightmare?

The brutal attack should have killed anybody, but Nell Calder did more than survive. She emerged a woman transformed, with an exquisite beauty found only in fairy tales. Nell Calder deserved a happy ending. Instead, her descent into terror has just begun.

Her attacker is still on the hunt, determined to finish what he's started. And Nell, protected by a new face, is just as determined to fight back and take her revenge. But to catch her prey, she will have to expose herself—even if it makes her a killer's prime target.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A spectacular tale of revenge, betrayal and survival." —Publishers Weekly

"A real knockout...[an] intense thriller...bravo!"—Atlanta Journal

Publishers Weekly - Cahners\\Publishers_Weekly
With this spectacular tale of revenge, betrayal and survival, Johansen (Lion's Bride; Forecasts, Dec. 4, 1995) shows why, after 50 paperback originals, she is at last getting hardcover treatment. Nell Carter is plain and plump-and, for some mysterious reason, the target of a drug cartel hit that maims her but wipes out her husband and young daughter. Her world destroyed, Nell wills herself to die, until a stranger gives her a purpose to live: revenge. The mysterious Nicholas Tanek, once master of his own criminal network, will do anything and use anyone to destroy the drug cartel that, he tells Nell, murdered a 'very close' friend. But recruiting the vengeful woman proves a big mistake for Nicholas, for she awakens in him new and unsettling emotions that threaten his mission. Given a new face and identity, Nell throws herself into guerrilla and martial arts training with Nicholas. The two become lovers, but that won't keep Nell from finding and punishing her daughter's killer-with or without her lover's help. The romance here is suspenseful, and the suspense is romantic; for fans of each, this is a keeper.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A woman seeks revenge on the drug cartel that maimed her and killed her husband and child. (Dec.)
Library Journal
A tale of romantic suspense from the author of The Beloved Scoundrel (LJ 12/93).
Brad Hooper
In Johansen's hands, the romantic suspense genre is done a good turn. Nell Calder was born plain of face, and her mother let her know in no uncertain terms that "this" ugly duckling would "never" turn into a swan. Flash to the present day, and Nell, despite her mousiness, is married to a handsome executive on the rise and has a wonderful little daughter. Nevertheless, she is never "not" self-conscious about her lack of dazzle. At a big social-business affair on a Greek island, the party is attacked by masked assailants, and Nell is horribly wounded and her husband and child killed. She emerges from the resultant plastic surgery as the stunning beauty she could never imagine being. With a new intrepidness to match her new looks, she sets out to find the man who slashed her face and murdered her daughter. And, of course, at the same time, there is a burgeoning love interest.
Kirkus Reviews
In a successful hardcover debut, megaseller Johansen abandons the lush historical romances that have made her reputation and stakes out the proven market of Nora Roberts and Sidney Sheldon.

Nell Calder is the Ugly Duckling—plump and plain, with mousy brown hair and a "predilection for chocolate cake." Her world revolves around her four-year-old daughter, Jill, and not around her arriviste banker-husband Richard. Why then would a ruthless French drug lord target such a mouse for assassination at a glamorous party on a private Greek island? And why—as a bejeweled crowd cavorts below—would a psycho killer throw Nell off her balcony, shoot her husband, and knife her young daughter to death? That's what dark and sexy Nicholas Tanek wants to know. Nicholas—gentle with women, deadly with enemies—is pursuing the drug lord, who murdered his mentor/surrogate father by infecting him with an unspeakably awful South American virus that slowly devours the organs of its victims. Interestingly enough, meantime, the fall has completely destroyed Nell's face. And so, in order that she doesn't "live the rest of her life looking like a gargoyle," Nicholas takes her back to the States to plastic surgeon Joel Lieber, a genius who transforms her into Helen of Troy. Newly gorgeous and bent on vengeance, Nell persuades Nicholas to take her to his well-protected sheep ranch in Idaho (three electric fences) to teach her martial arts. Formerly a great flower arranger, the once "ugly little mouse" now turns into Bruce Lee. As Johansen quick-cuts back and forth between the good guys and the bad, in tried-and-true Sheldonesque style, the plot eventually delivers just deserts to all—thanks to inventive surprises and a large broad sword.

Slick, knowing stuff. The myth of the ugly duckling is a seminal women's fantasy, exploited here in streamlined and product-tested style.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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Product dimensions:
4.15(w) x 6.85(h) x 1.16(d)

Read an Excerpt

He had come for nothing, Nicholas thought in disgust as he gazed down at the surf crashing on the rocks below. No one would want to kill Nell Calder. She was no more likely to be connected with Gardeaux than that big-eyed elf she was now lavishing with french pastry and adoration.

If there was a target here, it was probably Kavinski. As head of an emerging Russian state, he had the power to be either a cash cow or extremely troublesome to Gardeaux. Nell Calder couldn't be considered troublesome to anyone. He had known the answers to all the questions he had asked her, but he had wanted to see her reactions. He had been watching her all evening, and it was clear she was a nice, shy woman, totally out of her depth even with those fairly innocuous sharks downstairs. He couldn't imagine her having enough influence to warrant bribery, and she would never have been able to deal one on one with Gardeaux.

Unless she was more than she appeared. Possibly. She seemed as meek as a lamb, but she'd had the guts to toss him out of her daughter's room.

Everyone fought back if the battle was important enough. And it was important for Nell Calder not to share her daughter with him. No, the list must mean something else. When he went back downstairs, he would stay close to Kavinski.

"Here we go up, up, up
High in the sky so blue.
Here we go down, down, down
Touching the rose so red."

She was singing to the kid. He had always liked lullabies. There was a reassuring continuity about them that had been missing in his own life. Since the dawn of time, mothers had sung to their children, and they would probably still be singing to them a thousand years from now.

The song ended with a low chuckle and a murmur he couldn't hear.

She came out of the bedroom and closed the door a few minutes later. She was flushed and glowing with an expression as soft as melted butter.

"I've never heard that lullaby before," he said.

She looked startled, as if she'd forgotten he was still there. "It's very old. My grandmother used to sing it to me."

"Is your daughter asleep?"

"No, but she will be soon. I started the music box for her again. By the time it finishes, she usually nods off."

"She's a beautiful child."

"Yes." A luminous smile turned her plain face radiant once more. "Yes, she is."

He stared at her, intrigued. He found he wanted to keep that smile on her face. "And bright?"

"Sometimes too bright. Her imagination can be troublesome. But she's always reasonable and you can talk to—" She broke off and her eagerness faded. "But this can't interest you. I forgot the tray. I'll go back for it."

"Don't bother. You'll disturb Jill. The maid can pick it up in the morning."

She gave him a level glance. "That's what I told you."

He smiled. "But then I didn't want to listen. Now it makes perfect sense to me."

"Because it's what you want to do."


"I have to go back too. I haven't met Kavinski yet." She moved toward the door.

"Wait. I think you'll want to remove that chocolate from your gown first."

"Damn." She frowned as she looked down at the stain on the skirt. "I forgot." She turned toward the bathroom and said dryly, "Go on. I assure you I don't need your help with this problem."

He hesitated.

She glanced at him pointedly over her shoulder.

He had no excuse for staying, not that that small fact would have deterred him.

But he also had no reason. He had lived by his wits too long not to trust his instincts, and this woman wasn't a target of any sort. He should be watching Kavinski.

He turned toward the door. "I'll tell the maid you're ready for her to come back."

"Thank you, that's very kind of you," she said automatically as she disappeared into the bathroom.

Good manners obviously instilled from childhood. Loyalty. Gentleness. A nice woman whose world was centered on that sweet kid. He had definitely drawn a blank.

The maid wasn't waiting in the hallway. He'd have to send up one of the servants from downstairs.

He moved quickly through the corridors and started down the staircase.


Coming from the ballroom.


He tore down the stairs.

Meet the Author

Iris Johansen is the New York Times bestselling author of many novels, including Killer Dreams, On the Run, Countdown, Firestorm, Fatal Tide, Dead Aim, and No One to Trust. She lives near Atlanta, Georgia.

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Ugly Duckling 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 68 reviews.
TheKarenJones More than 1 year ago
This was unique. The heroine of the story has some serious psychological, mother-inflicted damage before the circumstances of her transformation ever arrive. She goes through what I can only imagine is the worst horror inflicted on someone, the loss of a child coupled with the loss of her spouse. Because of scars received during the attack on her family, she's transformed physically into a stunning woman. But her mind is conflicted by the internal vision she has of herself. So she goes on a violent spree bent on revenge. Uh, what? Although most people can understand the desire for revenge (especially in our heroine's case), I find the main character unbelievable. Am I really supposed to buy this timid, bent-low-from-an-overbearing-mother character suddenly becoming Lara Croft the Avenging Angel? Now if she went on a rampage because it had all been far too much for her delicate psyche and she snapped, then I could see it. So, why four stars? Because overall, it's an enjoyable, butt-kicking, fist-pumping, tear-jerking read. So you totally get hooked on the main character even if she's unbelievable.
Lisa_RR_H More than 1 year ago
Johansen, like Roberts and Coulter, is one of those that has made it onto the bestseller lists and can be found in other than the romance section--in this case, this novel was found in general fiction and works as a thriller and mystery, and it has a fairly clean style that can hold point of view. It fits in the standard revenge plot, as the titular heroine, Nell, works to avenge her family's death--plastic surgery upgrades her from ugly duckling to swan. Well-paced, often suspenseful, this story zipped along and I cared about the characters, including and especially Nell and her love Nicholas, who works with her against the villains of the story. Nice twist too at the end.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought this book was great. It's the second book I've read after Firestorm which is her other work. If it weren't for my delayed of days, I've would've finished it in a weekend. But anyways, yes, I gave it a four stars to recommend anyone who likes to read suspense books.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have been an Iris Johannsen fan from her first book and have read every book she has published. This one is by far her greatest work! The characters are believable and real, the plot suspenseful, and the book as a whole terrific! I couldn't put it down and have reread it several times. Go get this book!!
LisaDunckley More than 1 year ago
Iris Johansen is a romance author who actually puts a plot and developed characters into her stories. This book is about Nell, a mousy, plain, timid woman who marries a sophisticated and wealthy man. A hit man kills her husband and their daughter, and Nell is severely battered and almost killed trying to defend her daughter. The facial injuries are so severe that plastic surgeons have to piece her together, and she recovers, now with the face of an angel. And she gradually finds out that the killer is still after her, and she can either start a new anonymous safe life, or go after the killer to find out why her family was targeted, and to get revenge. The book was pretty suspenseful and exciting, even the supporting characters were developed. There were lots of twists and surprises. The only negatives were that the ending was kind of abrupt, and the main character Nell wasn't actually all that likable...she was a little too passive and whiny. However, it was very readable, held my attention, and was pretty exciting.
RikkaD More than 1 year ago
Nell Calder's life was forever changed the night she and her family were attacked by a madman. Plain looking and overweight, nobody really noticed Nell and she blended into the background, but no more. After an attack left her family dead and face broken and unrecognizable, a world renowned plastic surgeon takes on the challenge of transforming the ugly duckling into a beautiful swan. And she is pissed. Her attacker is determined to finish what he started, but he doesn't know what Nell looks like. Hell-bent on taking him down, Nell trains hard and transforms from a shy weakling into a trained assassin. She won't stop until her attacker is dead. This is my first book by Iris Johansen and I really enjoyed the storyline. It was fast paced without leaving out important details and I was fully engaged all the way up to the end. The book had a well developed plot, I never felt like it was rushed or thrown together. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who likes a good thriller and I plan to read more books by this author.
Helen Kim More than 1 year ago
One of my Top Ten This is
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Her mother was a meanie
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Lucyr1989 More than 1 year ago
Great book please read it
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Lindsay Thompson More than 1 year ago
Read the whole book in a day, great read!
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DoB77 More than 1 year ago
I was looking for a book to fill in a gap while I took a break from a series I was reading. This did the job and I enjoyed the story, but it wasn't the author's best that I've read.