Bitchin' Blog Posts
Title: Playing With Fire
Author: Amy Knupp
Publication Info: Harlequin July 2010
Genre: Contemporary Romance
I bought this book because I love beach stories, romances set in small beach towns, friends-to-lovers plotlines, and, I’ll be honest, I liked the cover, too. In the end, I struggled to finish it because while the beginning grabbed me, the middle let go of realistic emotion that I wasn’t sure whether to finish it - except that I wanted to know what happened to the heroine at the end.
Macey has just returned from two years away in Thailand in the Peace Corps where she used her business degree to help small family businesses develop working plans to grow and become more successful. She’s decided to take her six week vacation on San Amaro, a small Texas island, to help her childhood best friend Derek come back to the land of the living. Derek has taken over his uncle’s beach bar and removed himself entirely from his former career of fighting fires after a terrible and tragic fire killed his girlfriend Julie five months prior. Macey has had it bad for Derek for a long time, and while she knew Julie vaguely as she and Derek fell in love - prompting Macey to join the Peace Corps - she can’t stand knowing Derek has pretty much stopped living in his guilt and grief. It’s time to wake him up.
You can probably guess my major problem with the book: the time line. If Derek has just lost his girlfriend, about whom he was pretty serious, in that same year, is it really appropriate to prod him into anything, much less a new relationship? Macey doesn’t throw himself at him, and tries very hard to separate her desire for Derek from her desire to see him wake up and begin recovering from his grief, but over and over, I found myself thinking, “Girl, that is so not your call as to when and how he lets go of his own grief.” Sometimes I could support her decisions, like asking Derek to stop working around the clock day after day, hiring new people to help staff the bar - which is slammed during the summer tourist season - and inviting him along on tourist-y outings to get him to escape from his very limited routine.
But other times, and more often, I wondered where the hell she got off telling him what to do, and whether her determined interest in Derek, which became less and less separated from her own desire, was over the line of inappropriate:
“Derek. What the hell is wrong with you? I know you’re grieving, but what happened today?”
He sat there in silence for so long she wanted to kick a reaction out of him.
“Today’s her birthday,” he finally said, his voice so quiet and full of anguish that Macey barely heard him. “I’d planned on asking her to marry me.”
Macey had no words. She sat down heavily, straddling his legs just above his knees, giving no thought to the contact now, too wrapped up in trying to somehow assuage his pain even though she knew she couldn’t. She took both of his hands in hers and squeezed them.
Derek raised his chin and stared at the ceiling. Swallowed hard. “Sorry I skipped out on work.”
“We did okay. But I was worried. I wish you’d told me what you were up against. I would’ve understood.”
He met her gaze head-on. “I forgot it was her birthday, Mace. She’s only been gone for five months and I’m already moving on, acting like I don’t care. Forgetting the date I was going to propose.”
“You’re not acting like you don’t care. I can tell you care, can tell you’re mourning her in every single thing you do.”
“I forgot her birthday.”
“No offense, but I’ve seen no evidence of you moving on, Dare. You’ve practically stopped living.”
He shook his head and looked away.
He ran his beat-up hand through his hair and flinched, which told Macey his knuckles hurt worse than he was letting on. “I need to work.”
“The world won’t stop spinning if you take one night off.”
He rose from the floor slowly. “I can’t stand being in this place for the rest of the night. I’ll come to work.”
That she could understand. “Okay. If that’s the case, get your butt in the shower. You smell like a gym. And call Gus. He’s worried.”
He stared stubbornly at her and then lifted the muscle shirt over his head, revealing that sculpted chest that had been burned into her mind since she’d watched him sleeping. Before Macey could react, he lowered his shorts.
“Going to stay for the rest?” he asked.
She couldn’t help it; she looked down, thinking he’d surely left his underwear on. But holy cripes…nope. She averted her eyes, not quickly enough. He was staring at her, saw her reaction, which had to be all over her face because she’d never been able to hide a thing. Her cheeks warmed.
Derek’s lips twitched into a humorless near smile.
“Careful who you boss around.”
He turned away and walked to the bathroom and, Lord help her, she couldn’t not check out his butt. Just for a second. Long enough to see that it was as beautiful and perfectly toned as the rest of his body. She whipped her eyes back up and wanted to sink through the floor when she realized he’d looked over his shoulder and again caught her staring at him. She hurried out of the room to wait at a safe range. Like maybe Alaska.
From extreme painful grief to checking out his butt? This is not the whiplash I was looking for.
I think Knupp took a very big risk in placing the story so soon after Derek lost his girlfriend, and I don’t think that risk entirely paid off. Mourning someone that close to you takes a long time, off and on for months of up and down grief, and even if Macey didn’t know Julie too well, Derek did, and the manner in which he was maneuvered and pressured into moving on away from his mourning left me very uncomfortable. Not only did she push him into more enthusiasm for life and new experiences but she wanted him to get back to firefighting, too. Eeep!
Aside from the conflict between the main characters, there were many other things I liked about the book, when I wasn’t getting that funny, “Oh, dear,” curl of squick in my stomach. I loved that Macey was re-entering her old life at home in Texas with the confidence and self-assurance she found in Thailand after two years in the Peace Corps. I loved the ways Derek’s family drove him nuts and how his bar was his second home, and not in an entirely bad way. The beach bar is a wonderful setting, and I could imagine people queuing up for bar food and drinks, imagine the employees and the cook in my mind, and picture the other characters who become “regulars” in the bar. I liked the close community - and beach towns are wonderful for that - and I liked how the tourist influx determined how some of the other characters entered the story and how it changed the way they acted.
Knupp has some skill in the ancillary character department, and I’d be pleased to see her name on another book, but not one that tangles with such closely-kept and recently-endured grief. I had doubts about the happy ending because up to and including the last scene, I couldn’t trust the hero’s ability to recognize his own emotions, much less act on them in a justifiable manner. His forced exit from understandable grieving (especially considering the details of his girlfriend’s death, which are revealed in the story) at the cheerful and persistent prodding of Macey left me in a definitely un-romantic mood. I struggled with the grade for this book, wavering between D+ and C-, and went higher because of the strength of the collection of characters, the setting, and the writing. I’d be curious to hear from other readers if the time line bothered them as much as it did me.