Ashley lives with her mom, her sister, and her niece in Chicago after a painful divorce. David lives by himself and travels all over the US for his job, working 90% of his waking hours, following an equally painful divorce. When they end up sitting next to one another on a crowded flight that’s delayed for hours before finally being cancelled, they notice each other, and realize that parts of themselves they thought might have been extinct are working just fine.
Usually I dislike the whole “Instant bonerating attraction, oh wait, our sex is meaningful, my wang is a divining rod, you are the ONE” storyline a LOT. Like, heaping, steamy piles of a lot.
But O’Reilly works it and works it hard and well and I couldn’t put the book down. Once Ashley and David notice each other, and realize that that notice is mutual, well, they put their inhibitions on notice and head for an airport motel, literally running through the terminal. The two progress from glances to trying to share the armrest to small conversations to white hot burning sexual tension in a small amount of time, and yet I utterly belived it. I’ve often raised a brow at portrayals of instant sexual tension so hot neither party could resist it, but O’Reilly’s careful construction totally sold me on this one.
After their hot night of nonstop sexxorating, Ashley and David go their separate ways. Ashley doesn’t intend to see him again, but she can’t stop thinking about him. David has much the same problem. Soon, they’re embarking on a secret, cross-country affair that slowly becomes more than they expected, and forces them to decide whether they want to move out of the post-divorce holding patterns they’ve been in.
One thing I love about O’Reilly’s writing is how she can pack a ton of information in a few spare words that both avoid the category romance info-dump and reveal a wealth of information about the characters. At one point very early in their affair, Ashley encourages David to try dating because he hadn’t seen anyone post-divorce except Ashley. So David embarks on a few online dating appointments, mostly so he can talk to Ashley about them and prove he was right, that it wouldn’t work. He ends up on a lunch date with another divorcee named Martina, who starts defending her ex-husband, who cheated on her horribly:
They met at an outdoor cafe on 52nd, crowded with spring-time traffic, and for forty-five minutes he listened to her talk about Barney, the ex, until David felt solely responsible for the sins of the entire male gender.
“You must hate listening to me like this,” she told him over dessert.
“I don’t mind. Honest,” he said, because as long as she monopolized the chatter, he didn’t have to say a word.
“Sometimes I think I still love him. He liked to flirt, and sometimes he carried it too far. That makes me stupid, doesn’t it?”
David’s first instincts were to agree, that infidelity could never be forgotten, but that wasn’t the way to carry on normal human relations. Besides, he knew what love could do to people. “Not stupid. Love isn’t easy. You think it should be perfect. That if two people are together, they stay loyal, they stay together. If you can’t do that, is it really love?”
“I think it could be.”
“Your ex was weak.”
“Not true. He was very strong, but sometimes Barney…” Martina’s voice trailed off with a sigh and David understood that an argument over her ex’s flaws was pointless. She had her heart set to stupid and he wasn’t going to talk her out of it.
Ashley and David also have their hearts set to different modes, and, like Martina, it takes a lot of will to change the setting. David’s is set to control and order, working nonstop and flying all over the US for business, filling his day with work and little else, and when Ashley enters his life, his order and control are blown away:
Nearly three weeks since he’d seen her; three weeks was a long time. A man could want a lot in three weeks. A man could hunger a lot in three weeks. It was the most logical explanation.
Except he had no logic in his brain. It was like she twisted the wires until logic was impossible.
The madness started all over again. His eyes opened, and she was still there. Waiting for him to do something.
“David,” she whispered urgently, her eyes flared, and he snapped.
Ashley has her heart, and her entire life, set to “Responsible.” She takes care of her mother, her sister, her niece, and the boutiques she purchased after her divorce, and leaves little time for herself, until she’s in a repeating pattern of soothing everyone else’s needs, and covering for everyone else’s mistakes with no space for her to ask or even realize what Ashley herself wants for her future. It’s as if, following her divorce, Ashley couldn’t see a different future from the one she’d expected with her former husband, so she stopped looking forward at all, and instead went in circles, never departing, and never arriving either.
She knows it, but she can’t figure out how – or why – she should change:
Finally she sighed, and there was that sad look of resigned self-awareness in her face, like when you overslept and you knew you shouldn’t because there were eighty-thousand things to get done. David never overslept, but sometimes he thought about it.
“I wasn’t always like this,” she told him.
“Like what?” he asked, knowing exactly what ‘this’ was.
“I’ve never been the most decisive person. Actually, ‘ponderous’ is the word I like best. But after Jacob, I don’t want to commit to anything. Do you have that problem?”
Of course not. David was decisive, able to leap tall judgments in a single bound, and once the decision was made he didn’t look back, no regrets. “Not a problem for me.”
“Then what happened to you? Because everybody knows, when you get divorced, you’re marked for life. What’s your mark?”
No, compared to Ashley, David had come through his divorce fairly unscathed. “I don’t think I have one.”
She held up a hand to her ear. “Can you repeat that please? I missed it against all those throbbing molto-basso sounds of male denial.”
“I’m not in denial.”
“Honestly, I’m fine.”
She laid her chin on her palm. “Then why don’t you talk about your marriage at all? Huh? Riddle me that one, Mr. I’m-So-Well-Adjusted.”
That small puff of air was the sound of male ego being deflated by a woman who wears bunny slippers on a plane.
David gathered his courage, met her eyes, and almost lied, but eventually the truth made its sorry way out of his mouth.
Once Ashley and David take larger personal risks to their own solitude and isolation in order to be together more often, they have to take other risks, ones that affect their carefully-constructed workds, and the people around them. Ashley and David have real problems that have to be faced, and there’s no easy, sparkly, wrap-it-all-up-in-rainbow-ribbon solutions, either.
But the journey they both take while flying back and forth to be with each other results in realizations and progress for both of them, with the opportunity for greater rewards, should they decide to take even bigger risks.
The flaws were few. Every now and again, the language gets purple in a hurry (at one point, a cock finds “heaven all on its own”). Ashley is ever so happy to recommend changes for David while resisting to the point of stubborn contentiousness that anything is wrong with the roles she maintains. She’s so often prickly and offended when someone else points out something that she has already recognized about herself – which is normal. But when she does take a stand to break her own damaging habits, the narration indicates that its something she has rehearsed. Until then, there is plenty of accounting of Ashley’s ruminations when the scene is in her POV, so for the story to jump to a moment that she has rehearsed and prepared for, all outside of the reader’s experience, is jarring. But perhaps that was meant to be a surprise for the reader as much as for David, who is suitably stunned.
Flaws aside, I loved this book. I am horrified at myself that I resisted the appeal of category romance as long as I did, and this book is exactly the kind of kick in the ass I deserve for neglecting some outstanding stories in the category format. Hot Under Pressure depicted realistic, wounded people recognizing that perhaps they’ve outgrown the habits that used to keep them safe. It is a breath-holding, marvelous tense pleasure to witness their potential for happiness, should they take a chance and change directions.