I started reading Long Time Gone by Meg Benjamin because the description intrigued me, and because the cover caught my eye. The hero is an eldest brother and the acting chief of police – and isn’t as sure of himself as one would think. Erik Toleffson has a lot of regrets in his life, particularly that in his youth he was a rebellious fuck up and a bully to his younger brothers, up to and including beating the tarnation out of them. Now that he’s back after two tours in Iraq and Kuwait and a few years in a different police force outside of Texas, he’s trying to make amends.
As the book opens, his brothers are friendly towards him, though he’s very quiet and sort of low-grade perpetually ashamed of himself and angry at the damage he did to their relationships. The trouble was, I didn’t see that damage. I didn’t see any strain except from Erik’s own ruminations, and never thought his brothers treated him as if they were wary, afraid, or angry at him.
As I read the first few chapters, I liked the introduction of Erik’s character, and the cast of brothers who made up previous installments in the series. I liked that they all gathered at the same bar, Erik refusing alcohol while his brothers give him grief about the politics that bring him to the temporary position as acting chief. I liked that his sisters in law form a larger circle of family around him, and I was settling in for a quirky small-town contemporary in Texas amid many many Swedish and Germanic named families.
Enter the heroine: Morgan Barrett is the temporary manger of her family vineyard. Her father broke his leg, and so she quit her job in PR and marketing to come manage Cedar Creek, a winery with some fine vintages stocked by local restaurants that seems to enjoy a good measure of success. Oddly, Morgan’s sacrifice is greeted with abrasive hostility from her father’s partner, who is on site managing the harvest, and the partner’s wife, who is openly critical of Morgan’s ideas to increase the marketing for the vineyard and raise the local and national profile of their wines. I didn’t understand why she put up with either of them, except that this was her family’s business, and she was trying her best to learn it.
Both Morgan and Erik are in positions they didn’t anticipate having to manage, but there’s no one else to do the job. Morgan has to step in to help her father, though no one in the vineyard seems to appreciate that she quit her JOB to be there. Erik applied to be interim chief despite knowing that the corrupt mayor had someone else in mind because Erik was certain the department and the police force would fall apart under the mayor’s preferred candidate. He didn’t expect the job, but compared to the other officers, Erik’s MP experience and police experience outside of Texas put him head and shoulders above any of the other applicants. It seems bizarre that his qualifications were even in question, or that anyone would be surprised that he got the job, including Erik himself.
I started the book hoping to read a new type of internal conflict for the hero – guilt that in his youth he’d been a bully to his brothers, and a desire to make up for it as an adult years later. But I didn’t see enough of that conflict outside of the hero’s head. And I didn’t understand why Morgan put up with any of the disrespect she received from her coworkers at the vineyard. The biggest conflicts that I saw were outside of the protagonist’s relationship.
There wasn’t much tension between Erik and Morgan. They notice each other… and then they’re kissing and then Erik can’t stop thinking about her and she can’t stop thinking about him but there wasn’t any real spark between them. It was a lukewarm attraction at best from my perspective, more due to the fact that the two of them are the protagonists in a romance novel than the fact that they have identifiable hornypants for one another.
I was honestly thinking that I’d start skimming the book about the time Erik and Morgan decide to get it on, when I came upon The Line. You read it on Twitter. Here’s the full scene.
Morgan and Erik had stopped at diner to get food – Morgan spends much of the book tired or sleepy or asleep, and she doesn’t eat enough because she’s working all the time. Erik, in just about every encounter, feeds her something, and this encounter is no exception. He orders a tuna salad sandwich for her. Then they leave, find themselves alone, and ahoy there, it’s time for hot sex.
Erik plunged his hands into the soft tangle of her hair, pulling her head back gently, then sank into her mouth again.
For the record, he’s kissing her, but the language is almost sexual. But no, they’re just kissing. Let’s move on. The next line. The Line. The one that bent me in half with screech-laughter.
He tasted desire, heat, and a mild hint of tuna.
Now, look. There are a few rules in romance land, and breath is one of them. No romance character EVER has morning breath. Making out just after you wake up? Sure! In Romancelandia, that’s totally fine. Moreover, if you read my review of Who’s the Daddy? you know that even after throwing up with first trimester morning sickness, the heroine’s breath is immune to any bad smells that might interrupt the kissing. Because there will be kissing after you heave and no one will think this is potentially problematic.
And after a tuna sandwich, one does not have tuna breath. Moreover, the hero wouldn’t think upon the mild hint of tuna because then the READER is thinking about hints of tuna and that absolutely does not get the sexy going. A hint of tuna does not a sex scene make. A hint of tuna is a sign of potentially bad gunch, a possible infection, or many other unsavory possibilities.
And that’s where I had to stop. No matter how hot the sex might become, or how painful the tension or how challenging the small town politics, I knew I’d forever see Morgan as Hint of Tuna and Erik as Kisses With Tuna and I just wouldn’t be able to overcome that one line. I’d already become sort of bored by the plot, waiting for conflict that didn’t escalate, and waiting for characters to develop that didn’t, but I figured I’d keep skimming to see what happened, how the incredibly overdone villainous villainy vanilla villain of a Mayor was trounced once and for all, whether the brothers ever had a conversation about Erik’s HULKSMASH childhood, and maybe even if Morgan slapped the crapola out of her father’s business partner and his wife.
But once I got to Hint of Tuna, I was done.