The things that Elle Kennedy does well – internal conflict, understandable emotion, logical attraction, interesting characters – are terrific in this book. Unfortunately for me, and I place the blame for this on myself and not anyone else, I still struggle to suspend disbelief when reading erotic romance, for a few reasons I'll explain in a moment. I'm going to go into some detail about the aspects of this book and some aspects about erotic romance that I struggle with, but first and most importantly, I really, really enjoyed this story, and I think Kennedy is a talented writer who can invent characters I care about.
Mia is a landscaper/gardener who is raising her younger brother after their mom dropped him off for two weeks and never came back. Mia is ten years older than her brother, and to keep up with the food and the shelter needs, she works as a landscaper, taking on as much work as she physically can. Her brother is a varsity starting quarterback for the high school football team, plus he's a dude, and he's 16, so he eats a lot. They have a pretty good relationship, and are getting along well when the hero, Jackson, enters their lives. I really liked their relationship, and that it had normal conflict and moments of affection.
Jackson is one of a team of Navy SEALs (of course he is!) (no, really, the whole series is set among a SEAL team) (of course it is!) who in previous books have all been paired off with women (or in one case, a woman and a dude). Jackson is the last one left.
Instead of crowing about his single status and giving the other guys shit about how they're all tied down and tempting fate by saying he'll never fall prey to love like they did, he acknowledges to himself that he feels left out and wishes he had someone to be with as well.
CUE THE LIGHTS. IT'S TIME, DUDE!
Jackson bumps into Mia while she's finishing a landscaping job next door to one of Jackson's teammates. Jackson arranges for her to work on their yard as a belated wedding gift so that he can ask Mia out. I really, really liked that Mia called him on the stalker-y ness of that arrangement, and how she wasn't entirely sure she wanted to go near someone who'd manipulate her professionally like that, but she gives him a chance. And she meets him at the restaurant instead of having him pick her up at her home. There's a long line of little tiny moments like that which indicated the strength of Mia's determination to do the right thing, and take care of herself and her brother.
Their date is a great success from Mia's perspective, and Jackson's as well. Mia likes Jackson, Jackson likes Mia, and they go from acquaintances to talking frankly about sex before their entrees even arrive. What, like you don't confess all your sexual hangups on the first date over appetizers? It's not erotic romance if you don't discuss peen piercings and orgasms on the first date, within the first half hour, eh?
Later, Jackson decides to give Mia a kiss in the parking lot, which escalates quickly to his getting her off so rapidly she had no idea what had happened, and couldn't believe her body responded the way it did.
And this is where I confess that I think something is wrong with me where erotic romance is concerned. There are a few things I Do Not Get. This is one of them.
How is it that in so many erotic romances, including this one, the heroine's body is some sort of magical instrument that the hero instinctively knows how to play, and play well? Moreover, how is it that the heroine's sexual response is sometimes something that is out of her control, and completely apart from her own motivations? I see this in a lot of erotic stories, and I Do Not Get It: She doesn't like him… but her panties are trying to hold back class five white water rapids of arousal whenever he's near! She hates him but her body responds to his touch! Really?
In this case, Mia does not hate Jackson at all. And he's not disrespectful to her or callous or even condescending about her sexual concerns about her own libido, which they discussed frankly on their first date because… well, because they did.
But while Mia wants to be cautious and careful emotionally with Jackson, her body responds so quickly, it's like there are two votes for each woman, and if her head says Well…. and her body says HELL YEAH, it's game on, romance hero. Either the hero can instinctively read her sexual response with greater accuracy than she can, or his ample silo of experience allows him to understand her arousal and her specific sexual desires than she does, but the result is the same.
For example, from this book:
This woman liked to be dominated. She might not know it, not consciously anyway, but her body's responses to his commanding nature told him everything he needed to know.
Is this a recasting of sexual initiation, where the heroine couldn't find her own clitoris with a flashlight and a map but the hero will show her the way to perfect passion on the first try? Only now, instead of initiation into sex, it's initiation into being dominated? He can instinctively sense that she wants to be dominated, and it's an unconscious thing that she's not aware of, but he's definitely right?
I am not buying it.
I probably think too much about this, and it's not even as if it's a huge part of this particular book, though there are two moments that stick in my mind as I try to explain my mixed feelings (I'll post the other in a bit). Mia's body and brain line up pretty quickly to admitting they both desire Jackson, but the separation of body/sexual response from mental/emotional response confuses me. And the moments of separation of sexual attraction into mind vs. body detracts from the part I loved loved loved, which was that initially, Mia's reason for not wanting to get involved was that she simply did not have time, energy, or space in her life for a relationship with anyone. And I liked that Jackson's response was, basically, I'll take any time you're willing to share because I really like you. (Now that, beg your pardon, is seriously freaking hot.)
So Mia and Jackson are sort of seeing each other, but mostly for sex, because Jackson gives Mia all the best orgasms, and Jackson likes being his kinky, dominant self with her. In addition to the conflict of Mia having time in her life, what also pushed me past my 0_o? confusion about the erotic romance elements was the honest and realistic conflicts each character faced, both in their own lives, and in what they were trying to create together. The internal conflict for Mia and Jackson was what connected me to them, and Kennedy is pretty skilled at taking otherwise ordinary circumstances and making them seem like real and sizable problems. They aren't small problems inflated into monster size for the sake of the plot, and they're not contrived problems that drop in when there's too many pages between “right now” and “The End.”
Mia is raising her brother by herself, and started parenthood when her brother was 14. Now he's 16, and she's 26, and they're both working really hard to make their lives as comfortable as possible. Jackson has family problems as well, which are distant given that his family is in Texas and they're in San Diego, but those problems still press on him uncomfortably at regular intervals, especially when he sees the relationship Mia works so hard to have with her brother.
Mia is the one who wants nothing permanent. Mia doesn't trust people easily, and she doesn't trust herself to become emotionally connected to anyone, mostly because her mother is a deplorable person not deserving of the title. She's had exactly zero good examples of stable and secure relationships except for the one she's created for her brother, and is fearful of being hurt by someone she trusted. At one point, Jackson starts ruminating on how he wants Mia to be a real and defined part of his life, not just a fling, and starts strategizing how he can make that happen – though he only lets her into his life to a point. Later in the story, Mia's brother notices that Jackson has started growing a beard. He's growing the beard because of the possibility of deployment to the Middle East, but doesn't really explain what that means, how long it might be, what would happen for Mia if he does leave suddenly – he just assures her she doesn't have to worry because deployment probably won't happen. Dude. iIf you want a serious grown-up relationship, part of that is explaining to the people you care about — both of them — what your job means and how it might affect them. I don't expect Jackson to give up military secrets, but an explanation other than, “I don't think you have to worry,” wasn't enough.
SEAL secrets aside, the conflicts large and small that influence and interfere with Jackson and Mia's relationship were the best part of this story. It can be difficult to take ordinary life problems and make them real enough in a story that they sustain narrative tension while allowing the characters to change and grow. There are mad skills up in here.
But this brings me to the other thing that I struggled with in this book and Do Not Get (and again, I'm laying the blame here solely and entirely on myself):
Erotic romance language and I are clearly not meant to be. The ways in which the hero and heroine's attraction to one another were explained and developed were familiar, and still baffling.
For example, while Jackson says perfectly charming and normal human things while he's talking to Mia, the narration of what I presume are his thoughts – or close to them – is very different:
Her chest heaved as she released another exasperated sigh, drawing his gaze to her breasts. They were smaller than he usually liked, just a gentle swell of cleavage peeking out of the bodice of her dress, but something about those perky little mounds made his mouth water.
Lord, he wanted to fuck her. Getting to know her better had been the number one item on his agenda, but now that was joined by a hefty dose of desire. He wanted her naked.
Perky little mounds? Mouth water? That is a way people think? Or is that the way erotic romance heroes think?
He traced the swell of each mound with his finger, then undid the front clasp and exposed her to his gaze. Her breasts were indeed small, but they were damn perky, with pearly-pink nipples that made his mouth water.
Ok, time out. Are they breasts or are they a platter of hot wings?
Do people really think like this? Is this a thing that people do?
Then there's the moment when Jackson explains that he likes to be in control when having sex, that he likes to dominate, direct and control the action, and he's plenty kinky.
Except, instead of having a serious conversation about this, it's while the sexytimes are going down – which I really struggle with because, as I learned, the person who is doing the dominating really should not be the only source of information about what should and should not happen. It's not like Jackson breaks out the ropes without a safe word in place, but the degree of command and expectation that arose (hur) in the sex scenes was irritating because there was no discussion beforehand:
“Are you sure about that, sugar? Because once we get on this ride, I won't let you get off.” He flashed a roguish grin. “Well, you will get off. but what I'm sayin' is, we will see this through 'til the end.”
Mia swallowed. “What exactly do you plan on doing to me?”
“Everything,” he said simply. “And you're gonna let me. You're gonna give me full control. When we're naked and alone, I call the shots.”
Another gulp. “And if I don't like something?”
“Then I stop.” The sensual smile returned to his lips. “But I guarantee you'll like it all. You'll beg for more every time.”
In this scene, Jackson recognizes Mia's hesitation, and proposes that they take it slow, that he'll “do a little warm up” which consists of his telling her “You're gonna blow me,” which Mia agrees to and finds that she likes, especially the commanding part:
She couldn't believe she was letting him order her around like this.
She couldn't believe it was turning her on.
It's not that I didn't think Mia consented. I absolutely think she did, that she was willing to do what Jackson was saying, and that she could have said no or stopped. But what I didn't like was that he was going to tell her what to do without discussing things in more detail first. His sexual knowledge is superior to hers, and of course his knowledge of what she wants and needs sexually is superior to hers as well – and the “I know your body and I know what you want better than you do….” Yeah, doesn't work for me.
ALSO: Can we stop with “blacking out the orgasm was so good” as a sexual device? If she's blacked out and he's banging her, that is NOT OK.
Mia must have blacked out. She didn't remember climaxing, wasn't sure how she got on her back, didn't know how Jackson's cock had wound up inside her, but her limp muscles and the unbearable pleasure pricking her flesh told her she'd come, and come hard.
Nope nope nope. Nope.
Also, also, do Navy SEALs sit around and talk about how much sex they're having with their wives? Their sex lives were almost public information within the group, and dude, I get that these people will save your life a billion times before you're dead but the degree to which they talk about the sex they're getting was bizarre to me:
“Hey, just cuz my wife is pregnant doesn't mean we don't have wild and crazy sex every night. With that said…” He flashed a smug grin, his blue eyes gleaming…. “It's time for me to go home and do some of that. “
Cash, Seth and Ryan followed suit, polishing off their beers in a rush.
“Yeah, I'm outtie, too,” Seth announced. “My wife is a million times more interesting than you dumbasses. Besides, she lost a bet this morning so she owes me a BJ.”
The foursome bumped fists with everyone and said their goodbyes….
I'm not saying people should never talk about sex – that's not something I would say, ever. My problem is the way in which their sex lives were publicly shared and discussed. I get that there is a very deep (hur) and instinctive level of trust between the men in this series – there has to be, given what they do. But the way in which the female characters are introduced and then discussed made it seem that, after they had their happy ending as heroines, their job as former heroines fell solely within the context of sexxytimes and blow jobs. That was their role, and the frequency thereof was going to be not just locker room talk, but front porch with a beer with all the guys talk. And in the night club talk. It's like the distant and terrible cousin of the Bechdel Test: Does the erotic romance feature two or more former or present heroes discussing their relationships in terms of how much sex they're getting, and/or how good it is?
I realize I sound like a very pinch-faced whiner right now, and I want to be clear that it's not the sex that's the problem. It's the way the sexuality is discussed (“my wife owes me a BJ“) and the language with which increasing sexual attraction is explained (“pert mouthwatering mounds“). To me, it seems like a huge and sudden departure from the way people normally talk. Maybe I'm missing out and there's some secret society of sexually frank and excellently endowed Navy SEALs, or maybe this is the way erotic romance characters talk, but I loved the realism of the characters in this story SO MUCH. Yherefore, I kept being yanked out of the story by the And Now We Talk About the Sexy Perky Mouth Watering Peen Piercing Blow Job dialogue.
I get that part of the goal in erotic romance is to highlight and intensify the sexuality of the story, because to be successful erotic romance, the story can't really hold together without the sexuality. That's certainly true of this book: without the sexuality, especially Jackson's sexuality, most of the major plot points and pieces of backstory wouldn't hold together at all (I can't give away too much without spoiling things, sorry). I think in my case, I need to adjust my expectations that in erotic romance, the characters will occasionally think and speak in Erotic Romance Language.
As for this particular book, which I enjoyed and which also enabled me to identify and articulate what pieces of erotic romance are bothersome for me as a reader, I liked the story, and I loved the characters and the conflict. The ending arrives somewhat too easily, and the resolution of all the fallout of the dark moment came very quickly when compared to the slow development of the relationships in the beginning of the story, but despite that (and the Erotic Romance Dialogue bits), I would definitely recommend this book to erotic romance and contemporary spicy romance fans. My problems with it are my problems, not problems with the book itself.