This RITA® Reader Challenge 2014 review was written by PamG. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the Contemporary Romance category.
An accomplished lawyer and driven single mother, Ellen Callahan isn’t looking for any help. She’s doing just fine on her own. So Ellen’s more than a little peeved when her brother, an international pop star, hires a security guard to protect her from a prying press that will stop at nothing to dig up dirt on him. But when the tanned and toned Caleb Clark shows up at her door, Ellen might just have to plead the fifth.
Back home after a deployment in Iraq and looking for work as a civilian, Caleb signs on as Ellen’s bodyguard. After combat in the hot desert sun, this job should be a breeze. But guarding the willful beauty is harder than he imagined—and Caleb can’t resist the temptation to mix business with pleasure. With their desires growing more undeniable by the day, Ellen and Caleb give in to an evening of steamy passion. But will they ever be able to share more than just a one-night stand?
And here's PamG's review:
Ruthie Knox is the one of the first contemporary romance authors that I ever read, and she is the primary reason that I continue to read the occasional contemporary. Generally I prefer being a tourist in the exotic worlds of historical, speculative, or paranormal fiction, but I immediately fell for Knox’s novels. She writes about a familiar ordinary world populated with extraordinary characters. They are not extraordinary in the sense of unusual, but rather, because the technique by which the author reveals the intimate detail of their inner lives makes them stand out from the usual run of fictional characters. From her clever pen, characters come into focus–individual, multi-dimensional and totally engaging. Reading Along Came Trouble made me a tourist in the world of human emotion, and made the ordinary aspects of life in Camelot, Ohio something as tender and unique as real life, well lived.
Although Along Came Trouble is written from alternating points of view, the viewpoint that subtly dominates is Ellen’s. The title refers mostly to her attitude towards Caleb, the security specialist hired by her rock star brother to protect her privacy. Ellen perceives Caleb as an intruder and a disrupter of her carefully constructed life. The scenario is not terribly original: single mom coming out of a bad marriage is unwillingly attracted to strong protective male. It is the details that make this trope worth revisiting. When Ellen thinks about Caleb’s physical attractions, the result is the obligatory catalog of manly prettiness, until she mentions his “happy brown eyes.” A second mention of his happy eyes suggests that there is more to this guy than a target for her lust. Nor is Ellen's lust a purely physical response. Knox uses touches like these to undermine potential stereotypes. Abs and pecs, shoulders and butt, cheekbone and chin: we gots ‘em. But the adjective for his eyes is happy, not a usual element of sexy melodrama
Both Ellen and Caleb have reasons that they can’t be together and both sustain wounds from their past lives. Ellen’s past is directly linked to the reasons she rejects the notion of a committed relationship. Ellen has had to remake her life after parting from a husband who systematically undermined her confidence and self-worth. She has had to battle to rebuild her independence and control her life. Caleb’s issues are centered on the conflict between his job and his personal inclinations and are far less ingrained than Ellen’s. The importance of Caleb’s job is rooted in his need to care for his family. Caleb is a nurturer in a huge way, and his sense of worth is inseparable from his ability to support his loved ones both emotionally and financially. These qualities along with those happy eyes make Caleb a hugely appealing and sometimes aggravating character. Caleb recognizes that a relationship with a client could be a conflict of interest, but he never dismisses his attraction as mere lust. From the beginning, Caleb’s nurturing nature is fundamental to his attraction to Ellen.
He needed Ellen to know that he wasn't like Richard or Levi or any other variety of schmuck. And as ridiculous as it was, that was why he was out here. Not to fulfill the threat he'd made earlier, but to tell her with his body, with his presence, that he was a solid bet. That he wasn't going anywhere. That he respected her.
Ironically, although Ellen has the stronger resistance to a relationship, she is the initiator of their physical interaction. And that physical interaction is smokin’. Ruthie Knox has a gift for writing intimate scenes that are integrated into her character building. She doesn’t use dialogue to make a sexual encounter unique; rather, she makes the sex a part of the conversation. Conversation is fundamental to character and plot development in this novel, and it works magnificently to help define these characters and establish the intriguing details of the story. Conversation, not drama, is the favored tool for resolving conflict. Dialogue is also the source of the humor that is integral to the story. The humor is the sort that generates smiles rather than guffaws, but it brings light and warmth to the story. In the midst of an extended bout of love-making, the conversation contains the following exchange.
“You're so soft,” he murmured. “Soft and warm and welcoming. The perfect woman.”
“You're thinking of kittens,” she said.
Later on, he tells her:
“Yep. What you need is to make some new memories. I'll assist you.” He lowered his mouth to the base of her throat and began kissing his way downward.
“What about my old memories?”
“They might not be recoverable. But if there were no good orgasms in there, I figure it's not much of a loss.”
Like those “happy brown eyes,” passages like these caught me by surprise and made me grin a lot. The novel gets pretty explicit about the ways in which physical contact becomes a part of the conversation, expressing feelings that go much deeper than mere lust.
Caleb cradled the back of her head in his free hand and pulled her closer to deepen the kiss, transforming it from her apology into his own affirmation with the sweep of his tongue into her mouth. She sank into his lap, and he kissed her forever, deep and long. They apologized and confessed, forgave and made promises, all without saying a word.
The novel’s secondary characters are as well defined as Ellen and Caleb. While they may play a smaller role, each character is a detailed portrait in miniature—sometimes literally. Ellen’s toddler, Henry, manages to rise above plot moppet status, though he is sometimes a bit too adorable. Jamie and Carly, Ellen’s brother and her pregnant neighbor, provide a romantic subplot that complements the main relationship, while a cast ranging from Ellen’s believably irresponsible ex to Caleb’s extended family supply engrossing background and a deeper understanding of what makes this relationship worth struggling for. I particularly loved Caleb’s interactions with his parents. His father is recovering from a stroke, and Caleb struggles with the changing dynamic between parent and child. His mother on the other hand has always been emotionally inaccessible, but her behavior is rooted in culture and personality. Her portrayal alone justifies the price of admission, as she embodies the common yet unique clash between parent and child who love without always understanding one another.
One of the best things about this novel is the way it deals with profound and painful issues without letting the bones of the research show. The dynamics of Ellen’s bad marriage are not clinical; nor are Caleb’s nightmares flagged “PTSD here!” or his problems with his parents labeled like some sort of pathology. No info-dumping here, folks! You just get what you need to better empathize with these delightfully non-whiny characters, but each issue rings true in a manner that testifies to the research underpinning the story. Nor does true love solve everything or excuse every flaw. These people acknowledge imperfection, take responsibility for their mistakes, and face the future with hope. Ellen, who initially sees Caleb as a disruption of her carefully constructed independence and the very embodiment of trouble, movingly sums up her own character growth.
Interdependence required these terrifying acts of faith. She kept reminding herself to practice trust, to believe that Caleb would deserve it. He hadn't let her down yet, and the longer they were together, the more deeply she believed that he never would. That no matter what missteps either of them made, he'd never fracture her trust irrevocably.
At this point, I need to point out that although I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, there are a few small irritants that resulted in the B+ grade. First of all, I am simply not a huge lover of the small town contemporary, particularly if the sense of place is not really strong. Setting is important to me; maybe it's the whole tourist thing. I didn’t feel that the town of Camelot was relevant to the story. The novel could have been set in my Connecticut hometown with virtually no changes. I think this may be a stylistic thing. Dialogue and character development are major strengths of the novel. However, the writing style, while conveying the main characters' points of view very authentically, tends to be choppy and use a lot of sentence fragments and short paragraphs. The author has great control and uses language precisely. I admire that, but it's never going to be my favorite style of writing.
I also was a little disappointed with the resolution of Ellen’s independence issues. Not to go all spoilery, but I felt that her valid reasons for not pursuing a cozier relationship with Caleb deserved a more gradual reversal. Her change of heart struck me as a little too quick and perhaps a tad too glib. While the problem is not major, it did detract a little from my satisfaction with the ending.
Overall, I would highly recommend Along Came Trouble to anyone looking for a contemporary romance with likeable, realistic characters who actually talk to each other like intelligent adults and who grow into a mature committed relationship. The HEA doesn't imply perfection, and it is wonderfully comforting to think that perfection is not a prerequisite for happiness.