Typically historicals and romantic suspense are my thing—straight contemporaries, not so much. I was treading with caution when I read So Tough to Tame, but it stood up and slapped in the face with a big rainbow of reading joy and squee. It’s a sexy, funny, emotional romp, and it makes me say things like “sexy, funny, emotional romp,” like I’m writing a blurb for a goddamned Julia Roberts movie. It’s also really smart, and, without being preachy or obvious, makes the reader ponder gender inequality in a way I haven’t seen in romance before.
Our hero is Walker Pearce, a down on his luck cowboy. Walker was fired from his last job, supposedly for botching paperwork, but more likely for making out with the boss’s wife. Despite being a sexy, bearded cowboy (I love it when heroes have facial and/or chest hair—all the denuded heroes make me think of boy band members, yech), Walker has some self-esteem issues.
1. He’s beating himself up for being dumb enough to start something with a married woman.
2. He’s dyslexic and feels like he’ll never be able to do more than manual labor.
He’s in the midst of a funk when he finds out he has a new neighbor, Charlie Allington, his former tutor from high school. The Charlie that sashays in is not the quiet, good girl he remembers. She’s all tight jeans, high heels and a sassy mouth.
Charlie has returned home with her own car load of baggage. She’s come back ostensibly to work security for the new Meridian Resort that’s opening outside of town. In reality, her options are pretty limited. She’s worked hotel security before—in Vegas and Tahoe, much nicer venues—but she was implicated in an embezzlement scheme with her last boss. Charlie is not a criminal, but she did make mistakes. She was sleeping with her boss, unaware that he was married and engaged in illegal activity. Now she’s broke (having paid for a top notch defense attorney) and her reputation is horribly tarnished. She believes the only reason she got the job at the Meridian is because the owner is her high school friend's, Dawn’s, husband.
So both Charlie and Walker start out the novel licking their wounds. They quickly move on to licking other things (sorry, I couldn’t resist). At first Dawn and Charlie’s other friends are trying to salvage her reputation by making her a ‘good girl’ again. Apparently this means wearing ballet flats, a cardigan, and living at the hotel where you work so everyone is all up in your bidnezz. Dawn is also über paranoid that Charlie is going to make a pass at her husband, Keith. Nice friend, right?
Charlie makes a break for freedom and instead of staying at the free accommodations at the resort, rents a room at the Stud Farm where Walker lives. She and Walker start with friendly drinks at the bar next door, and before you know, it’s all sexy bearded cowboy smexytimes.
Charlie had a crush on Walker all through high school, but he was the hot, popular guy and she was kind of a shy nerd. Now she pursues him, happy to engage in some enthusiastic, healthy sex without strings attached. Charlie is aware she has a reputation for being a fallen woman, but she’s not about to change her attitudes regarding sex just because other people are shitty and judge her:
She wanted to sit [Dawn] down and explain to her that it was the twenty-first century and women could enjoy their sex lives just as much as men. They could be single and have sex and make money and still be nice, fulfilled, genuine people. But those crazy eyes were not open to seeing sexual equality for women. Not right now. Not in the face of Charlie Allington, husband hunter.
I love that Charlie pursues Walker. The trope where the former nerd or good girl comes back to town and finds her high school crush and he falls for her because now she’s all grown up and owns her shit is one of my big catnips.
Walker is a little intimidated by Charlie. Oblivious, he always assumed she was too good for him. She was the smart girl with all the potential, and he was the dumb dyslexic kid.
Charlie keeps their relationship casual, assuming that’s what Walker wants. He does have a reputation as a lady killer. Walker, for his part, assumes that Charlie looks at him as someone for a good time only, not someone she could ever love.
There was a part in the book that just crushed my heart. Charlie and Walker have just had volcanically hot sex. He invites her to stay the night and she agrees:
He hadn’t realized he’d been tense about her answer until he heard it. When she agreed, he felt…surprised. Grateful. He would have been less shocked if she’d said, Naw, you know this isn’t like that, Walker. You’re not the kind of guy a girl cuddles with afterward.
I thought that Dahl dealt really well with Walker’s dyslexia. Dyslexia is something that’s close to my heart. I spent a lot of time tutoring college students who had it, and my husband is dyslexic. Walker’s attitude about his own intelligence and worth mesh with what I’ve seen in students who are struggling.
As the book progresses Walker and Charlie start to fall in love—of course, but they’re both in denial about it, both afraid of being hurt. Charlie knows why Walker was fired from his last job. She encourages him to go for a job at a place called the Ability Ranch working with disabled children. Walker knows he can’t get the job there because of his dyslexia, but he’s too ashamed to tell Charlie.
And Charlie is too embarrassed by the whole affair and embezzlement fiasco to tell her Walker about it. Then she starts noticing strange things at work—skips in security tapes, Keith and Dawn both acting weird, and Charlie’s past catches up with her fast. When Walker finds out about what happened to her from another source, things implode.
So much of this book was about healing old wounds and betrayals so love and trust can find a way in. It is also, subtly, about the huge disparity in how we treat men and women with regards to their sexuality.
Walker fooled around with a woman he knew was married, and the community doesn’t shun him for it. They look at his with sort of affectionate exasperation because that woman was his boss’s wife and you don’t shit where you sleep, as one character puts it. The community, specifically her former friends and her brother, treat Charlie like she’s wearing a scarlet letter. She slept with a married man (even though she didn’t know he was married) which makes her a voracious succubus out to get the pants off every married dude in town.
Walker made a bad choice. Charlie is a bad person. Something to chew on, eh?
The other reason I loved this book was Rayleen, a great secondary character. She’s a tough old bird, the owner of the Stud Farm, and she gleefully sexually harasses her cowboy tenants. She arrives to a party at Charlie’s apartment and announces:
“Well, you could start by bringing fewer chickens around this place and a lot more cocks. Where’s all the man meat at this party?”
Rayleen gets her own romance in this book, and it’s delightful.
So Tough to Tame was a delicious, funny, warm-hearted read. My birthday is next month and I printed off Dahl’s backlist, handed it to my husband, and said “BUY ME ALL THE THINGS!” Obviously I highly recommend this book. It’s like a comfort read with a dose of sass and smarts; it’s just about perfect.