There are probably more than three things to like about this story, but here are my top three because if I went for more than three, this entry about be 8000 words long. Your eyes would roll back into your head. You'd start writing TL;DR on the monitor screen with a Sharpie. We can't have that.
Plot summary ahoy! (I have to remind myself to write these – isn't that sad? It's just embarrassing.)
Sidney's in a coffee shop on a first date with a dude she met through her online dating profile, and Vaughn, who you might remember from previous James books, is watching this dude strike out miserably:
Well-trained in the art of reading the subtle cues of body language, FBI Special Agent Vaughn Roberts was quite certain this date was going down in flames.
On the upside, it wasn’t his date that was crashing and burning. Rather, the unfortunate rendezvous was between the attractive auburn-haired woman who’d caught his eye when she’d walked into the coffee shop twenty minutes ago and some dude in a striped banker shirt who apparently was vying for the Guinness record for World’s Longest Story Ever.
Date dude is going on and on about himself, laughing at his own jokes, and Sidney (whom Vaughn doesn't know) is hiding her yawn in her coffee. At the end, she stands to leave, and declines another date with dude – which makes Vaughn think that he's got a shot to pick her up.
Ah, right. Sidney knew exactly what was happening here. This guy had seen her on her failed date, had obviously deduced that she was single, and now thought she was easy pickings.
“I’m not giving you my name,” she said.
“All right, then. ‘Ms. Doe,’ it is,” he said, undeterred. “Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself, Ms. Doe?”
She leveled him with her best “Scram, buddy” gaze, perfected after eight years of living in New York. “So we’re going with the good-cop pickup routine now? How original.”
His tone turned wicked. “I can easily switch to the bad-cop routine, if you like.”
Sidney fought back a blush at the innuendo. “I’m betting those kinds of comments normally work really well for you, don’t they?”
“The question is, are they working for you?”
“Not at all.”
Sidney turns Vaughn down (I won't spoil that scene but oh, her answer when he asks her to explain what she means by “his type” is epic) and they leave.
They meet again a few minutes later when they arrive to meet their respective siblings for dinner, find out that said siblings are getting married after a short courtship, and that Vaughn and Sidney are their best man and maid of honor.
So, back to my list.
Thing the First:
I love the heroine, Sidney, because she is strong, she is confident, and she is competent, and she knows all those things about herself. Moreover, even though she went through a humiliating breakup that crumpled her a bit, she's determined to start over, and find someone right for her. And she never entertains the idea that she's doing it wrong, or that she shouldn't be openly pursuing the possibility of a long term relationship.
We talk a lot about strong heroines, women who are unique and complex. James' heroines are some of my favorites. Here are my reasons why (yes, there is a sublist. I'm trying to organize the squee here and it have to fall in line or there will be a big mess.)
a. They choose to work in the professions they are in and they like their jobs. There's no half hearted devotion to a job that takes a backseat when the hero shows up. They like what they do and more importantly they choose what they do.
b. Because of that, they are hella competent. They know what they're doing. There may be some comedic moments in the story, and there may be embarrassing or tense situations, but they are not always at the expense of the heroine. It's not always a pratfall that makes her look inept.
c. They are so freaking confident. If, like much theory insists, readers interact with the heroines as placeholders and symbiotic stand ins (I don't – but bear with me here) these are women I'd happily learn from if I took their places for 5 minutes.
Sidney is a terrific example of a confident, competent person in a very high-level career who enjoys what she does. She's an investment banker who moved to Chicago from New York to take a position in a private equity firm, and when she explains that to someone, there's interest and a sense of happiness in how she says it, and how she describes her job. There are a few scenes of her at work where she's leading a team of people, presenting the options for investment and discussing why she thinks the options she's highlighted are the best for further research. Her job is grounded in a financial reality – and a professional reality. Sidney ruled. (Moreover, when she's interviewing a potential CEO, the potential candidate is also female – which I LOVED).
This is probably my favorite scene. This scene is one of the biggest reasons I really liked this book. Vaughn is in her home eating bridal shower leftovers with her:
“So how’s life in private equity treating you these days?” He reached over to the pitcher of orange punch that she’d set out on the counter and poured a glass for her, and then one for himself.
“Good.” She smiled proudly. “In fact, the investment committee at my firm just approved of the first deal I put together.”
Vaughn reached for his glass. “How big a fund are we talking about here?” He took a sip of the orange punch and grimaced. “What is that?”
“That is a virgin mimosa, and we’re talking about a four-billion-dollar fund.”
He was genuinely impressed, hearing that. “Look at you, Ms. Thing. That’s a lot of money you’re in charge of there.”
“This is true.”
“Are you nervous?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“All those people counting on you to deliver, and you’re telling me you’re not the slightest bit anxious?” Spotting a dry bar she’d set up on the built-in butler’s pantry that joined the kitchen to the dining room, he walked over and checked out the selection of liquor.
She turned on the barstool, facing him as he strode across the room. “That’s what I’m telling you.”
“Come on.” He grabbed a bottle and headed back into the kitchen.
“No, really. I do all my due diligence before committing to an investment, I evaluate the pros and cons, and then I spend weeks thinking about the ways we can develop and grow a company beyond what others might see. But once I’ve done my research and I’ve made up my mind, I’m all in.”
Let me highlight my favorite part:
“Are you nervous?”
She shook her head. “No.”
Sidney is not nervous. She's not scared about being in charge. She's not frightened of her responsibilities. She may have moments of doubt but she addresses them directly with research and investigation. Her confidence is so kickass I had to sit back and think, “Damn girl. That's awesome.”
She's not a superhero, and she's not impervious. But professionally, she has few doubts about herself and that is bad ass. Hot damn did I admire Sidney. Her lack of doubt is not abnormal, and her competence is very very powerful.
(And, y'all, there is all kinds of competence porn in this book, too.)
I also like the rest of the scene:
“Ah, yes. You and your research.” Vaughn opened her refrigerator and found what he was looking for—tonic water.
“Yep, me and my research. Hey, don’t knock the system—it works. If you do your homework up front, there’s less risk of encountering any unexpected surprises down the road.”
“Sounds like your approach to men.”
“It’s a sound theory. I see no reason why it shouldn’t apply to men, too.”
Sidney's approach to her professional life – research, due diligence, commitment – is being applied deliberately to her personal life. She's combined a few different articles on identifying men who are serious about commitment into a 34 point checklist – which she uses, because the area in which she does have doubts is her personal life. Her ex had been cheating on her with his personal trainer, and she'd called off their wedding 2 weeks before the big day. Everyone in her field knew both of them, so it was workplace gossip and terribly embarrassing for her as well as emotionally painful. And as she says, it left her doubting herself, her instincts, and her ability to tell whether people are telling the truth (ironically, something Vaughn is rather good at).
So she addresses her mistake by creating a list of traits she's looking for in her next boyfriend, because she does want to get married. Her family life was pretty crappy with the exception of her relationship with her sister (which is another lovely part of this book – she is friends with her sister, not rivals or passive aggressive frenemies). Sidney wants to create her own family with someone who is as into the idea and as into her. She's all in, and she's looking for someone who is, too. And she's looking, as she says in the opening scenes, for someone who is a good investment emotionally.
Her online dating profile doesn't pull up many likely candidates, and her B.S. meter, self doubt aside, is very strong. And her list isn't off the mark either, especially after Vaughn helps her translate some of the things potential dates say to her. She approaches her personal life the way she approaches financial investments and acquisitions: research and analysis to determine whether they're worth her investment of time or money or energy or commitment (or all four). She wants to be as confident about her belief in her relationships as she is in her belief in her professional competence.
Vaughn is the player who meets his match. He also meets most of her requirements…except for the commitment one, which is also an interesting conflict. Vaughn is up front about the fact that he doesn't do commitment, he isn't interested in a long term relationship, and as much as Sidney bugs him, he knows he's seriously attracted to her. And he knows that attraction is mutual, even though Sidney is looking for that long term commitment he avoids.
This is a difficult thing to describe, but I love that the conflict is real, and the characters don't behave in unrealistic ways to further the plot, and the plot doesn't force the characters to do doofy things, either. Vaughn, an FBI field agent (who does some seriously cool undercover work in the course of this story), has no reason to really interact with Sidney, except that now, he's the best man for his brother, who is marrying Sidney's sister – and Sidney's the maid of honor. Forced proximity by wedding planning.
The conflicts are layered, but not obviously so. Sidney wants commitment. She wants to trust the person she's with, too. Vaughn is by profession and by character a pretty up-front person. He doesn't want to lead people on when he gets involved, and though Sidney trusts him, she knows he's not the right person for her for that reason. Even the Black Moment is pretty predictable and not surprising, but it worked for me. The strength of this book lies in the characters, who I could go on and on about for another few thousand words but I'll stop now.
Thing the Second that I like (this one is short):
2. Chicago is like a character. Wanna visit? You can read this book. (I love that).
Thing the Third that I like (and this is character stuff again, sorry):
3. There's nothing wrong with Sidney and Vaughn. They don't need to be fixed. They're not broken. Sidney was hurt and humiliated by her ex-fiance, but she knows she didn't do anything wrong, except trust someone who she shouldn't have trusted. Even then, that's not her fault. She's not crushed into tiny hopeless shards so the hero can put her together again. She's in charge of herself and she knows what she wants.
Vaughn isn't broken, either. He's a player and he likes to date many people – and he's not terribly interested in long term anything with Sidney, even though he's interested in her plenty. And it's not even Vaughn who notices his shift in attention from women to a single person.
Instead of book-length repair, they grow and subtly change and readjust their ideas about who/what they want. They learn.
Moreover, they learn about each other naturally. Recently, especially in contemporary erotic romance, there have been a number of heroes (a large number) who know intrinsically what the heroine needs. Their omniscient knowledge of what the heroine needs (probably his cock, very likely submission, and possibly also some other players to be named later). It can be erotic and fascinating to see two characters in a situation where the hero knows instinctively what the heroine desires – especially if she hasn't identified it out loud or to herself.
In this book there's no omniscient dude who knows all the magic pathways of the heroine's libido. Vaughn is into her, and he respects that she's looking for long-term and he's not, so he doesn't mislead her for his own gain. (He does annoy her, on purpose, sometimes, but she does it right back).
Sidney is aware she's attracted to Vaughn. She's also aware that while he meets so many of the items on her list, he does not meet the most important one: a desire for a long-term relationship. And she's unapologetic about that, too. (Have I mentioned that I love that about her?) But neither of them are broken, fixed by the other. They grow just enough that they move from being attracted to one another to complementing each other even more.
The only thing I didn't love was the ending – it was too abrupt for me. I didn't need an epilogue with a wedding or anything. I just wanted a little bit more, a few more moments of Vaughn and Sidney together and solid.
I didn't have trouble believing that they would be happy together. Vaughn's change of heart might seem quick in terms of his realizations about Sidney, but Vaughn is not a stupid man at all, and very aware of himself. He brushes off weird feelings, and he questions the differences in himself a bit once he's spent a lot of time with Sidney, so when the big realization and change of heart arrive, it's predictable. That didn't bother me at all. But because the arrival at the happy ending came so quickly, I wanted more of them together. The last page of the book seemed too abrupt to me.
Otherwise, to quote RedHeadedGirl, SQUEE CLEANUP, AISLE 3. WE NEED A MOP AND A BUCKET TO AISLE 3 FOR SQUEE CLEANUP.
I loved that Sidney didn't apologize for who she was and what she wanted, that she was confident and sure of her own abilities. I loved that Vaughn liked that about her, even though he knew he didn't want long term (or he thought he didn't – that never works out well for romance heroes). Vaughn's plenty good, but Sidney will easily be one of my top favorite heroines for a long while.
“Are you nervous.”
I freaking love that scene.