Red Hook, New Jersey native Duke Crawford is an average, everyday Joe, and a grumpy gus to boot. He loves his sports, sleep, grilling red meat in his backyard and looking at hot women while avoiding committing to them. He spends his days working as a mechanic at a factory and at night all he wants is a little peace away from the noisy confines of his house. It’s a home that contains his four divorced sisters, his best friends Vaughn and River and their small child, Marcy, the latter of whom he dotes on. Unfortunately a girl walks into his favorite sports bar in the middle of a game and changes his life.
Samantha Waverly, children’s book illustrator and workaholic extraordinaire, has made a weekend trip from Manhattan to visit her controlling stepbrother Renner, and deal with the fallout from her recently broken engagement to a colleague of his. Unfortunately, Samantha signed a legal agreement stating that she would take a boardroom position in her brother’s business and would also get the funding she needs for her passion project – a mobile art studio for deprived children – once the marriage took place. On Monday she will meet with her brother to deal with the contract; until then she has fun bouncing about Red Hook.
When Duke approaches her at the bar, they flirt and banter, and are drawn to each other in spite of Duke’s surliness and Sam’s innate goofiness. Things soon get hot and heavy – they have a whirlwind time in Atlantic City seeing River’s brother’s band, and that’s when Duke suggests they get married. It will only be a paper marriage to fulfill Sam’s deal with Renner; enamored with one another physically, Duke and Sam think the union will provide them with sex and friendship, but none of the traditional obligations that they believe sunk the marriages of their respective parents. But a memorable consummation have both warily convinced it’s love. Can they stay strong when Renner gives them an ultimatum?
Sam is a great heroine for the most part; awkward, a corny joke teller, strong and weak at turns, she more than holds her own with Duke. Unfortunately, she’s also kind of a doormat. Cool with getting engaged to her previous fiancé just to make her stepbrother happy, she folds like a chunk of wet cardboard whenever her brother snaps his fingers. The legal agreement with Renner makes very, very little sense in the first place; it may take forever to kickstart her project, but it’s surely better than being legally tied so someone she doesn’t care about. There’s absolutely no reason for the reader to believe that Renner wants Samantha on the board of his multi-million dollar company, especially because he undermines her every decision and micromanages her romances.
And then there’s Duke. Oh Duke. Grouchy, he-man-woman-avoider Duke, who’s such an alpha you nearly expect him to come at Sam swinging a club and wearing a loincloth. Scarred by his parent’s late-life divorce and made wary by the broken marriages of all four sisters, he refuses to hurt a woman the way his mother’s been hurt by his father and so insists on short term relationships only. Yet the same night he meets Sam he makes out with her, and the day after they nearly have sex in his kitchen. Duke is one of those heroes – you know, won’t touch a woman until he spies the heroine and then Bam! If you find alpha types annoying at all, you’ll want to avoid this on principle. Yet compared to other alpha types I have known, Duke isn’t all bad. There’s charm under his gruff stereotypical exterior but it takes a little while to dig under his layers of manly angst to get there and there are moments where his he-man act gets a little too clichéd. At one point, during an interrupted sex scene, this happens:
Duke pinned her back against the wall with a snarl. My woman is leaving me. She hasn’t been tended to. I haven’t done my job.
– and I thought I’d somehow tripped my way into a very long A/B/O fanfiction on Archive of Our Own. The sex is bruising and Duke’s headspace is a very GORian world. Yes, his penis is characterized as a separate figure more than once.
Yet there’s something lovely about the way the couple interacts once Duke manages to cage his inner Tarzan for a moment or two. Sam melts his defenses by sketching him as the hero he refuses to see himself as, and he sees her as worthy of love as well as gorgeous. When he’s watching her draw or she’s watching him with his friend’s kid I like them better than when Duke is, well, like this:
“I don’t like other men telling my Samantha what to do. I don’t like them speaking to her like that. I don’t like them talking to her at all.”
In a continued display of duality, all of Duke’s sisters are formulaic Jersey girl types and yet they’re endearingly filled with attitude and gossip; they know how to shut the man up and often do just when you start rolling your eyes at him. Vaughn gets a couple of funny lines. And then there’s Renner, whose nastiness absolutely does nothing to explain Sam’s almost slavish loyalty. He’s so cardboard-cut-out he might as well be twirling a mustache. Everyone else, due to the novel’s length, gets very little build-up or development. There is barely time for the action dénouement that abruptly gets thrown into the narrative to shove the book’s HEA into place.
So what, besides the hero and heroine’s interactions, provides the novel’s saving grace? It’s the author’s incredibly engaging style; she paints a scene with beautiful elegance. Red Hook feels genuinely like Red Hook, and the characters that do get the proper attention feel (mostly) real and true. The romance itself is a bit rushed due to the short page-count, but it doesn’t really suffer too much in the long run.
Worked Up is a balancing act. If you mix a dash of erotica with a bit of homespun working class everyday human behavior, you end up with a sensual, engaging, well-written if flawed read. But the caveman hero, doormat heroine and clichéd secondary characters tip that balance in the wrong direction. It could have benefitted from another hundred pages, but as it is, it doesn’t really rate a recommendation.