Sophie Jordan adds a spicy, character-driven chapter to her Devil’s Rock series with Beautiful Lawman, the story of a stripper from the wrong side of the tracks and the law abiding hero determined to protect her.
Piper Walsh is just trying to keep her nose clean. Child of a notorious family filled with convicts and criminals, she’s determinedly law-abiding, but that doesn’t mean the ‘good’ people of her hometown of Sweet Hill, Texas don’t give her guff. As a result, she’s struggling below the poverty line, forced by the town’s snobbishness to take waitressing job after waitressing job, usually at strip clubs where the clientele feels free to sexually harass her. She volleys their mistrust, slings and arrows, though, and manages to do a good job of raising her mildly rebellious adolescent sister Malia while trying to follow her brother Cruz’s demand that she not investigate the crime he’s been wrongly accused of. When she goes to rescue Malia from being arrested for a minor offense and is confronted by the arresting officer – the handsome, gravel-voiced, arrogant Sheriff Hale Walters – the sparks between the two of them are instantaneous.
The last time Piper saw Hale, she was pouring a pitcher of water in his lap after he called her a bimbo at the bar where she worked (see Fury on Fire, book 3 in the series) so his impression of her is less than favorable from the start. In spite of a mighty, mutual physical attraction, they seem to get on like oil and water, and Hale keeps giving into peer pressure and friends who encourage him to avoid Piper at all costs. When she is fired from her job waiting tables, Piper, desperate for work, takes a job doing private lap dances at the same club and finds herself riding Hale’s lap (and more) at a bachelor party. As Hale enmeshes himself even deeper into Piper’s life, he begins to question his vow not to commit to her, and Piper begins to wonder if developing an attachment to a man would be such a bad thing.
As always, Sophie Jordan’s character work is deep and fascinating, and I loved Piper from the second she smashed a harassing pig in the face with a tray. She’s one of the most winning heroines I’ve seen in ages, and it’s impossible not to want to see her to succeed even when she succumbs to some annoyingly clichéd romance heroine traits (Yes, somehow she’s a virgin who’s incredibly good at sex, which she and Hale naturally have without protection). In short, she’s Jordan’s best-written character yet.
Hale is the second Jordan hero I’ve encountered, and the second Jordan hero I’ve wanted to punch right in the jaw. He’s another arrogant, controlling, busybody sort of guy, who’ll presume the heroine’s stripping for cash before she actually starts stripping for cash because he ‘knows her family’, then talks down to her about her life choices and decisions after nearly fucking her in the champagne room. Sometimes a smug hero is enjoyable if he ends up giving good grovel, but watching Hale strut around acting like he understands Piper’s problems while trying to solve them with the heaviest hand possible got annoying in a hurry. He pulls up Piper’s police records and steals her phone number in a move that made me feel extremely uncomfortable, then demands that their relationship be strings-free and entirely carnal (even dictating what kind of birth control they’ll use) while decreeing where she’ll live and how she’ll work. He reminded me too much of the many abusive, coercive, controlling boyfriends I’ve seen come and go from the lives of my friends, from my own life. I would, in fact, have rated this book a full two grades higher, if not for Hale. By the time he had sex with her the balance of power had swung so firmly in his favor it was like watching a man manipulate a puppet.
The romance is hampered by this Taming of the Shrew thing going on. It takes over half of the novel for Piper and Hale to develop a relationship that’s not solely based on their glandular heat and Hale’s smothering concern for Piper, which is augmented by him Cinderella-ing her out of all of her problems – which feels like an enormous cop-out after such a realistic beginning.
The other main relationships in the book are much better. Malia and Piper’s relationship feels real, the way siblings don’t often do in romance novels, as does Piper’s devotion to her jailed brother Cruz, who’s been placed under lock and key for a crime he didn’t commit. The novel does make some moral judgments about stripping that feel uncomfortable, and the deus ex machina relating to Piper’s brother feels very, very manufactured.
Jordan, as always, knows how to write, how to make an audience care. But with a hero this difficult to love and a plot that veers between being wonderful and incredulous, Beautiful Lawman is well below the standard of her best work. Read it for the heroine, who remains amazing throughout the novel.