Desert Isle Keeper
STOP reading if you are new to the Ravenswood series. There will be spoilers in this review.
Talia Hibbert’s A Girl Like Her was a unique and a refreshing change from typical contemporary romance. While fans patiently wait for the second book in the series, the author pivots away from her principals and shines the spotlight on one of the more intriguing characters to emerge from the origin story: Laura – Ruth’s former friend and Daniel’s wife. Readers wanted to know more about her, and I’m happy to tell you Ms. Hibbert completely redeems this divisive character and delivers one of the best novellas of the year. As you might have guessed, the novella tackles heavy subject matter – domestic abuse, intimate partner violence, and child abuse – but somehow, Ms. Hibbert transcends them, and Laura’s redemptive story arc is poignant and moving. She deserves her happily ever after, and she gets it with a super sexy beta-hero who’s sure to steal your heart, too.
When we first met Laura in A Girl Like Her, she was at a party to celebrate her recent engagement to Daniel Burne. She spent much of that novel behind the scenes, one of a group of women who treated Ruth with contempt and ridicule whenever she appeared in public. By the end of the novel, the truth about Daniel’s history with Ruth was finally revealed, and Laura attempted to renew their friendship (unbeknownst to her husband). Ruth, meanwhile, worried about her pregnant friend, and whether or not Daniel was abusing her.
Ms. Hibbert doesn’t prevaricate – he is. When Damaged Goods begins, Laura is fleeing Daniel in her father-in-law’s Range Rover, heading for the seaside village of Beesley-on-Sea, where she spent an idyllic summer when she was fifteen. Although her mother and sister know she’s left, she’s alone (by choice) – searching for peace, happiness, and safety, determined to have her baby and be a good mother. Laura is sad, bewildered, emotionally and physically battered by her marriage – but she’s finally escaped Daniel. Unable to sleep after arriving – giddy – at the dilapidated beach house, she decides to take a walk in the moonlight. She’s lost in thought when she accidentally trips over another person seated on the sand and discovers she knows him.
Samir Bianchi doesn’t need the whole town gossiping about how he spent the night staring out at the sea, grim-faced and resentful, and he’s annoyed by the approaching stranger. When the woman doesn’t appear to see him, he’s finally forced to say “hey,” except his words startle the her and she trips over him. After a few misplaced elbows, scuffling and swearing, they finally manage to separate themselves and proceed to engage in an increasingly awkward (and funny) exchange wherein the clearly mortified woman keeps apologizing and Samir tries to put her at ease – until something she says sparks his memory. He finally realizes who the apologetic stranger is: Laura, the girl he loved during a magical summer, years ago.
From the moment these two recognize each other on the beach, it’s almost as if they’ve never been apart. The connection they once shared feels familiar and good, and it stirs up happy memories of their summer love affair. But Samir also senses that Laura is hiding from something or someone, and Laura doesn’t trust herself or her feelings for Samir, wary of her own ability to choose things that are good for her and the baby. But Samir can’t help wanting to be there for Laura, and he gently, relentlessly provides her with a safe space to just be. Her pregnancy doesn’t alter his feelings (if anything, it makes him more protective), and even though he longs to be with her, he tries to honor her need to maintain a distance. The pair are soon in each other’s pockets anyway, Laura visiting him at the café he owns in the village, getting to know his staff and closest friends, Samir taking her to and from her doctor’s appointments, and visiting her at the cottage. Their affection is clear to everyone around them and to us… but Laura is traumatized by her relationship with Daniel and Samir is careful, never wanting to scare her or cause her to run from him.
Despite its short length, Ms. Hibbert does a wonderful job pacing Laura’s recovery with the evolving relationship between her and Samir. Laura’s abuse at Daniels hands – and the hurt she feels when her only sister sides with him – has shattered her self-confidence. She slowly begins to heal and find herself during her sojourn in Beesley-on-Sea – and Samir is a magnificent partner; never pushing, always loving and supporting, he gives her the room to heal whilst showing her what it means to be cherished. Their tender affection for each other is lovely, but their simmering lust permeates their every interaction and keeps the story humming. We keep waiting – hoping – they’ll give into their attraction, until FINALLY they can’t keep away from each other. I loved everything about their connection to each other: the pacing of their friends-to-lovers relationship, their funny conversations, discussions about the baby and what to name it, the quieter, sweeter moments – like Samir confessing he’s been reading pregnancy books in his free time – and their sexy, passionate affair. It all just works.
Damaged Goods isn’t all happiness and healing and love, and Ms. Hibbert deftly incorporates Laura’s terror at Daniel’s hands into her storyline. She doesn’t shy away from showing us just what Laura has lived through – or what Samir (and his twin brother Hassan) endured as children at their parents’ hands. These weighty subjects add nuance to the principal characters and to the story, yet never overwhelm the narrative. It’s incredible to me how the author weaves so much wonder, happiness and hopefulness into this story when its genesis comes from such a stark place. When Daniel finally makes an appearance, Samir is there – and his own painful past helps him to protect and avenge Laura. He’s a complete and total badass, but he gives Laura the space to speak up and defend herself too. The confrontation – which you know is coming – is supremely well done. There are few secondary characters, but Hassan, Samir’s twin, is particularly memorable (and their sibling dynamic is hilarious), and Ruth and Evan also make a wonderful and timely cameo near the end of the story.
Damaged Goods is a lovely and moving addition to the Ravenswood series; it’s the story you didn’t know you NEEDED to know.