I’ve read a few of Vanessa North’s romances before, my favorite being The Lonely Drop, an LGBTQ friends-to-lovers novella written for a photo prompt in a Goodreads readers’ group. It put the author on my radar, and this latest story solidifies that spot. Hard Chrome is the first in her small town American Heavy Metal series, about four siblings running a classic car shop and the problems inherent in keeping it afloat after the death of their father.
It’s an emotional, bittersweet homecoming for Tanner Ellis. She’s the daughter who’d left for greener pastures, returning to Royal after a failed business venture in Chicago (with a bankruptcy hearing looming) to take over the shop. Her siblings Tegan, Tiffani and Tyler need her, and since she hasn’t been around for the last few years, the least she can do is be there for them now. They don’t know about her failed business, or her doubts that she’s the right person to continue their dad’s legacy. But she’ll give it her best shot. She knows she has their support, but there’s another person to convince – their other employee Duke Wilson.
Duke is wary of Tanner and her ‘improvements’, a healthy dose of grief from the loss of his mentor and father figure Tom Ellis coloring his opinions of the returning Ellis ‘princess’. Especially annoying is that despite her being his new boss, he’s attracted to her. Tanner Ellis isn’t for the likes of him, a man from the wrong side of the tracks with a screwed up family and his own siblings to protect. But with the same goal of keeping Tom’s shop going, and working beside each other day in and day out, it’s not long before they give in to their mutual chemistry. Duke is up front about not having the time to get into any kind of committed relationship and Tanner is okay with that. But when their feelings for each other deepen, will they pull the plug or take a chance on a forever happy ending?
Vanessa North’s writing is a lesson in how to seamlessly weave realistic LGBTQ relationships into the narrative. While Duke and Tanner are a heterosexual couple, Tanner’s sister Tegan has a female partner, Katie, and Tanner’s best friend Mac is gay. Tanner’s brother Tyler may be gay or bisexual – there is definitely some flirting going on between him and Mac (perhaps to be a future story?). Mac and Duke are also friends. At one time, Mac had expressed interest in Duke but Duke politely turned him down, the episode not denting their friendship. This is the kind of positive representation of LGBTQ characters that I hope to see in more mainstream romances in the future.
There’s a bit of glossing over of the ethics of an employee/employer relationship with Duke and Tanner, but as both are consenting older adults in a very small company and have equal power (as Duke leaving would really put Tanner in a bind) it’s easy to accept (still noticed, but not hard to move on). The sex between them is passionate and fun, starts early in the story with an office tryst, and continues throughout. Keeping it a secret from everyone is a bit of a challenge. But where Tanner starts to open up to Duke about her past, like what happened in Chicago with her business, Duke is very closemouthed about his problems until they arrive on his doorstep. Then he has no choice but to tell Tanner about his sisters, his violent jailed (soon to be paroled) stepfather, and his strained relationship with his mother.
Because of Duke’s family problems, the story takes some hard-hitting turns. Where Duke is used to having to do everything by himself, Tanner makes it clear that she’s willing to help him with his burdens if he’ll trust her with them. The road to their happy ending has a few pitfalls, but making it to the end is a satisfying journey. I like all of the car shop and mechanical details that are sprinkled throughout, ones that car aficionados and novices like myself can appreciate without feeling out of their depth. Dealing with grief, new starts, family relationships (good and bad) and enduring friendships, Hard Chrome is a romance worth reading. Oh, and I really liked the cover too – it evokes the characters and setting well. I’m thoroughly invested in this family and can’t wait to read more.