Unlike some readers, I really enjoy the masquerade plot, where one character is pretending to be someone other than who they really are. The inherent drama, the high stakes of maintaining the illusion, can make for a compelling story – if there’s a good reason for the masquerade in the first place. The biggest problem with Manhandling is that the reasons are weak, so the masquerade just seems forced and lame.
Laurel Malone has always spent her life doing the right thing. She works as a senior analyst at a top accounting firm, the kind of career her father approves of, but in her spare time she has a secret hobby. She’s an accomplished woodworker and she makes furniture in a personal studio no one knows about. It’s something that she loves doing, even though she knows her father would never approve. She has a hard enough time resisting his attempts to set her up with a nice, professional guy, exactly the type of boring man she doesn’t want.
One day, while waiting at her father’s office to go to lunch with him, Laurel comes across the “Who’s Your Hottie?” quiz in a women’s magazine. She fills it out to pass the time. Unsurprisingly, it tells her that her fantasy guy is a biker, someone dark and dangerous who doesn’t play by the rules.
Mac Tolliver is a new employee at her father’s investment firm. When he spots Laurel in the office, he is immediately attracted to her. Then a co-worker warns him that Laurel never dates guys like him: solid, dependable businessmen. When she leaves, the page she tore out of the magazine falls to the floor. Mac picks it up and sees that from her quiz, she’s interested in a biker type, the exact opposite of a guy like him. But it just so happens that Mac co-owns a motorcycle shop with his brother. That weekend Laurel comes in with a friend who’s looking for a bike for her boyfriend. Covered in grease from working on a bike, Mac looks like exactly what Laurel’s looking for, so when she approaches him, he decides to play along.
This book was a disappointment, mostly because there were so many things about it that I liked. The author’s writing is crisp and her style very engaging. It’s light and easy and flows well. This is one of the better written Blazes I’ve read this year, with a well- developed plot and great character development. Mac and Laurel are both very likable people. I liked Laurel’s gradual realization that she wants to work on her furniture full time and determination to take over her own life.
The sex is plentiful, but also proceeds in a natural enough way that the attraction doesn’t seem forced. These characters have very good chemistry, their interactions are sweet, and there was enough of a sense that their feelings were developing into something more. It’s a persuasive relationship, and while it unfolded quickly, I was able to believe in it. The characters were so nice that it was easy to want to see them get together.
But the setup is a problem the story can’t quite overcome. Mac has some misgivings about lying to Laurel, but goes ahead with it anyway, all because he saw her for all of thirty seconds and was so incredibly attracted to her. When he later says that she was the most incredible woman he’d ever seen and he just had to meet her, I didn’t buy that she was so magnificent that he went to all this trouble to get close to her. It seems too much like he’s doing it just to get into her pants.
There are numerous contrived moments where he’s about to tell her, then decides against it. For instance, he gets ready to open his mouth, then Laurel says she’s not interested in stuffy businessmen, so he decides he can’t tell her. Even more tiresome are the many instances during which he bends over backwards to keep up the charade. Laurel comes to the motorcycle shop to return something he left at her apartment. His brother gives her his own address, then hurriedly calls Mac, who has to rush across town and change out of his suit so she thinks he lives there and not in uptown Manhattan where he really lives. They attend a party where the coworker who told Mac about Laurel will also be in attendance. Mac spends the night running away every time he sees the woman approaching, to the point where he’s literally running out of the party, dragging Laurel behind him, at the end of the night when the woman comes too close. This just seems like far too much effort to keep up a pointless masquerade. He knows she’s going to find out eventually, so exerting such a tremendous effort to keep it from happening is a waste. I also couldn’t help wishing Mac had considered that if Laurel ignored nice, attractive, successful men simply because they were businessmen, maybe she wasn’t worth chasing after all. Is it worth pretending to be someone other than who you really are just to get them to like you?
Readers who can get past the annoying contrivances may find this is still a worthwhile read. The storyline is well-developed, the characters are both very nice people, and the writing is strong. It’s a sweet story whenever Mac isn’t jumping through hoops trying to mislead Laurel. Sadly, that was too much of the time.