In the mood for something spicy as the dead of winter surrounds us? Jackie Ashenden gives us a heated but somewhat difficult story in Ruined, her first release for Harlequin’s new Dare line, about a will-they-or-won’t-they relationship between two childhood friends who fake a relationship to protect her daughter.
Cat Livingston is in deep, deep trouble. So much trouble that she’s willing to confront the Knights of Ruin, a local motorcycle club with an infamous reputation, in the middle of a wild party. She hopes to find her best friend Dane ‘Smoke’ Kingsolver among the revelers – he’s the club’s enforcer, and she knows he’ll help her get her young daughter Annie away from her abusive ex – Justin – after he misses his custody drop-off date.
Smoke is a little miffed when Cat interrupts him mid-public-blowjob to ask for help, but once he hears that it’s about Annie he’s willing to suit up for her. His nearly lifelong friendship with Cat and fatherlike relationship with Annie mean more to him than anything else, and he’s more than ready to beat Justin down until he gives Annie back. But Justin’s a lawyer and the police chief’s son, and touching him means breaking a sweet deal the Knights have with law enforcement; so after Justin relinquishes Annie, Smoke and Cat realize they’ll have to get a little creative with their battle plan to keep the man from gaining full custody.
Smoke suggests that Cat pose as his ‘old lady’, making her a member of the Knights and entitling her to their protection by default. Even though Cat is reluctant to become a part of the lifestyle – deploring what it’s done to Smoke’s character, hating the sort of dependent marriage her parents had had – she sees no better option. The relationship seems perfectly tenable at first, but the trouble is Cat and Smoke have been suppressing major crushes on one another for years, and they begin to heat up the closer they get to each other. The two of them have never gone there before, but when quarters get closer and their attraction boils over, are they ready to face what tomorrow might bring them – together?
Ruined has a lot of classic Ashenden tropes; deprived children with abuse-tainted lives coming together as close friends and then bonding as adults; horny, bossy controlling alpha men and women who don’t take their crap; exhibitionistic sex by the metric ton and some anal play. If you don’t like romances in which the hero has sex with other women, has a morally imperfect career (and is, in fact, a murderer), or occasionally treats the heroine like a pretty chunk of meat, then this book won’t be for you. Yet even though it wasn’t precisely my cup of tea, I found it to at least be passably entertaining.
Smoke can be pushy and displays some controlling behavior, and his appraisal of Cat’s body the second she shows some sexual attraction to him is, frankly, gross, but his behavior wavers back and forth from alpha-hole territory, leaving him a mixed bag for me for most of the book. He loves Annie and Cat and wants to see them safe, which is commendable. Yet in the end his ‘Annie and Cat are mine, Cat is my property now and I get to call the shots’ speechifying doesn’t feel much different from Justin’s desire to control Cat through Annie, and Cat’s blithe assumption that ‘what’s healthy for me is going to be healthy for Annie’ is completely ridiculous given what she’s already been through with Justin.
Cat is much easier to like; a single mom working on the edge of poverty who knows Smoke better than anyone, she’s not going to take any crap foisted on her by the club, nor is she willing to let her daughter suffer because the mistakes she’s made. She loves Annie more than anyone, and considering their past, her lust/love for Smoke is understandable.
But to be honest, though, I had a hard time buying Cat and Smoke as friends before they became lovers. Bonded together by their crappy childhoods, sharing an intense sexual chemistry, they otherwise don’t share much when it comes to interests or rapport beyond it and the shortness of the novel left the author next to no time to convince me these two were compatible beyond occasional bedroom boinkfests. Cat abhors Smoke’s lifestyle and he wants to control hers; thus they feel more like victims of their own glands heading for a bad break-up. At one point he compares his post-orgasmic sensation of peace with Cat to the peace he felt after killing his abusive dad. Even though he acknowledges it’s creepy – yikes!
In case you haven’t guessed, there are touches of moral equivocating going on here. Smoke makes enough money doing SOMETHING with the Knights that makes it okay for him to take an entire day off to play hide the pickle with Cat, but I’ll be damned if I know what it is. The author is content enough to say that the gang takes care of its own, have formed a barely-tolerant family and therefore are a nicer, better club than the one that drove Cat’s father to his death – but these are people who’ve paid off the police in their small town; something must be rotten in Denmark that Ashenden doesn’t want to address. If you’re going to write about a biker gang, you’re going to have to do more than have them engage in public sex and smoke a little weed to convince me they’re living outside the law (but then again, admitting that they get their money from running guns or drug trafficking like other biker gangs kind of ruins the ‘Smoke’s totes a good guy’ narrative). Also the daughter is the worst example of a plot prop I’ve ever seen, not even flinching when she’s permanently separated from a father who – abusive creep to Cat or not – she had a decent relationship with right up to the moment Smoke catches him kidnapping her. She exists to squeal over Smoke, act as a plot device, and not flinch when her mother kisses her sleeping face minutes after blowing the hero.
Ultimately, Ashenden’s engaging, strong heroine and her decently-drawn characters are appealing enough to keep the pages turning, even though her protagonists are so flawed you might end up feeling a little dirty rooting for their union. I know, I know; the Dare line is a erotic romance imprint, and the strong sexual element of the story is supposed to be the main focus of the tale. In this, Ruined satisfies the parameters of the line. Unfortunately, the plot kept intruding to distract me from the erotic element, and some of Ashenden’s narrative choices toss a bucket of cold water on the heat of her characters’ ardour.
If you enjoyed Sons of Anarchy and wished it’d had a happier ending, then you might like Ruined more than I did.