I’m a big fan of hot contemporary romance series and looked forward to the Made in New Jersey books by Tessa Bailey. I very much enjoyed another book I read of Ms. Bailey’s – Chase Me. That story featured relatable characters with great chemistry, sharp, witty dialogue, and steamy sex scenes. My expectations were high for Thrown Down. Unfortunately, the romance and frequent hot and dirty sex scenes couldn’t overcome the setting (a depressed blue-collar Hook, NJ) and clichéd characters (she’s an overachiever and he’s a bad boy). I won’t be ‘throwing down’ any more money on this series.
Thrown Down is a second chance romance told in chapters that alternate between two time periods: in the first (told through flashbacks), we meet Vaughn – a high school drop-out, and River – smart, popular and president of her class. In the first flashback, the two are ready to consummate their relationship and have sex for the first time. Since the first moment they met they haven’t been able to keep their hands off one another. They’ve done everything but have sex and only waited because Vaughn wanted River (he calls her “Doll” when they’re naked) to be eighteen first. They talk dirty to one another and wait for the clock to strike midnight. Vaughn can barely control himself in the motel room they’ve rented for the night. Each reminds the other of their love and commitment, they finally have sex and the scene fades out.
In the second (what’s happening now), Vaughn has just returned to Hook, NJ after finding out the great love of his life is a single mom raising the daughter he never knew he had. He doesn’t have a plan, just a determination to reclaim River’s love if he can and to be a part of his daughter’s life. Vaughn sits outside The Kicked Bucket (I’m not making this up) trying to drum up the courage to face River inside where she waits tables. When he finally enters the bar, their connection to one another is electric. Vaughn tells her to gather up her belongings and leave with him. The owner of the bar challenges the request/order and River only agrees to go in order to prevent Vaughn from starting a fight. The scene is meant to show Vaughn’s ‘bad boy/protective’ side, but to me he looks like a bully, talks like a bully and Ms. Bailey never convinces me he isn’t one. Since they first met, he bullies (or assaults) anyone who questions his relationship with River and she seemingly just accepts this as a part of his personality. We still don’t know what made him leave in the first place; the rest of the story alternates between Vaughn and River’s version of the events leading up to the near fight in the bar.
Vaughn’s flashbacks illustrate that after two years of commitment, amazing sex and not very exciting lives, he still didn’t believe he deserved River (I agreed!). To put distance between them and scare River into moving on, he enlists in the Army and deploys to Afghanistan. He returns to Hook after a traumatic tour, sure of his love for River but convinced he still isn’t good for her. River has waited for him – we don’t ever see what she did during his deployment – but she never moved on.
Shortly before he is supposed to meet River in ‘their’ motel room, he’s sitting in a bar trying to talk himself out of going to her when her father sits down next to him. The dad tells Vaughn that if he will continue to stay away from River, he’ll give her the deed to the house she grew up in. Vaughn agrees – but is determined to end their relationship in person. River, desperate to stop him from leaving her, tricks him into unprotected sex with her (she pretends she’s on the pill). He leaves anyway but we know this one-night stand results in her unplanned pregnancy.
Once Vaughn reenters River’s life after the tumultuous bar scene, the two quickly fall back into each other. He worships her and can’t keep his hands to himself even when he promises to, and she is just as unable to resist him. These encounters are tense, the sex scenes are plentiful and their talk is dirty. Vaughn meets his daughter Marcy and comes clean about his experiences in Afghanistan. The few moments he shares with her are supposed to be poignant but I thought they were silly – Vaughn is a adult with a kid cliché, comically terrified of hurting Marcy. After they reconnect as a family, it isn’t long before Vaughn and River recommit to each other. A last ditch attempt by River’s father to keep them apart seems forced. From the moment they met, Vaughn loved River and River loved Vaughn. They want to be together despite the many challenges they face – economic (Vaughn can’t provide her with the life he feels she deserves), raising a daughter, or apparently evil (yet loving?) dads.
I won’t lie – from the description of the town to River’s two jobs (waitressing at The Kicked Bucket at night, manufacturing license plates at the local factory during the day) – everything about the story and its characters is depressing. Even the description of when Vaughn, in desperation, tattooed River’s name on his chest is sad:
That night, he’d gone home and, using a prison yard technique, added her name to his flesh, ink and blood drying into the carved up skin.
Doesn’t that sound awful? The author also never answers very basic questions about River’s tough life as a single mother – why didn’t anyone help her out? Where were her parents after Vaughn left? Brother? Her friends? From the start I struggled to understand River’s attraction to him. In flashbacks we find out he was a parentless high school dropout with a volatile temper, dead-end job and had spent time in jail for assault. She is described as a pretty, smart and popular high school student. I understand good girls fall for bad boys. Yet after reading about their past and reading about their still sizzling connection to one another I’m still unable to understand or appreciate why River fell in love with Vaughn – and even more, why she STILL can’t resist him. Nothing, except the hot sex (really?) about him is appealing.
Now don’t get me wrong – I don’t need my leads to be wildly wealthy and successful to be interesting or compelling. Blue-collar romances are sweet and sexy too. But ultimately, when I read a romance novel – whether set in a fantasy/white collar/blue collar/historical setting – I want to believe in a happy ending. I finished Thrown Down and just felt depressed for these two. I hope their hot sex, dirty talk and amazingly long lasting attraction to one another stands up to their day-to-day reality because…well, things sure seem bleak in Hook, NJ.