Desert Isle Keeper
I recently reviewed A Girl Like Her by Ms. Hibbert and raved about it. Since finishing it, I’ve read almost everything else she has written, and readers looking for a fresh take on familiar tropes will find much to love in her back catalog. In Wanna Bet?, she takes on the familiar ‘love ‘em and leave ‘em’ male stereotype and flips it. Instead, she introduces us to a heroine who flits from conquest to conquest, seemingly oblivious to the best friend who quietly longs to be with her, and unwilling to believe she deserves or can handle love. Although Wanna Bet? feels stylistically more like her earlier books, her body and sex positive heroine is reminiscent of AGLH, and once again, transcends my usual contemporary romance fare. Ms. Hibbert pairs her heroine with an alpha who happily flies his beta flag in the pursuit of true love; new and old fans of Ms. Hibbert will finds much to like in this sexy and steamy friends-to-lovers romance.
Wanna Bet? opens in the past as Jasmine tries and fails to please her mother. A series of heart wrenching scenes follow, wherein Jasmine dangerously attempts to fend for herself in the face of her mother’s neglect. After Jasmine accidentally cuts herself using a much too big knife to cut a block of cheese, her mother’s ex – Jasmine’s father – intervenes. Once he brings her to live with him, he does everything he can to make her happy – including scheduling regular visits with her mother. But after several awkward and miserable visits – visits that make it clear she still isn’t interested in Jasmine, her mother finally fails to show up at all. Jasmine eavesdrops on her father’s tense phone conversation with her mother, hurt and confused by why she doesn’t love or want her, but she never sees her mother again.
In the present day, Jasmine is an attorney working at a non-profit organization, and she flits from partner to partner – non-binary/male/female (she doesn’t discriminate) – never forming an attachment to any of them. Jasmine isn’t looking for a romantic relationship, and she doesn’t examine her motives as to why. Arriving home to her shared apartment one evening, she discovers there’s been a flood in her room, so she calls her best friend since college, Rahul, and asks for help. Rahul is always there for Jasmine and he’s the only man she’s ever allowed to see her vulnerable or in need of help. Rahul – who’s been in love with Jasmine almost since the moment he met her – quickly arrives at her apartment. Jasmine attempts to keep her composure in the face of a truly shitty day, but breaks down. When she finally composes herself, she asks if she can stay with him for the night, and despite his misgivings about having her so close, he insists she stay until her apartment is once again inhabitable.
Okay, this is a romance novel. We already know that ‘friends’ playing house together – especially when one of them is DESPERATELY in love with the other – is a recipe for sexy times. So when the story flashes back to college when Rahul and Jasmine first met, and we discover that Jasmine and Rahul were once (as in: just once) lovers – before he agreed to just be her friend (Jasmine doesn’t do relationships and she doesn’t have sex with friends), it feels like it’s only a matter of time before they once again become lovers. But Wanna Bet?, in Ms. Hibberts hands, is better and more deliciously frustrating than other friends-to-lovers stories. In Jasmine and Rahul, she fashions two fascinating and flawed principal characters who pretty much fall in love at first sight, but because of their respective baggage, manage to screw it up – and keep their distance – for almost a decade. Jasmine isn’t looking for a man to sweep her off her feet; Rahul isn’t sure he’s worthy of her love… it’s a powerful and profound role reversal that’s marvelously well done. Add in Jasmine’s abandonment issues, Rahul’s fundamental need to be in control and some incredible chemistry and well… boom! This book has you holding your breath and crossing your fingers as these two navigate the tricky path to love.
Wanna Bet? details, through alternating PoVs, what happens once Jasmine and Rahul begin living together. I won’t insult your intelligence by pretending they don’t become lovers, but trust me, there’s nothing simple about either of them or their relationship. Jasmine is a whip smart, fiercely independent woman who’s also unapologetically interested in sex – with partners she quickly forgets and discards. She knows what she wants and she goes after it, convinced she doesn’t deserve love, tenderness or affection from any of her lovers, or that she’s capable of being a good romantic partner. Unbeknownst to Rahul, she longs for more from him – she admires him and cares for him – but her abandonment issues preclude her reaching for it. With Rahul, she can’t even allow herself to admit she’s formed an attachment or that she’s capable of more. She’s never gotten over her mother’s total and complete disinterest in her – despite her father’s deep and abiding love – and she’s never discussed or shared her pain.
Rahul wants more. He always has. It’s why he chose to remain friends with Jasmine after they had the most intense sexual experience of his life; friendship was the only way to keep her close. He loves everything about Jasmine – her lush, curvy body and tiny chest; her sexual appetite – although it hurts him to see her with anyone else – her funny personality and loving relationship with her father; her brilliant mind – everything. Rahul tried to quit her – once taking a job in London to get away – but the moment he returned, he knew there was no escape. When Jasmine moves in, he’s spent a year mourning the death of his beloved father and trying to take care of his mother and sisters. He’s serious, focused and he’s fashioned a life for himself by controlling everything in his environment. His feelings for Jasmine are chaotically intense – he loves her, wants to protect her, wants to be everything she needs him to be… but when she moves in, his control unravels. All his careful rules and best intentions fly away in the face of his love for her.
Sometimes silly, very steamy and emotionally draining, Wanna Bet? runs its readers through the gamut of emotions. Jasmine is a badass, but the damage from her childhood is profound and prevents her from embracing all the love, companionship and intimacy Rahul wants to give her. Your heart aches for her to let Rahul in. Rahul – capable, determined, giving – gives with all his heart; to Jasmine, his family, his job… but he’s plagued with doubts about whether Jasmine can love him. His quiet, tender, deeply sensitive approach to Jasmine is sweetly wonderful. Fortunately, via a series of ever escalating ‘bets,’ they find their way to each other. Each bet seems to peel away layers of their relationship – until they’re faced with the ultimate bet: that they’re brave enough to be together. It’s a clever and convenient plot device put to great, good use by this love challenged pair.