Saturday, October 18, 2008

Shaken and Stirred by Kathleen O'Reilly *****

This is a short Harlequin Blaze novel, the first of a trilogy about the "sexy O'Sullivan" brothers in New York City. The O'Sullivans have owned this Manhattan bar for generations, since it was a speakeasy during Prohibition. Things have changed - they had to sell part of it, and the current generation has changed the name from O'Sullivans to Prime - but they've managed to keep it in the family. Gabe, the working owner, is the youngest of the brothers. His older brothers are Daniel, the accountant, and Sean who is a lawyer but he also tends bar from time to time.

This is Gabe's story. He's focused mainly on keeping the bar afloat - to that end, he likes to have talented bartenders and wait staff, and he's recently purchased the empty space next door that used to be part of the original bar, for expansion. He knows how to keep his customers happy - and that makes him happy.

Tessa's been one of his best employees for four years, and they have an easy, friendly relationship. But he's always felt protective of her as he's watched her struggle to find her way in life. She moved to NYC from Florida, a way to establish her identity and feel independent from her family and the life she left behind. She had planned to go to college right out of high school, but met Denny who convinced her to just live with him and see what happened.

What happened was the relationship soured after 3 years, Denny decided he wasn't ready to commit, and she felt used and shaky and dependent and like life was passing her by. Her move to NYC was her way of taking control and making her own way, without having to depend on a man or her family for support. In that vein, she's been taking college courses in accounting while supporting herself at Prime. She's studying hard and has big, big plans to find a career making lots of money, but meanwhile has moved from apartment to apartment, roommate to roommate, trying to keep a roof over her head. And the last roof is about to dissolve with no future roof in sight. Sigh.

Gabe has been trying to convince her she can live in his extra bedroom until the right place opens up. For Tessa, who has done a ton of research on the real estate market in NYC, the right place is still just out of her reach - she just needs one more roommate while she gets financially independent, but not Gabe. Gabe's her boss, her mentor, her best friend - and damn if he isn't sexy and attractive and... Nope, can't risk the temptation that would be living with Gabe because she knows she'll fall for him and BOOM! she'll be dependent on another man, and her goals would go up in smoke. Then, in her world view, he'd dump her and there she'd be, alone, no education, no career.

She does move in with him as a last resort, but works as hard as possible at maintaining her personal boundaries and independence. She makes it as clear as glass that he is the LAST man on earth for her - in so many ways that are so incredibly hurtful, I'm surprised Gabe didn't throw her out. While she isn't capable of keeping them apart physically, she is capable of pretending it didn't happen, it didn't matter, it doesn't affect her, her own personal goals are still #1.

It's a Harlequin Blaze, so the sex is hot - but the emotions are hotter. I felt a number of things while reading this book, and I think the strongest was how much I understood what she was going through, even though she frustrated the hell out of me over and over. I wanted to stop her and shake her and tell her it would be ok, to stop fighting - but that was essentially the crux of the story. The obstacle was her own inability to trust herself, to see where she was heading and what the consequences were. The struggle was her fight with herself, with what her heart was telling her since it seemed to be at odds with her goals.

Gabe was so patient and understanding, even while he was completely confused and really hurt. I felt every little pang. He tries to understand why she sets him up with another woman, and even though I understood why she did it, I also saw his perspective, and I hurt with him.

For a short, hot read, it was incredibly ... (searching for the right words here) complex? Not exactly. Deep? No, that's not it. It just GOT to me - thwappp - arrow in the heart, a pain that kept dully throbbing while she kicked him and herself over and over and over, not on purpose and not with a motive to hurt, but inadvertently, unintentionally, because she just couldn't see how else to get where she wanted to go. It made me close my eyes and wish it would stop.

Actually, that's a good thing! When the story makes me feel for the characters, feel what the characters feel, well, the author's done her job. Well. And when she wraps it up with a neat, credible, satisfying HEA, then we all go home happy. Let's stop at Prime for Happy Hour!

5 stars.

As an aside, I don't mean to belittle the ability of Blaze stories to be complex - one of my favorite romance novels is a Blaze, Sarah Mayberry's Hot for Him, which I have on audio. I also like the other in the same series, All Over You. It's truly an accomplishment, in my opinion, for an author to stick to the "rules" of category romance and write a moving, credible, memorable story! Is that a back-handed compliment?

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