Cara McKenna has earned her way into my list of auto-buy authors after consistently taking characters and situations that should turn me off and turning them into magnetic emotional stories worth the time to read. A surly bossy orderly and inexperienced nurse at Mental health-facility in a dying depressing town in Michigan (After Hours), an alcoholic rope-fetishist hermit and an American tourist on a walkabout in the moors of Scotland (Unbound), don’t scream romantic or even feasible to me, yet they are among my favorite romance novels in recent years. So when I heard her next book was going to be a prison librarian/convict romance, I shouldn’t have blinked, but I did, especially when I heard it was also an epistolatory romance.
Anne Goodhouse is a newly minted librarian happy for a job even if takes her into the Cousins Correctional facility in Darren, Michigan (a return to the town After Hours was set in) once a week to as the Darren Public Library Outreach librarian. Anne is smart, observant and most of all wary. She left her boyfriend and her home state of South Carolina five years earlier after he ruptured her eardrum with a blow to her jaw, after months of creeping abuse.
“And I probably held some record for having achieved spinsterhood by twenty-seven but I’d rather sport that badge than another bruise.
Not ever again.” (Kindle Loc 42)
Her old boyfriend stole her trust, and most of all, her desire to be close to another man again.
“The nicest, most upstanding, most handsome man you ever saw probably couldn’t seduce me, so no worries there. The only action I might care to get went down between me and my right hand, and even we’d grown estranged.” (Loc 93)
But the day she enters Cousins for the first time, as she walks escorted through the common areas past the racially segragated clusters convicts, stiff and expressionless, she notices him:
“He watched me.
But not the way the others did.
If he was trying to picture me naked, his poker face was strong, though his attention anything but subtle. His entire head moved as I passed through his domain, but his eyes were languorous. Lazy and half-lidded, yet intense. A hundred look in one. I didn’t like it. Couldn’t read it. At least with the horny jerk-offs, I knew where I stood.” ( Loc 199)
His attention is unnerving and undeniable. She does her best to keep her composure around him at all times, to behave professionally, refusing to let it show, while finding her feet as a prison librarian.
“Why was I even so freaked out? 802267 looked no more or less threatening than any of the other men, so it had to be intuition…Except he put me on alert one level deeper than mere fear. Made me feel warm and unnerved and restless in a way I didn’t trust at all. A way I wasn’t used to. A hunger I hadn’t been dogged by in years.” (Loc 339)
She is an excellent librarian, selecting books for the Book Discussion group with care, treating the prisoners with respect and dignity during their Basic Literacy sessions and helping them find the information and materials they need during Resources hours. I loved how Mckenna depicted the different aspects of outreach/public/prison librarianship, honestly depicting both the challenges and rewards.
As professional she can’t avoid him forever, eventually learning his last name, Collier, not just his prisoner number when he patiently waits for her during one of those Resources hours to explain to her his struggle to write. He shuts up an inmate that tries to hassle her and interrupt their time together and ends up stealing a little conversation from her. Eventually one of the prison guards interrupts them after he notices how their whispered conversation was drawing them too close.
“His voice was deep and resonant, and it required no volume to command my attention. He spoke with a tone that was threat, coercion, seduction, lament. All at once. I never met anybody from South Carolina. The way he said it, anything could have come next.” (Loc 374)
After he leaves she is woozy, shocked to have let him so close to her. She tries to shake it off but can’t help but think about it for the whole coming week. She turns the interaction over and over in her head, trying to figure out why she would let him close, why she is fascinated and affected by him, when she really shouldn’t. While she comes to the conclusion that this is proof of her susceptibility to bad men, and that her re-awakened desire is simply a result of the very impossibility; he is after all unattainable and she is still not ready to feel desire for anyone in a real way.
“And he’s a prisoner — that’s the other reason. That was why I wanted him. Because he was untouchable, the very urge impossible. Because he’s dangerous, but this crush — if that’s what it was — is safe.” (Loc 416)
And it is safe in a way. She can admire his body when he works out in the exercise yard during her lunch hour unobserved, she can let her mind fill with the questions she would love to ask him if they were free to speak to each other that way, but still interact with him in a purely professional capacity. She obtains for him a word-processor that he can use to help him work around his dysgraphia, she gives him advice and direction, handouts and worksheets for him to do. But then he asks her to help him write a personal letter, so personal that it shakes her to write it for him.
That letter is the start of many, incredibly romantic intimate letters, that expose their desires and develop a personal relationship. A personal relationship that is both a safe fantasy and all too important reality in both their lives. But how fragile and how real a relationship is the question and choice when Collier belatedly reveals that he will soon be paroled. How real are the feelings, impressions, knowledge and promises they made known to each other in those letters when he is no longer behind bars?
I highly recommend Cara Mckenna’s Hard Time. The letters, the time in prison, are only the beginning, and she does a fantastic job developing both Eric and Annie’s history and character and I was mesmerized and completely invested in them as they try to sort out what they feel for each other, what brought them together and whether they can move forward with each other and overcome their pasts. I loved how Eric in so many ways is not what he appears to be. He is tall, cut, strong, man with a dark past, and in romance-land that is often permission for being alpha-hole, and instead he is humble, and tentative, gentle , romantic and in the end the most vulnerable one in the relationship, even if he isn't a pushover in anyway.
5 out 5 Stars!
A digital ARC of Hard Time was provided by Penguin/Intermix via NetGalley for review purposes