The Chick: Lori Love. After ten years running her late father's garage in the tiny town of Tumble Creek, Lori's looking for whatever scrap of adventure she can get - provided it comes with no strings attached.
The Rub: Quinn Jennings fits the sexy-nerdy bill, but he comes with the complication of being her best friend's brother. Will using him for mindless sex damage her friendship with both of them?
Dream Casting: Rachel McAdams.
The Dude: Quinn Jennings. An absent-minded architect, he's no good at being an attentive boyfriend, so when his hot childhood pal claims she's up for a fling, he's the first to volunteer.
The Rub: Before long, he discovers an entirely new muscle's involved in their boot-knockin' - his heart. But what if Lori really is only in the mood for an empty fling?
Dream Casting: Zachary Levi.
Molly, Lori's Friend: HEY THERE, GOOD BUDDY, YOU LOOK LIKE YOU NEED SOME STRING-FREE SEX!
Lori: Well, maybe --
Molly: TAKE IT FROM ME, YOUR QUIRKY FRIEND WHO IS SO QUIRKY EVERYTHING MUST BE SAID IN CAPSLOCK - HAVE SEX!
Lori: I do like sex.
Quinn: What a coincidence! So do I! I'm also willing to take ideas from your favourite erotica anthologies!
Lori: So glad quirkiness isn't a genetic trait! Let's do it!
Quinn: Yay! You're fun!
Lori: Wow, you're seriously harshing my self-pitying "my life sucks" buzz.
Secret Murderer: Sorry for killing your dad and ruining your life and vandalizing your garage!
Lori: Hey, the buzz's back.
Quinn: Let me kiss it away!
Lori: Oh, alright.
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Beta On the Street But an Alpha in the Bed Hero
1 Naughty Mechanic
1 OMG QUIRKY BFF from Previous Novel WHO IS CRAZY-INSANE FOR SOME REASON
Several Dog-Eared Erotica Books
1 Secret Vandal and Murderer
2 Silk Ties
1 Instance of Public SexyTimes
Several Disconcertingly Hot Exes
The Word: As my readers may have figured out by now, I love me some Victoria Dahl historicals. However, I haven't had a chance (until now) to read her contemporaries - which is strange, considering I met Victoria Dahl in person at RWA 2009 and picked up a signed copy of Start Me Up way before I'd even checked out A Rake's Guide To Pleasure or One Week As Lovers from the library. Well, it's about time I tried a contemporary, as I wind down my list for the RITA-Reading Challenge.
Anyhoo, Start Me Up is a perfect title for this story about a protagonist whose life (professional, emotional, sexual) has run out of gas. Lori Love used to be a small town girl with big dreams - to go to college, get a degree in international business, and travel the world. Unfortunately, when her father was brain-damaged in an accident during her freshman year at college, she was forced to leave those dreams behind and care for him and his run-down garage in Tumble Creek, Colorado.
Ten years later, her father is dead and Lori still works as a mechanic in Love's Garage, the very backwater, blue-collar existence she sought to escape after graduation. However, dreaming big is no longer an option for Lori with the mountain of her father's hospital bills looming over her head. The town sheriff (and hero of Dahl's previous novel, Talk Me Down) adds to her share of problems when he reveals he's re-opening the investigation around her father's death because he suspects Mr. Love's accident wasn't so accidental.
By this point, Lori would be satisfied with a pretty small dream: a torrid summer of string-free sex to take her mind off her pitiable circumstances. Encouraged by her best friend Molly (a jarringly annoying character who happens to be the heroine of Talk Me Down), she decides to spring for some sexy clothes in an attempt to snag a shag partner.
To her surprise, she catches the interest of Quinn, Molly's successful architect brother. Lori is initially squicked out by the idea of using her best friend's sibling for mindless sex, but Quinn (normally a sweet, nerdy Beta) proves an eager and creative Alpha in the bedroom who is more than willing to rifle through her erotica collection for ideas.
Quinn is an adorable hero, and not at all the cold or cynical character I was expecting when I read "[he] has buildings on the brain - not love and romance" on the back cover blurb. He's actually funny, cheerful, and sweetly awkward. He initially volunteers for the affair because he believes himself to be a bad boyfriend. Not on purpose, but his geeky, ADD personality means when he focuses on something he loves (like his work), he loses track of times and dates and birthdays and inevitably drives his neglected girlfriends away.
He sees a fling as the perfect way to get a little sumthin'-sumthin' without hurting his partner's feelings. However, Quinn's determination is no match for the novel's slender but integral suspense subplot. As the sheriff's investigation continues, someone starts vandalizing Lori's garage and Quinn can't remain uninvolved any longer.
As for Lori, her hookup with Quinn brings all her insecurities to the forefront. Quinn is wealthy, sophisticated, and successful at a job he adores, which only exacerbates her own low estimation of the impoverished, grease-monkey life she never wanted but had handed to her anyway. Funnily enough, Lori and Quinn come from the same town, similar backgrounds, and had the same dreams as teenagers - a tragic twist of fate is the only reason their lives took such different paths, but Lori's convinced they're too different to hazard a real relationship.
In lesser hands than Victoria Dahl's, Lori would have been a self-pitying dishrag. To put it bluntly, Lori hates her life and pretty much everything in it - it would have been too easy to make her a dark, dreary and unlikable character, yet Dahl shows us that life, strength and wit continue to bloom beneath the debris of the perfect life she'd once envisioned for herself.
While more subdued than in Victoria Dahl's historicals (probably because sex isn't such a Huge Fucking Deal in modern times), the sexual subplot is still present and symbolic of the narrative conflict. Quinn and Lori are both unsatisfied with at least one aspect of their lives, but their sexual encounters allow them to explore beyond the limits they've established for themselves. For Quinn, who reads Lori's dirty books as "homework," this means abandoning his absent-minded, passive personality to play the role of the Aggressive Alpha Hero, with sexy results. For Lori, who feels powerless in her lacklustre existence despite all her struggles, discovers her kink for submission - her desire to willingly submitting to powerlessness.
The characters are well-developed and very empathetic (especially the delicious Quinn!), the pacing is even, the writing is lovely, and the sex - while very elaborate, descriptive and graphic - is relevant to the storyline. The one niggle I found with this book was the progression of the romance itself. It seemed a little abrupt. I had a similar problem with Rake's Guide - so much of the narrative is spent on the sex and the protagonists' individual lives and insecurities that the romance seems to pop up relatively suddenly and without a lot of development. I got that they liked each other from the start, Quinn and Lori have a great rapport, but after only two lays Quinn is already thinking of love? Already?
However, since the characters are so human and so likable, it's hard to complain. Overall, an excellent novel.