Can’t Buy Me Love
Loveswept / June 26, 2012 / $7.99 print and digital
A girl from the wrong side of the tracks, Tara Jean Sweet knows that opportunity will never knock; she’ll have to seize it. Elderly Texas rancher Lyle Baker has a dying request: He will give Tara Jean a stake in his leather business in exchange for a little family subterfuge. All Tara Jean has to do is play the part of a gold-digging fiancée to lure Lyle’s estranged children home. The mission is soon accomplished.
Now Lyle’s gone—and his ridiculously handsome son, Luc, an ice hockey superstar sidelined by injuries, is the new owner of Crooked Creek ranch. He’s also Tara Jean’s boss. But being so close to sinfully sweet Tara Jean does crazy things to Luc’s priorities, like make him want to pry her deepest secrets from those irresistible lips. But when Tara Jean’s past demands a dirty showdown, will Luc stay and fight?
One frequent observation—and, just as likely, complaint—made by readers of a certain class of contemporary romance novel is that their protagonists are just so damned perfect. Not only physically (which is pretty much a given, genre-wide), nor merely, and especially in the case of our hero, anatomically. The problem, very often, is that they are just too…too.
Too witty. Too worthy. Too clever. Too compassionate. Too successful and talented and articulate and generally, improbably awesome. Idealized paragons of all the virtues whose only, almost universal, flaw is the inability to recognize their predestined soul mates before the last three pages of the story.
If this is one of your bugbears—and, to be fair, it is one that has become less of a problem in recent years—then do not fret. Molly O’Keefe has created two…no, make that four…thoroughly imperfect lead characters, along with a slew of equally challenged bit-parters, in her latest release, Can’t Buy Me Love. Characters so imperfect, and indeed so unlikeable, that for a not inconsiderable number of chapters you can’t help but wonder why the hell you are at all concerned about their eventual happiness. Until, that is, you realize that somewhere along the way they stopped being total douches and have somehow captured your heart, even as they embark upon uncertain adventures with their own.
Canadian ice hockey star Luc Baker is thirty-seven years old. Beset by injury and nearing retirement, he hopes for just one final season in the league. His sister Victoria, left homeless and broke after her scamming husband was found to owe bilked investors millions, now lives with him, alongside her young son, and with the off-season upon him, Luc has no plans other than to defy doctors’ orders and get into the best shape of his life so that he can go out on a career high, bringing the Stanley Cup back home to Toronto.
This sensible notion is put on hold, however, when the siblings receive an invitation to their elderly father’s forthcoming wedding to the beautiful, buxom and, most damningly, young Tara Jean Sweet. Lyle Baker, a wealthy Texan landholder, is worth millions, and while Luc has no need of the money, Victoria longs to return the leisurely life to which she had once been so accustomed, and is determined to thwart the best efforts of “Bimbo Barbie” to make off with her rightful inheritance.
Arriving at Crooked Creek Ranch—a place that holds only horror and misery in their memories, neither one having found approval in their brutal father’s eyes —Luc and Victoria find in Tara Jean every inch the scheming Anna Nicole-esque gold digger they had anticipated:
Bimbo Barbie wore red silk that ran, slick and smooth like a crimson oil spill, over a whole host of impressive curves and valleys. There was a big pile of blond hair on top of her head, with long curls sweeping her cheeks and the tops of her shoulders.
He gritted his teeth, anger popping in his head like popcorn.
He knew this woman. Never met her, but knew exactly who she was, down to her barefeet. She might lie about her name, change it a thousand times, but she couldn’t change who she was.
A glorified puck bunny.
The kind of woman who hung out in the arenas, throwing herself at the guys just so she could say she’d screwed a professional hockey player.
A mercenary. A whore. That’s all she was.
A mercenary and a whore that he wants bad on sight, even while as yet unaware that her engagement is but a ruse designed by his calculating father, desperate to see his estranged children one more time before he dies. He’s a prince, is Luc, and he treats his proposed step-mother abominably. See? Douche. And yet…
Tara Jean is no angel, but she’s no mercenary whore, either. She doesn’t want anything more from Lyle than the forty percent stake in the leather company he owns, and that she has spent the past four years saving from bankruptcy. The arrival of the irresistible, impossible Luc, bringing with him a temptation she had thought she’d long left behind, is a complication, especially after he comes to the realization that she never was engaged his father:
She could feel his gaze on her, as if it were his large, hot hands. And she wanted to scream because she was smarter than this. Savvy to the wayward temptation of a handsome man’s grin. What she was a sucker for, though, was his quiet and startling interest in her. If kissing him was a mistake, then liking him was a disaster.
The mistakes (and disasters) don’t end at kissing and liking, of course, and amidst will readings and road trips and health scares and bonding over similarly dysfunctional childhoods—which have really done a number on both of their psyches; Tara Jean, for example, may well be just a little bit insane—this brash asshole of a hockey player and somewhat contemptible ex-conwoman (and current scaredy-cat) become protagonists to root for, their romance viscerally compelling. It is character redemption at its most impressive, especially as it happens within the space of less than a hundred pages or so and yet feels completely unforced: evolution through true love.
The beta couple of the story, Victoria and ranch hand/rightful heir Eli, will be seen again in next month’s Can’t Hurry Love, and another redemption of the highest order is going to be needed to make this entitled, deposed princess and her petulant childhood playmate at all sympathetic. Something, assuredly, to look forward to. Especially as Victoria’s son, Jacob, is completely adorable—he, at least, can stay exactly as he is.
Rachel Hyland is Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.