Forever / November 5, 2013 / $3.99 digital
Zara Cinders always knew Ham Reece was the one, but he wasn't interested in settling down. When she found someone who was, Ham walked out of her life. Three years later, Zara's lost her business, her marriage, and she's barely getting by in a tiny apartment on the wrong side of the tracks. As soon as Ham hears about Zara's plight, he's on her doorstep offering her a lifeline. Now, it will take every ounce of will power she possesses to resist all that he offers.
Ham was always a traveling man, never one to settle down in one town, with one woman, for more time than absolutely necessary. But Ham's faced his own demons, and he's learned a lot. About himself, and about the life he knows he's meant to live. So when he hears that Zara's having a rough time, he wants to be the one to help. In fact, he wants to do more than that for Zara. A lot more. But first, he must prove to Zara that he's a changed man.
What a classic opening: former fuck-buddies and friends meet for lunch because one of them is getting married. In Kristen Ashley’s latest release Jagged, the heroine Zara, wants to tell her ex-lover Ham that she’s marrying Greg. Doesn’t take a genius to sense that Cookie (Ham’s nickname for Zara) is soon doubting whether her choice of husband is sound and asking herself whether Greg really meets her deepest needs.
Thus me having doubts. Part of me felt I should be cool with a man who trusted me not to fuck him over. Part of me wanted a man who detested the idea of woman spending time with an ex-lover. Possessiveness was hot.
We’re taken on a trip down memory lane, with Cookie thinking about Ham and his physical presence over the years. This is something Ashley does so well. Her characters are larger than life but they’re not “perfect.” They have to work at being the people they are. They age. They think about circumstances and what’s needed in their lives, as Cookie’s thoughts about Ham show:
Although big, he was fit and he worked at it. It was not lost on him with the years he’d put in in bars that he needed to be on the top of his game so, although not quick, he was in shape. He ran a lot. He also lifted.
Ashley’s heroes find time to do what’s needed, and fitness is just one aspect of that commitment. In their own lives, and in the lives of their female friends, they differentiate between being happy, being with a good man and having it all. When the characters act with this kind of honesty, it translates to a great guy and a great love. Problems always ensue when Ashley’s heroes or heroines settle for less, settle for safety, settle for settled. Like when Cookie is describing why she’s marrying Greg:
“Greg’s sweet. He’s mellow, Ham, which I like. He’s really nice. He also really likes me and lets it show, and I like that, too. Things are going great,” I assured him.
But Ham calls her on it—tells her that good ain’t great and says, “…you can’t settle for what you want. You gotta find what you need.” Here’s where things get interesting. Cookie already knows deep down that Ham is the one for her, but he’s not asking so she’s not telling. He’s the classic one that got away. So it’s a romance and there’s an HEA but in the hands of Ashley, instantaneous isn’t part of the deal. Time passes, the economy tanks, and Cookie’s marriage unravels.
It’s rare to read about romance couples that don’t have a trust fund, a stellar bank account, and unlimited resources. But in Jagged, with all the good will and hard work in the world, the economy has a flattening, dispiriting impact on Zara’s dream of being a small business owner. That’s never glossed over or tidied up. But now Ham's back in town—this time for good, prepared to become a part of the small town community of Gnaw Bone. And he’s heard that Zara is free and could really use a helping hand. Maybe a roommate in his two-bedroom apartment. And what does any self-respecting male have in his apartment, be it ever so humble? He’s a guy, right? He tells Cookie that “…he can’t breathe without a decent TV. I don’t have furniture in the living room but I bought a bed and TV my first day in Gnaw Bone.” It’s a double-edged sword; Ham is exasperating because he has an answer for everything but when it comes to keeping Cookie safe, there is never even a question.
This is a classic Kristen Ashley set-up. Quick poll! If an Ashley hero says he’s moving you under his roof because he wants you to be safe, on a scale of 1 to 10, how likely is that to happen? Was your answer 11? Go to the head of the class. Sharing space is an opportunity for Zara and Ham to revisit some of their problematic past—like the contrast between their tidiness scales. Zara wants to make sure if they move in together that Ham won’t light into her if she leaves her shoes out. She accuses Ham of being a little OCD.
“Babe, I’m not weirdly tidy. I’m just not a slob like you are.”
“I’m not a slob,” I returned.
“I’ve known three times where you had to take emergency trips to the mall to buy underwear.”
Now the hard stuff. Zara has some great friends, motherly, sexy, wise, and everything in between, and they’re not so sure that she should start sharing a home and a work place with the one that got away—even for double pay—because of all their history. But Zara’s reasons for taking a leap of faith are both personal and universal. She just has to have:
… something to look forward to again. Because not havin’ anything good, anything to look forward to, anything to work toward sucks. It can beat you. There were a bunch of times when I almost let it beat me. And I gotta do what I gotta do to keep that streak and not let it beat me.
Do her friends think the platonic roommates thing has much of a lifespan? Well, not so much. It’s interesting that when Ham and Cookie are living but not sleeping together, Cookie is very aware that financially they’re not exactly pulling equal weight. Ham is sexy as all get out and he’s also a very fair-minded, evolved male. He’s totally okay with letting the common space get taken care of all in good time and what he doesn’t want is, “…you runnin’ yourself ragged to take care of it in an effort at payback I don’t want. Deal?”
Through their daily interactions, something else that happens—Ham lets Zara process what went wrong in her marriage. Not in a prurient or uncomfortable way but just naturally, Zara is able to look back at the key indicators in her marriage that showed where she was fading and becoming less herself. That’s another key to an Ashley relationship—each person becomes more themselves, not less. Something as simple as remembering the way she and Greg watched movies is a revelatory moment,
He tried to watch the shoot-‘em-ups with me but he didn’t get into them so I quit suggesting we watch them. I just stopped doin’ more and more of what I liked doin’, what made me who I was, until I started feelin’ like I was losin’ me.
I really liked that Zara and Ham had the time, working side by side, living together, enjoying each other. Zara especially had the killer combo of freedom and safety to become herself again. But they had had great sex in the past and its specter was not to be avoided forever. They finally have amazing, incendiary sex, actually a couple of times, but the key ingredient was missing: the thing you do with your lips (not that!). Zara got a little lost in the physicality of it all and left Ham feeling used. As in every great Ashley relationship, the bigger person, in this case Ham, breaks the ice and opens the door to a happily ever after.
“It was fuckin’ hot, don’t get me wrong, but you got so lost it made me feel like available meat. But I shouldn’t have been a dick. I should have talked to you about it. But I’d been waiting so goddamned long for you to come to me, and that was not how I wanted it to go when you did, that I got pissed and acted liked an asshole. But you shouldn’t have run away when we sorted that out last night in my bed before we could totally sort it out by havin’ a goddamned chat.”
Jagged is a story of two grown-ups finally being in the right place emotionally (and geographically) to roll the dice on their love for each other. Friends from earlier Ashley books also play important roles in the story—it was enjoyable to see Ham and Cookie develop their relationship while surrounded by many familiar faces from Gnaw Bone.
Learn more or order a copy of Jagged by Kristen Ashley, out now: