Intermix / April 15, 2014 /$3.99 digital
Annie Goodhouse doesn’t need to be warned about bad boys; good sense and an abusive ex have given her plenty of reasons to play it safe. But when she steps into her new role as outreach librarian for Cousins Correctional Facility, no amount of good sense can keep her mind—or eyes—off inmate Eric Collier.
Eric doesn’t claim to be innocent of the crime that landed him in prison. In fact, he’d do it again if that’s what it took to keep his family safe. Loyalty and force are what he knows. But meeting Annie makes him want to know more.
When Eric begins courting Annie through letters, they embark on a reckless, secret romance—a forbidden fantasy that neither imagines could ever be real…until early parole for Eric changes everything, and forces them both to face a past they can’t forget, and a desire they can’t deny.
Set in the same bleakly hopeless Darren, Michigan, where her spectacular After Hours unfolded, Hard Time is Cara McKenna's companion piece, a novel equally as shocking and unpredictable that, instead of a psychiatric hospital, begins on the shaky grounds of a prison, and instead of a rough orderly, goes all the way with a convicted felon hero. Annie and Eric's courtship, which can be called nothing else as the letters are so sweetly innocent and pure in nature, is so sharply contrasted with where they are, yet because the trappings of the outside world are stripped away, a very intense connection emerges very quickly. It's almost sensory overload.
Eric is a study in contrast himself, as well as a bit of a moral dilemma. His letters are deceptively simple, the vocabulary elementary; they are gentle yet intoxicating, coaxing but genuine. Annie knows there's more than meets the eye with him, but his crime is all too real. Fortunately, this is no twisted Stockholm syndrome situation, and Annie responds in kind. It all works because of Annie's active participation, and as it turns out, the divide between them isn't so great.
Even though she's been in her own mental prison for the same five years that Eric has been away—a parallel that connects them even further—her awakening is a result of the right man at the right time, unorthodox as it may be. At the same time, what she believes is a strong infatuation that is still safe as long as he's not available in any real way suddenly comes into stark relief when Eric is released unexpectedly on parole, and the mystery that shrouds him may be too much to take a risk on.
“What I'm saying is, I'm not the kind of man who designed his world to be violent. I'm white trash – I know that. Where I'm from, that's just how it is. But I wasn't the worst man you ever met. I never got into any scary drug shit, or knocked some poor girl up, or stole from anybody. Before I beat that man down, the worst thing I probably did was drive too fast and smoke weed a couple times a month. Get in a scrap now and then. Like I said, I'm not a saint, but I'm not... I don't know what it is you're worried I might be. But I bet I'm not that bad.”
Except what I knew him to be—an attempted murderer? Not that great, either.
“If you won't tell me why,” I said, “I don't think I can ever...”
“Get back to where we were. In the letters.”
His expression flickered at that. Like he'd not imagined us finding our way back was even the wildest possibility. Like I'd just told him, 'There's still a chance. I'm not over you.' Like I'd just admitted it to us both.
The novel takes place in two major parts: before release and after release. The taboo action of passing their increasingly explicit letters back and forth in the confines of the prison is heightened by the fact that Annie is in a position of authority as a librarian who works to help the inmates educate and better themselves. The question of will they get caught becomes what danger lurks for them in the harsh realities of the real world, which at times seems more difficult to navigate than an intimate communication behind prison walls. And this is McKenna's bread and butter, creating riveting suspense through extreme circumstances and the deepest kind of romance before there's been any touching at all. But the letters, and eventually the sex, contains that hard edge that's also a little bit forbidden.
I didn't want a chauffeur tonight. I wanted a kidnapper.
Needed him to grab me and take me where he ached to be, and show me he trusted that I could take it. I needed him to be selfish. But that meant I couldn't tell him so.
His body was like I'd never felt it. Hard all over, from his thighs through his belly, to his shoulders, all down his locked arms – like I'd seen it from my office window at Cousins, those times I'd secretly watched him. The groans warming my skin were nearing a crescendo, and I could finally hear what I wanted from him. That same frustration I felt.
I watched this man sheath himself. He'd never looked stronger, or bigger, or more dangerous, and I'd never wanted him so badly... Yet I could never have been with him like this, those first few times.
He'd earned it with all that deference and care. And I'd earned it by giving him the chance to make me trust him.
He rolled the condom flush to his base and gripped himself there. “You want me all pissed off, don't you?”
My lips parted, but no reply came.
“Fine,” he spat, and moved to the side, freeing my legs, “Turn over.”
Eric and Annie's evolving romance sees the same negotiating of any new relationship: work, finances, family, sex. They just face some bigger challenges, especially coming from such different places. Eric makes it known to Annie that he loves her, while he wrestles with wondering if he can be all she needs as he works his way back from the bottom into society. And Annie has fallen so hard that she wants to be assured that her future with Eric is secure, that he won't do anything to put his freedom in jeopardy again. There's honor in a prison inmate, and real backbone in the woman who allowed her life to become passive. Ultimately, here in the underbelly of blue collar life, we learn that people are more than just labels, snap judgments are often misguided, and new life is found in the most unlikely of places. There's nothing sugar-coated here, and the romance stands out more because of it.
Learn more or pre-order a copy of Hard Time by Cara McKenna, available on April 15, 2014:
Tiffany Tyer is a writer and editor who loves reading and analyzing all things romance. She also works as a vocalist, a tutor, and a non-profit ministry assistant, and she loves it that way. Her book reviews can be found at Happy Endings Reviews, a blog she co-founded.