These days, good contemporaries are hard to find as bookstore shelves are laden with paranormal and erotic romances. Want a good romance with vampires? Sure, throw a rock and a dozen of those will be hit. Craving a good romance that’s a cover-to-cover sex romp? Good is highly subjective with those, but at least there are lots to choose from. But a good love story set in the present, in this world, between humans who do more talking than groping? Not so much. In this era of sharp teeth and high octant erogenous zones, stories about men and women falling in love that are simply stories of men and women falling in love are few and far between.
Category has become something of the bastion of contemporary romance of late with Harlequin steadfastly serving up several lines that cater to variations on the contemporary theme. The trouble with this refuge is twofold: First, category isn’t always the best the genre has to offer and second, the term contemporary becomes a bit relative when cracking open a category romance can, often times, feel like stepping through a time warp straight to 1985 (or beyond).
So, these are the options facing bookstore-going readers: blood-sucking fiends or slouchy socks? Fortunately, there’s a third choice this month. For February, Harlequin’s Blaze offers up Jill Monroe’s Hitting the Mark, a contemporary that is firmly grounded in the mores and culture of twenty-first century life. That alone might be reason enough to declare Hitting the Mark a success, but this book does one better than simply avoiding the Jane-Fonda-workout-tape-and-scrunchies era: it delivers a deftly rendered story, one that rises above the thirty days of shelf life it’s given.
Hitting the Mark is largely a character driven romance that does not, the back cover description not withstanding, have an event/action motivated plot. Heroine Danni Ford is the daughter of a conman, and is, in fact, the descendent of a long line of conmen. Despite her genetic predisposition to scam and cheat, a stint in juvie (not only has this heroine done time, she did the crime too – scamming a casino) convinced Danni that the straight life is for her. Danni’s story begins (at least chronologically) when she bumps into Eric Reynolds in a Reno, Nevada Laundromat. She cons him out of five dollars, then asks him to have coffee, and their romance is off and running. They verbally volley and parry, they date, and they encounter real life stumbling blocks and conflicts. Danni’s past crops up between them, as do issues of trust (on both sides), and the trepidation that comes with allowing another person to see one’s emotional nakedness. Those trust issues are tested and retested as Eric learns the truth about Danni’s past and Danni learns that Eric is the chief of security at a casino (which forces Danni to test her trust in herself).
Monroe shines with the emotional bedrock she mines for Danni. Danni is both likeable and relatable for her foibles (both past and present) and Monroe weaves a fear into Danni that is endearing. It is typical for a heroine to have any number of overblown and ungrounded fears, but in Danni’s case her fear is tightly wrapped in, what for her, is the unknown: normal, non-scamming life and exactly what that might entail.
In addition to Danni and Eric’s story, Danni’s friend Cassie and her first love, Dirk, emerge as a second romance. Cassie and Dirk are reunited when their long ago made sex tape winds up on the Internet. Cassie was good and hurt by Dirk college-age decision to test their love by dating other people. It was a crappy thing for Dirk to do – and entirely believable – but it’s something he’s regretted ever since. Dirk’s vow to win Cassie’s forgiveness and restart their relation is a bit easy, but Monroe balances that by avoiding the magical absolution and healing that is so often seen in romance. Even after Cassie realizes that her feelings of love for Dirk have never gone away, she also says, Hey you hurt me badly and I’m still hurt, even if I love you (or words to that effect). It’s smartly played.
Into all this goodness, there is a step that raises questions. That bit about when Danni’s story chronologically begins. The distinction needs to be made because the book actually starts with a prologue flashforward to the story’s climax. By its nature, a flashforward tells of future events and this one is no different. In it, Danni has learned the truth about Eric – he’s an F.B.I. agent who used her to get close to her father in hopes of solving a large casino heist – her heart is understandably broken when she learns her trust was misplaced – obviously mislaid in Eric, but also herself. It is a bit disappointing to begin this story – perhaps any story – at the point most dreaded. The principles have already gone through those exciting butterflies-in-the-stomach portion of the romance and what is left if the heart wrenching part. Once the prologue is over and the story begins, Monroe quickly overcomes this with the excitement and heat Danni and Eric generate. But, the choice of the flashforward hangs over the story simply because a compelling reason for it isn’t evident. For example, Monroe works hard to keep Eric a mystery. Not only does this tactic succeed, but keeping the truth about Eric off the page allows for Danni’s mental wonderings about him and insecurities about their relationship to ring true without giving the reader the opportunity to lord their knowledge over the heroine. However, this hard work and triumph is undone by the fact that the beans have already been spilt.
Hitting the Mark is a compelling read, one that is often thought provoking and demands more attention than is normally required by category romance. The prologue by no means sinks the endeavor, but rather, more accurately creates a “huh” moment. Overall, Monroe is an author discerning romance readers will appreciate for the lack or artifice, contrivance, and cliché in her narration.
You can vist Jill here and purchase this book here and here.