In Your Wildest Dreams by Toni Blake

inyourwildestdreams.jpgFORBIDDEN

Stephanie Grant’s first step onto the secret third floor of Chez Sophia frightens her…and strengthens her resolve. Here in New Orleans, in this luxurious world of beautiful women, wealthy men, and heady champagne, she’s about to begin a perilous charade to find her missing sister. But her most reckless-and thrilling-journey will be surrendering to the spell of one man’s desire.

DANGEROUS

Her guide will be Jake Broussard, the bartender and ex-cop who immediately sees through her act and becomes her ally. As his eyes and soft Cajun accent send her senses reeling, she’ll find herself experiencing pleasure for the very first time in her life…and losing control. Her defenses are about to slip away with her satin gown and her lacy lingerie, baring her body and soul.

Wendy:  Toni Blake’s In Your Wildest Dreams is a richly detailed ride that leads the reader through the dangerous world of high-priced prostitution and the Louisiana bayou while edging around issues of grief, control, and sexuality.  As the book opens, Stephanie Grant enters the third floor private party at Chez Sophia— a New Orleans’ meet and greet for escorts and their most well healed clientele—posing as a working girl, in hopes that she’ll find her missing sister Tina.  Instead she finds bartender Jake Broussard, an emotionally broken ex-cop who doesn’t want to be anyone’s hero but who can’t seem to pry himself out of the shining armor.  Before the evening is out, Jake surmises that Stephanie isn’t what she’d presented herself to be and in short order agrees to help find her sister.  The heat between Jake and Stephanie is instantaneous and white hot.  But in order to move forward each must face down ghosts from their pasts.

Despite the obvious heat of the relationship, both characters are too familiar to be either memorable or endearing:  Stephanie is a heroine who is afraid of sex, seeks to control her adult sister, and makes the ill-advised decision to pose as a prostitute; while Jake is a hero who feels responsible for his wife’s death, and to honor her memory turns away from life to symbolically bury himself next to her.  Stephanie fails to ring true as her choices vacillate from the willingness and ease with which she enters the seedy—if posh—world of paid companionship to then being unable to handle a rather pedestrian trip to a strip club.  Jake is more consistent, remaining steadfast in his conviction that Stephanie stay out of harm’s way, but inconsistent in his feeling for Stephanie versus his loyalty to his deceased wife.  Repeatedly Jake believes that no woman has ever inspired the passion, emotion, or depth of feeling that Stephanie has, all the while believing these very things are the sole propriety of his wife.

Through the book Jake dreams of sex with a woman whose face he never sees.  From the beginning the parallel to Stephanie and his encounters—or future encounters—with her are obvious, though not a concern.  Early on, the dream sequences are deftly handled and full of nuance.  However, as the story progresses the dreams lose their subtext and become too prosaic to be effective.

The plot requires a substantial suspension of disbelief from the reader.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to accept that an educated, professional woman—one afraid of her own sexuality, no less—would repeatedly pretend to be a prostitute.  Though Stephanie’s goal is a noble one, exhausting resources with law enforcement and private investigation seem a choice more keeping in character.  Further, the search for Tina quickly loses the ability to compel when Tina’s whereabouts and relative safety are revealed to the reader less than 75 pages into the story.

A highlight in an otherwise too familiar plot is Blake’s steady ability to weave the issue of sexual control into each character’s subconscious and storyline:  Stephanie is afraid of sex, afraid to be turned on by it, and therefore pulls back from Jake; Jake believes his passion and his love belong in the care of his deceased wife and therefore withholds from Stephanie; Tina barters her sexuality and gives up sexual control for security; Shondra (a runaway Jake houses) after being molested by mother’s boyfriend takes back control by leaving.

In Your Wildest Dreams disappoints not because it fails, but because Blake fails to take risks beyond the familiar and too often hedges her bets. Stephanie’s faux descent into prostitution rings of folly; it is the least likely answer to discovering the truth about her sister. Because of that fatal flaw, Stephanie’s character remains a staggering issue of inconsistency which pulls the book down when it should be causing it to soar. While Jake’s interior story creates an interesting external conflict, the repeated dream sequences end up under cutting the drama by virtue of repetition – after the second one, the reader gets it, even if Jake doesn’t and that can be annoying at best, clichéd at worst. So while In Your Wildest Dreams certainly titillates, it does not engage the reader emotionally.

HelenKay:  The cover and the copy on the back of In Your Wildest Dreams hint that the reader is in for a sexy and sensual thrill ride.  The book lives up to those expectations but doesn’t deliver as hoped on some others. 

Stephanie Grant puts her successful advertising job on hold and leaves her boring, safe life in search of her missing sister.  The trail leads her to New Orleans and the private rooms of Chez Sophia, an exclusive playground for rich and connected men to find high-cost companionship for the hour or the evening.  Stephanie poses as an escort in the hopes of tracking down her sister before she becomes another crime statistic.

Instead of finding a lead, Stephanie finds Jake, Chez Sophia’s bartender and a former cop with a savior complex.  Jake takes a break from nursing his emotional wounds to develop something more than just a passing attraction for Stephanie.  He also recognizes her as the non-professional she is and steps in to rescue her from her naivete.  After some prodding and a few false starts, Jake agrees to help Stephanie in her search for her sister and calls on some of his old contacts for assistance, contacts who draw him back into his former career.

Jake fights off his feelings for Stephanie, trying to minimize her role in his life and remain true to his dead wife.  He feels responsible for the other woman’s death because she took a bullet meant for him when an undercover assignment with a drug kingpin turned sour.  But, Jake isn’t the only one with an internal struggle.  To be with Jake, Stephanie has to overcome her issues with men and intimacy.  Issues which are are never fully explained but which keep Jake and Stephanie physically apart for a period of the book.  Despite her boyfriend at home – the one she hides from Jake – and her sexual history pre-Jake, Stephanie can’t figure out how to feel comfortable with Jake in the bedroom.  Once again, Jake steps in with a rescue.

Stephanie is not the only subject of Jake’s perpetual rescuing.  A hero at heart despite his stated preference to be left alone, Jake takes in a young runaway, Shondra.  Shondra plays the role of telegraphing to the reader Jake’s underlying goodness.  She also speaks as a voice of reason when the grown-ups lose their way in their romantic conflict.  This subplot, while interesting, plays more like a writing device than a necessity to the plot.  Blake convinces the reader of Jake’s empathy and strong character without ever introducing Shondra.  This added reminder works at first but, in the end, may actually result in making Jake seem too good to be true. 

This issue of who the characters are at base and how they change over time is a question in In Your Wildest Dreams.  Stephanie, who is introduced as a strong professional woman willing to step into a potentially dangerous situation and play the role of a hooker, becomes somewhat weepy and weak at other times in the book.  Jake bursts onto the pages as a sexy brooding Cajun but transforms into something other than a flawed human being before the end of the book.

One of the other concerns about the book is the manner in which the subplots involving Stephanie’s sister and the shooting of Jake’s wife are resolved.  The respective endings feel contrived and depend on happenstance to find their conclusion.  The sister’s resolution is further strained because up until that point her only understandable character trait is her vast stupidity so that the reader only has a tenuous connection with her and her plight.

The strength of this book is not in the newness of the plot since there’s nothing really new here.  Rather, it’s in Blake’s writing.  She has an ability to draw a scene, create sexual tension and drag the reader into the sensual nature of her writing, which is bold and sexy without being overdone.  Despite some problems, she tackles Jake’s character without flinching and conveys him and the various settings in the book in such a forceful way the reader feels connected to him and to the surroundings. 

Overall, In Your Wildest Dreams is a steamy read with a well-paced plot.  The flaws of the book in terms of characterization and the been-here-before plot do not overwhelm the book or keep it from being a satisfying read.  But, these issues may hover in the background and hit you once the book is over.         

HelenKay’s response to Wendy:  We’ve reviewed several books that use Louisiana and the bayou as the backdrop for the romance.  More than ten years have passed between the versions written by Sandra Brown and Tami Hoag, and now this one.  How does In Your Wildest Dreams compare to those earlier works we’ve already weighed in on?

Wendy’s response to HelenKay:  It doesn’t.  The three books share a backdrop and heroes that sprinkle their English with French, but otherwise are dissimilar in both story and execution.

Wendy’s final thoughts:  In Your Wildest Dreams is too familiar to inspire enthusiasm, but otherwise does not fail.  Recommended with reservations.

HelenKay’s final thoughts:  While In Your Wildest Dreams has some difficulties, Blake’s writing style, voice and the sensual spell she weaves with her writing are all very compelling.  Although I have some concerns about its overall effectiveness, I do recommend the book.

You can visit Toni Blake here and purchase this book here or here.