Playing House by Willsin Rowe
Amazon Digital Services, 2016
Let me begin with full disclosure: Willsin Rowe is not just any author. We’re members of the same group blog (Oh Get a Grip) and he has designed several of my favorite covers (most recently for TheGazillionaire and the Virgin). I’ve also edited one of his books (Her Majesty). So I can’t pretend to be a totally objective reviewer.
At the same time, anyone who follows my reviews knows that I may try to be diplomatic, but I am always honest. Given the small, tight-knit community of erotic authors, it’s inevitable that I know many of the authors whose books I discuss. Generally, I won’t post a totally negative review; if I really don’t like a book, I’ll pass on the entire process. However, I have no qualms about pointing out what I see as the weaknesses in the books I do decide to discuss—and tough as it may be to accept, I expect friends who review my books to do the same.
Now that that's out of the way... on with the review!
Now that that's out of the way... on with the review!
Green-eyed red head Lucy Featherstone has a sharp wit, a warm heart, and passion for order. Whether she’s sorting the stock at her beloved used bookstore The Lost Books Home, doing her regular Saturday house cleaning, or making herself a cup of tea, she likes things a certain way. She lives her life by her own rules, stifling her impatience with others who lead less well-organized lives.
While her store offers Lucy with spiritual and intellectual sustenance, it barely provides the financial support she needs. Without her housemate and best friend Toni’s assistance, Lucy wouldn’t be able to cover her mortgage payments. So when Toni reveals that she’s moving in with her fiancé, Lucy comes close to panic.
Fortunately, Toni has a solution—one might even suspect, a devious plan. She has found a substitute to take over her place and help Lucy pay the bills. The only problem is that the new roommate just happens to be a guy, and one of Lucy’s top rules, since her cheating boyfriend Cameron dumped her and moved out, is “no smelly boys”!
It doesn’t really help that Mark is drop-dead gorgeous as well as polite, considerate, and a gourmet cook. He’s not even all that messy, for a male, and actually, he smells divine. His very presence puts Lucy on edge. When he’s away from the house, though, shagging his fashion model girlfriend, she feels even worse. Lucy is torn between her attraction to her spontaneous, uninhibited housemate and fury at her own weakness.
Romance is mostly about the journey, not the destination. From the first time Lucy first exchanges wise-cracks with Mark, we know they’re destined to find happiness together, despite the vast difference in their personalities. The fun lies in their torturous progress toward their HEA.
Willson writes crisp, energetic dialogue that crackles with intelligence and wit. More than once I found myself laughing out loud at Mark’s and Lucy’s interactions.
Standing up, I walked to the kitchen, drawing in a little of his lovely scent as I passed him.
“And, um, how come I didn’t hear your car?”
“Parked across the road. For a quick getaway.” He came right up beside me, far closer than I thought I could handle. “Anyway, I wanted to whip up a garden salad and maybe an orange cake before heading back to pick her up.”
Suddenly it was my mouth growing wet. “Cake?”
“You’re a classic, Luce.”
The way his words lit me up inside was amazing. Yet it still made me feel more than a little pathetic. I was supposed to be a strong, independent woman with goals and power and yada yada yada.
At that moment my mouth ran away from me, leaving my brain lying in the gutter, drunk on its cocktail of horny hormones. “You need any help?”
He cupped my chin in his hand and looked me up and down. “I don’t know, soldier. You think you’re up to the challenge?”
I struggled not to tremble at the touch of his warm hand. It took me a moment to find my breath, and a little longer to find my voice beneath it. “Well, you know my reputation. On at least three occasions I poured cereal without causing salmonella. And I once opened the right end of a can of soup.”
Little wrinkles of delight appeared at the sides of his eyes and he released my chin. “Cool. Why don’t we get started? Grab a knife.”
He opened the fridge and dug into the veggie crisper, while I turned to the cutlery drawer and chose a knife. When he turned and stood, he placed lettuce, tomato, carrot, capsicum and red onion on the counter. Then he looked at my hand and burst into laughter.
“Sorry, Lucy. I meant a real knife.”
“This is a real knife.”
“Of course it is, and it would be perfect for denting Brié.”
“I’ll dent your Brié, mister.”
He strode to the corner where the knife block stood and pulled out the biggest one we had. So very male. “Now this is what I’m talking about. Here, catch.”
Though he made no move to actually throw it, I leapt back and shrieked. “Oh! You asshole!”
Still, I couldn’t help laughing along with him. The big, stupid, delectable oaf.
“As if I would. Ah, you’re a lot of fun, Luce.”
“And you’re a very big little boy, Mark.”
At the same time, the author shows readers the conflicts and confusion that stand in the way of their getting together. In this tale, men and women really do seem to come from different planets at times, given how they misunderstand one another.
“It’s just the way it is. I see it all over the place. You girls hold the balance of power over decent men when it comes to sex. You know we’re not gonna take without permission. You have the prize between your thighs and you dangle it in front of us just to get what you need. God forbid you should acknowledge a man might want anything more than just perfect pussy.”
“Wh-why are you being such a prick? You haven’t listened to me at all! You don’t know what…” There was no way to finish that sentence without it sounding like a lie, and a ploy for sympathy. If I told him now about Patrick’s heavy-handed thuggery, it’d sound like nothing more than an attempt to worm my way out of his bad books.
Mark hooked his towel around his neck, letting his shoulders droop. Though it seemed any anger he’d been holding was now at least watered down, still he kept his back to me as he spoke.
“I–I’m sorry, Luce. I really don’t mean to be a prick.”
“You clearly just have a natural talent.”
“Please. You’re just making me crazy.”
“Oh, I am? It’s all my fault now? When it comes to crazy, I don’t think you need any help there, Marky.”
I’d only wanted a reaction. Using the name that woman called him was just my way to get him burning up again. Maybe I thought it would remind him that he wasn’t without sin when it came to
relationships. But really, if I was honest, I just wanted to scratch him somehow. And I’d gone far deeper than I’d ever meant to, clearly.
He whipped around and stared at me like I’d peed on his Mustang, his deep brown eyes turning darker than his coffee. His frown was etched sharper and deeper than I’d ever seen it.
I wanted him to speak. Even if it was a shout, or an insult, just tell me what he thought. Tell me I was a bitch or a cow or whatever, because I already knew I’d proved that. He didn’t make a sound, though. Without another word he swiveled on his heel and marched, naked and wet, out of the bathroom.
“Hey! Don't traipse water all through my…” But before I could finish he'd already shut his door. He did it quietly, but with an unmistakable clarity. No slamming or thudding, just a crisp click that felt more like a fuck you than even a fuck you would have.
The thing is, there are serious issues keeping the two lovers apart, even after they’ve surrendered to their mutual attraction and had some of the wildest sex you can imagine. The conflicts in this tale are mainly internal (though there is a villain of sorts, a creepy stalker type), but they’re plausible. This is what relationships are like—complicated and very, very messy. No wonder Lucy’s so distressed!
This realistic portrayal of their developing relationship sits a bit uneasily with the more cartoonish aspects of the book, in particular the over-the-top portrait of Gabrielle, Mark’s status-obsessed, fashion model girlfriend. Lucy’s concern about unsanitary nature of taxi seats struck me as overdone, too. I’m sure the author intended to portray Lucy’s love of order as a personality quirk, not a pathological obsession, but this detail made me wonder. Clearly it’s difficult, though, to write an extreme character without going over the line into stereotype or ridicule, especially when that character is intended to be funny.
Then there are the sex scenes. Mark’s and Lucy’s lust-filled couplings heat up the pages with delicious intensity. At the same time, the raw, almost violent nature of their sexual interactions felt a bit foreign to their personalities. There’s a dramatic difference between the mood of these scenes and the rest of the book. Indeed, the characters themselves seem to share some of my bewildered disorientation when they come back to earth after their fierce encounters.
Still, as a reader I felt a huge sense of satisfaction when Mark’s and Lucy’s mutual attraction finally overwhelmed their scruples. That moment is one of the great joys in reading erotic romance.
Before concluding I want to comment on another satisfying aspect of the book. Like many of Willsin’s heroines, Lucy is a big girl, with lots of flesh on her bones. Although she’s not overly paranoid about her size or weight, she can’t help feeling inadequate next to slender, perfect Gabrielle. Mark eventually makes it clear (via both words and deeds) that he adores Lucy’s body. It’s rather difficult for him to admit, though, that what he wants in a woman is so much at odds with what society says he should want (i.e. Gabrielle). I applauded his insight and courage in recognizing how blind and immature he’d been—and how much that blindness cost him, emotionally.
Playing House by Willsin Rowe is an intelligent, light-hearted romance seasoned with a healthy dose of humor, and spiked with some intensely passionate sex. If you like dialogue reminiscent of Bogart and Bacall, a curvy heroine with a mind of her own, and a sexy, sensitive hero, you’ll enjoy this book as much as I did.