This is Ms. O’Keefe single title debut and I was very excited to read it because I’ve enjoyed her books before. Can’t Buy Me Love isn’t much of a departure from her usual stories, which means that it is a slightly angsty story that focuses on the characters and their journey both personal and as a couple. It’s also book one in a series, so the secondary characters feature prominently in it.
Tara Jean Sweet is a girl from the wrong side of the tracks to whom life has dealt bad hand after bad hand. But her luck changes when she meets Lyle Baker, an elderly –and wealthy– Texas rancher. He puts her in charge of one of his business and gives her life a new meaning. But he also asks something in return: he’s dying and he wants her to fake an engagement to lure his son back. Lyle isn't a good person – he was an abusive father and a terrible husband. He has two kids: Luc, product of his marriage, and Tori, product of his affair. But he only wants Luc, so he demands that Tara acts like a gold-digger bimbo who’s about to take all his money, to anger Luc and provoke him into coming back to the ranch. To Tara, Lyle means redemption, help and friendship, so she’s willing to do anything for him, not to mention that her job is tied to Lyle and she doesn't want to lose it.
Luc is a famous hockey player who has suffered one too many injuries, and now his career –and possibly his life– is on the line. When the call comes that his father is dying and about to marry a woman young enough to be his daughter, he has his plate full with other worries, so his first reaction is to say, screw him! He’s worried about his future, but also about his sister whose husband just committed suicide after being caught in the middle of a Ponzi scheme, leaving her, and her son, broke. Not only that, but he hates his father and hasn't seen him in years. So why would he care that he’s dying and a woman is about to take advantage of it? But his sister does care, not about their father but about the money, so she convinces him to go to Texas and deal with it.
Once in Texas their first impression of Tara Jean is terrible, after all, she’s putting on a show. They also discover that their father hasn't changed and remains a bastard, something that becomes even clearer after he dies leaving all to Luc and nothing to Tori. But there’s a catch, he must remain in the ranch for at least five months, or else they won’t get anything. Once again, Tori forces him to accept so now his career is still undecided, his sister’s problems unaddressed, and to top it all off, he’s attracted to Tara Jean.
This book is a perfect example of a well-balanced story in which both leads have personal journeys as well as joint ones. I loved Luc and Tara Jean, even if they take some getting used to and at first don’t come across as the most likeable characters. I loved their self-awareness, how they knew their flaws and strengths, and how hardworking and inherently good they were. Tara Jean had a terrible past and had done some awful things, but she accepted full responsibility for her actions and was fully committed to being a better person. These two characters alone are reason enough to read the book.
I also loved how Lyle wasn't redeemed at the end. To Tara he was good, but to everyone else he was evil. Tara was able to recognize and accept this, thus not trying to change Luc's opinion of his father. It was sad and painful to everyone involved and there was no magic cure or joyful reunion filled with forgiveness. But Tara never changes her mind about it, nor does she suddenly take Luc's side.
The book is far from perfect, though. The handy excuse of the will conveniently making Luc stay in the ranch was just a contrived ruse to force the characters to spend time together. It’s such an old and tired plot device that I couldn't help but roll my eyes when I read that part. I was also bothered by the fact that Luc felt strongly attracted to Tara Jean, even when he believed her to be a manipulative and conniving person. I just don’t get these heroes, seriously, how come such poor character traits don’t kill their erections? But no, he’s so attracted to her that even when he thinks she’s evil he wants to fuck her. Fortunately, he soon realizes she isn't as bad as he first thought, and maybe because he’s so attracted, he’s also willing to see beyond the façade, something I ultimately appreciated very much.
I can’t go without mentioning the sister, Tori. She was annoying to the point of distraction. I see that she’s supposed to be a flawed character, but it will take a lot to redeem her and unfortunately I’m not sure I want to read a whole book about her. A book that happens to be the sequel I’m still undecided about. She was depressed and utterly defeated, but unwilling to do anything to change her life. I don’t really harbor much hope for her character.
In the end it all comes down to how much I enjoyed the story regardless of its flaws, and how much I liked the main characters, both as individuals and as a couple. It gets a recommendation from me even if you’re unsure about the gold digging heroine and the cranky, but horny, hero.
Review by Brie
In Molly O’Keefe’s captivating new contemporary romance, a woman with a past and a man without a future struggle to find a place where they belong.
A girl from the wrong side of the tracks, Tara Jean Sweet knows that opportunity will never knock; she’ll have to seize it. Elderly Texas rancher Lyle Baker has a dying request: He will give Tara Jean a stake in his leather business in exchange for a little family subterfuge. All Tara Jean has to do is play the part of a gold-digging fiancée to lure Lyle’s estranged children home. The mission is soon accomplished.
Now Lyle’s gone—and his ridiculously handsome son, Luc, an ice hockey superstar sidelined by injuries, is the new owner of Crooked Creek ranch. He’s also Tara Jean’s boss. But being so close to sinfully sweet Tara Jean does crazy things to Luc’s priorities, like make him want to pry her deepest secrets from those irresistible lips. But when Tara Jean’s past demands a dirty showdown, will Luc stay and fight?
Bantam. June 26, 2012