Erin Coffey is a newly minted LPN and starting a new job at a lockdown ward at Larkhaven Psychiatric Hospital in an area of Michigan I’d describe at Flint-ish. As someone from a small-ish town halfway between Detroit and Flint, I really appreciated the attention to detail, even though McKenna got a tiny detail of Hamtramck geography wrong (it and Highland Park are completely surrounded by Detroit not on the edge). Carbonated cola is referred to as “pop” throughout and there’s a paczki reference, too. It’s the little details that make the setting for me.
On Erin’s first day on the ward, she meets Kelly Robak, an orderly. Their schedules line up so they’ll be working pretty closely together–Erin will be relying on Kelly’s calm presence and muscle to keep her safe from patients who are unstable and who can be physically intimidating.
From the first time they meet, there’s a little something between them, as Kelly puts it. Erin is fascinated by Kelly from the beginning, even though she is also a bit scared of him. He’s reminiscent of all the bad idea boyfriends both her mother and younger sister have had over the years and Erin isn’t sure she wants to go down that road herself.
Eventually, her interest in Kelly and his blunt statement that he wants what he wants when he wants it outside of work overcome her reluctance to get involved and do they ever get involved–the sex scenes are scorching hot and absolutely essential to the growing closeness between Kelly and Erin. Even though Kelly is domineering in many ways, he’s also very self-aware and hurting or taking advantage of Erin is simply not something he’s interested in doing. In fact, by being there for Erin and being willing to take care of her, she’s able to relax from a lifetime of caring for her various family members and enjoy being taken care of instead.
Kelly admires Erin’s scrappiness and he comes to enjoy the fact that she gives as good as she gets–both in and out of the bedroom. And even when Erin transgresses against him, he’s still there for her when she needs him–and it is, in fact, his presence in the face of her transgression that proves to Erin that Kelly can be depended upon (this is contrasted with that father of Erin’s niece–he’s noticeably absent at this critical point in the story). Kelly might be a domineering ass but he’s also kind and thoughtful.
This book ends on a happy for now note–which feels entirely appropriate considering the short period of time that elapses between the beginning and end (a matter of weeks). I like that it’s not a happily ever after ending–that feels like too much at this point in their relationship, considering that they’re really only starting to consider actual couplehood at the end of the book. No instalove for these two emotionally distant characters who can really only open up around each other.
As I read this book, I felt like I knew these people. Or people like them. I saw echoes of my friends and family and their various struggles in all the characters in this books and I really liked that. McKenna really has a way ramping up the emotional and sensual intensity in her books in a way that I find very believable and authentic. I find that novels about people who come from the kind of background as both Kelly and Erin do to be few and far between, so I’m really happy that this book exists.
That’s one thing I really love about digital publishing–that books that are perceived to be niche or marginal for whatever reason can be made available and then, hopefully, find their audience. Of course, this assumes access to devices which can read digital publications which can be problematic in some communities, but the way digital-first can help authors and books find audiences is so powerful and important.
Jackie C. Horne at Romance Novels for Feminists has a really great review of this book, too. I found myself highlighting a lot of the passages she cites–a lot of them really resonated with me.