Review: Tough Love by Heidi Cullinan

toughloveTough Love by Heidi Cullinan (Special Delivery #3)
M/M Erotic Romance
April 8, 2014

Reviewed by Helyce

Before moving forward with this review, I feel like I need to make a disclaimer of sorts because, I really love Heidi Cullinan’s work.  I have not read all of her extensive backlist but what I have read I have always enjoyed and have often been strongly moved on an emotional level.  I read and enjoyed the first two books in this series, so it was a no brainer to accept Tough Love for review.  But there were aspects of this book, namely the strong BDSM content, that I was unprepared for.  So, I’m going to address it briefly, and then I’m going to move on from it and focus on the characters we meet here. I apologize in advance for any faux pas I make in my ignorance of this lifestyle.  I mean no disrespect.

BDSM is a lifestyle that I know nothing about.  Yes, I’ve read books where the characters partake, but I’ve been careful and chosen stories with what I call ‘bdsm lite’.  Bondage and bedroom games take on a fantastical aspect for me in these books.  A good author and his/her story can take me into the moment so much so that I can believe that the acts performed only enhance the couple’s sexual pleasure.  In this story, the bdsm is far from lite and verges into extreme pain and what I can only term severe humiliation. I was also completely unprepared for a scene that included a ‘golden shower’ which apparently is one of the highest forms of trust that you can give your Dom.  But, I don’t get it. I could not wrap my head around the “why” of it all.  While Ms. Cullinan gave us a good story with obvious damaged and tortured characters, I still couldn’t connect the dots to the need for dominance, pain and humiliation. So, this part of the story, while clearly important and a huge part of the main characters, continued to push me so far out of my comfort zone that I put this book down about four times before I could finally finish it.

But finish it I did.  Because I was invested in the characters, Steve and Chenco, and I wanted them to find their way.  I may not have understood the why’s of their needs; at some point I was able to separate that part of them and just take the story of their road to romance and the other parts of their lives that were impacted by so many changes and hindrances from the past.

We are taken on a quite a ride with Chenco and Steve.  Both men are living with emotional pain.  Steve lives daily with the pain of an old relationship gone bad-only, he’s never truly ended it and is still involved in the most unhealthy of ways with his old friend.  He thinks he’s doing the right thing, but he’s only postponing the inevitable.  With Chenco, his pain comes from his own family.  A mother who could not accept the fact that he was gay and a father who fed him lie after lie about Chenco’s half brother, MItch, so much so that he feared him.

We follow Steve and Chenco as they navigate their relationship.  For Steve, his attraction to Chenco is wrought with guilt.  He doesn’t seem to be able to move out of the past and this makes forging a new relationship difficult.  While Chenco is definitely attracted to Steve he struggles with the introduction to Steve’s need for dominance and pain-something he has seen a good friend deal with and not in a good way.  From the beginning, their relationship seems doomed for failure.

Until Crabtree swoops onto the scene and seemingly fixes Steve’s burden while providing Chenco with a future he had only ever dreamed of.  Their relationship takes a positive jump as the story moves out of Texas and into Las Vegas.  We are treated with the inclusion of the couples from the previous two books, Sam and Mitch (who is Chenco’s half brother) and Ethan and Randy.  I adore this aspect of Ms. Cullinan’s writing style in this series.  Each book seamlessly blends from one into the next and the characters from before enjoy secondary though necessary roles here.  And like most romance books, just when you think you’re over the hump and things are going your way, something happens to break the idyllic sense of calm.  The conflict here was predictable and I’m not surprised the author chose to end it the way she did.  She tames that a bit by gifting us with a beautiful ending and a much needed reconciliation for Chenco.

In spite of my discomfort with certain aspects of this book, what worked for me in this story, was the sense of family that comes through strongly and is a big win for me in any story I read.  Ms. Cullinan proves that family isn’t always the people you are related to by blood, but oftentimes the family you make with the people you choose to be in your life.  Though I cannot gloss over the things that didn’t work for me here, I’m glad that I persevered and finished.  I look forward to more by this author, but I will do a bit more research in the future.

Rating: C

Previous Heidi Cullinan Reviews

Goodreads l Author Website l Series Guide

Kindle l Nook l Samhain


  1. says

    Yeah Helyce, this was out of my comfort zone too. Gordy bothered me quite a bit. I liked Chenco and Steve and it was great to catch up with the rest of the gang (still don’t know quite what to make of Crabtree though!).

    • Helyce says

      Yea, Crabtree-tough call on that one. Super vulnerable though-and with some sort of magical insight-like he reads people almost as good as Randy does. I don’t know. I need to explore more of Cullinan’s work. Mandi mentioned that there was another book of hers that she couldn’t finish because of puppy play I think-title escapes me at the moment. I loved Dance With Me and A Private Gentlemen. I’d like to see where this goes.

  2. Debra says

    Sounds like a boundary pushing, edgy, dark, emotionally draining book. Your honest about the strong BDSM content without being judgemental. I haven’t read this series, but, have enjoyed many other Heidi Cullinan books you’ve recommended.

  3. says

    Great review, Helyce. I like your explanation of how you felt about the BDSM aspect. I read the first two books in this series and could see how the kink factor was ramping up as we go along. I will probably still try this one as I really do enjoy Ms. Cullinan’s work.

    • Helyce says

      Thank you Jen. I didn’t have any trouble with the first two, even with the multiple partner and sharing aspect. This one took it too far for me. I read somewhere just yesterday that this book was the last, just a trilogy I guess. Unfortunate though as I felt some things were unresolved. Oh well.

      • says

        First of all–thank you for such a beautiful, honest review. This is the hard thing about writing both romance and BDSM romance: had I better planned this all out, I would’ve even gone with two names, one for each flavor. But I’m here now, for better or for worse. I really appreciate reviews, professional and otherwise, which basically give further forewarning for readers for whom this might be too far.

        I wanted to pop in mostly, though, to say that while I originally intended this series to end here, it likely will not. I’m not sure where the idea started that I’m not writing any more in this series, but I’m definitely toying with further books. No firm plans yet, and it’s not happening tomorrow or even next year, but it’s on the list.

        Thanks again for the review. I know these ones where the book is both good and not right for the reviewer at the same time are the hardest to articulate. You did an excellent job–and thank you for giving Tough Love a try.

  4. Sarah says

    Thank you Helyce for your review. I’m a huge fan of Heidi Cullinan and have read almost all her books. The BDSM aspect of her books have not bothered or upset me, Tough Love included. I just didn’t like the story. The first half was great seeing Sam/Mitch/Randy/Ethan, meeting Steve and Chenco. But the second half lost me. The book just fell apart. Too much crying and character changes. I get that Steve was broken but he just lost me and the ENTIRE Gordy plot seemed to just be shoved in to the plot. And the way that Gordys part played out was upsetting. First half, B. Second half, D.

  5. says

    I’ve read a few of her other books, not part of this series, that I really enjoyed. There is another of hers that I may read later on.

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