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.
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