There are authors whose writing is so clearly a direct reflection of the steadily joyous outlook on life that runs through their veins, and after three instalments of this marvellous series, I am convinced that L.B. Simmons’ books are akin to happy pills. This is a story that excited me, elated me, made me hope it would never end, but it also crushed me and made me hide my head under a pillow, unable to take any more of my own heartbreak. This is a bright new direction for the series that promises to keep us on our toes with each new instalment.
Life has been pretty rotten to young Tatum O’Connell, her childhood having been what true nightmares are made of. Growing up with a disturbed mother and having had no one to save her from the horrors of her abuse, have shaped Tatum into a self-sufficient young woman who relies on no one in life, but who is inherently lonely at the best of times. Her latest boyfriend is neglectful and inconsiderate, but she chooses to keep him in her life, preferring his predictable carelessness over the prospect of being alone. She is still a lost little girl who defies the world around her by never committing to anything in her life, secretly hoping that people would stop wanting to “fix” her and aching for someone to finally want her for who she is, flaws and all.
“Broken hopes and expectations can leave very, very broken people. So after a while, you learn not to aim so high because when people fail you, you land hard and there’s only so many times a person can be shattered before they’re beyond repair.”
Noah is everything Tatum is not – collected, focussed, motivated. Or that is the mask he wears every single day of his life for the whole world to see. He has long forgotten what he wants out of life because he’s always had someone telling him what his future would be. A loveless childhood with a tyrant of a father has turned Noah into someone who is constantly pushing himself to meet set expectations, knowing all too well that no level of excellence would ever satisfy his father’s unachievable goals. When Noah meets Tatum, her chaotic and self-destructive existence equally fascinates him as well as frustrates him, seeing her rebellious act for the cry for help that it really is.
“Her eyes betray the sorrow that consumes her. What caused this pain?”
When the repercussions of Tatum’s latest tantrum cause her to have to spend a whole summer working closely alongside Noah, they are forced to get to know each other better and slowly reach past each other’s defences. The more they find out about one another, the more protective they become of each other’s wellbeing, and soon their hearts are hopelessly beating in sync. Loving and wanting each other desperately is easy, it comes naturally to both of them, but acknowledging those feelings openly is the hard part. The invisible thread to their pasts constantly pulls them in opposite directions, testing their resolve and forcing them to acknowledge the prospect of a future that is bound to make them miserable, unless they seize the happiness that life is finally offering them.
“I’m tired of denying myself the only thing in my life that I’ve ever really wanted. And I want you. Every part of you, flaws and all.”
It’s a story of courage, resilience, grabbing life by the horns instead of sitting on the sidelines, and it is a story about finding the kind of love that makes you brave enough to take control of your own destiny. This is a huge departure for this author in every possible way – it’s a fresh new style, fresh new feel to the story, and brand new direction for the series. Ms Simmons has taken numerous risks with the storyline, delving into much deeper characterisation of the key players, adding complex psychological layers to them that have made this story a real treat to sink our teeth into. The secondary characters play a vital role in the overall picture as well, some “old friends” making recurring appearances and aiding Tatum and Noah on their path to freedom from the shackles of their pasts. The general “feel” of the book might be slightly darker and edgier than its prequels, but the overwhelming air of wholesome goodness is ever-present and it’s like watching a favourite romantic movie for the umpteenth time – you just know you’ll be smiling in the end.
I wish some parts of the plotline had been given more airtime, I wish some secondary characters’ actions had made more sense to me, I wish Tatum’s relationship with her brother had given me more comfort in the end, but ultimately none of my wishes take away from the stunning story that this book truly is. It put my poor heart through the wringer, making me care for the characters, invested in their journey from start to finish. Just when I thought no one could come close to Blake and Alex in my heart, Ms Simmons gave us Noah and Tatum…
“I have absolutely no fight left in me when it comes to you. I have no walls, no defense, no safety net, no plan. I just am when I’m with you.”
“Seriously, why are you even with him, Tatum? You never seem happy when you are.”
Well, that sure turned her smile upside down. It also caused her to glare back at me.
“Like you have room to talk, Noah. Why are you with Piper? You sure as hell never look happy when you’re with her, either. You usually look irritated, actually.”
“Touché. You’re right,” I shrug as I lean back against my chair, “We kind of have an agreement. So, it is what it is. But, it’s nice to know you’ve been watching.” I give her a quick wink.
She narrows her eyes as she sits back in her seat and crosses her arms over her chest. “Well, you might want to explain that to her, because I’m pretty sure she thinks otherwise. Like, she probably has the church booked and wedding magazines all over her apartment.”
It seems that even the mention of marriage also has an adverse effect on my cardiac system. Or maybe it’s just any reference to Piper?
We are getting way off track here, so I scoot my seat underneath the table, getting closer to Tatum and shift toward her, crooking my finger for her to lean in as well. After a slight hesitation, surprisingly she does. I shield the side of my mouth with the back of my hand and lower my voice to a whisper. “Let’s drop the Piper topic for a second, it’s giving me heartburn, and concentrate on you for a second.” Her hardened mask breaks and she laughs even though I couldn’t be more serious.
“I’m going to give you a loser lesson. Let’s call it, ‘Loser 101: Introduction to All Things Loser.’” Another small smile breaks across her lips and I’m once again momentarily distracted by her mouth.
Glancing back up, I look into her eyes and grin. “Okay, so number one. His name isn’t really Cash, you know this right? His name is Herman. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if he’s not man enough to even stand behind the name his mother gave him, well?”
Tatum’s eyes widen and she covers her mouth. “How did you know that?” she whispers back from behind her fingers. She looks like an adorable little girl with her huge blue eyes gaping back at me. It’s captivating. I burn the image into my brain before letting her in on my secret.
“I’m a bartender. I’ve seen his I.D. In fact, I make him show it to me every time he comes into the bar because it makes me laugh.”
She drops her hand, huge smile displayed. “You’re evil.”
“Yes, yes I am.” I hold up my pointer finger. “That’s number one. Number two…” I draw out, “He’s what? Twenty-four? You know what I see every time he hands me that I.D. other than his name and age? His goddamn huge-ass senior ring … from high school. He really needs to learn to let go of what were probably the best years of his life and just move on. So, if they still feel that their high school years are relevant – loser. Lesson number two.”
I count it on my fingers as I lean in even closer and whisper my final lesson in her ear. “The third one is the most important, so listen closely.” I take a discreet whiff of her hair before continuing. “You may not believe this but it’s the truth. You deserve to be treasured. You should be with someone who respects you, who makes you a better person, and most of all who makes you happy. He, however, treats you poorly. I see it every single time I’m around the two of you, and I have to say it takes a lot of restraint on my part not to beat the shit out of him when I see him do it.” I lean away from her and hold up three fingers in front of her shocked-as-shit facial expression. “So, they don’t respect you and treat you how you should be treated – loser. Lesson three.”
I clear my face of its smartass smirk so she understands that I’m completely serious. “Never settle for less than you’re worth. You don’t give yourself enough credit. Hopefully, one day, you’ll see what everyone else sees.”
She graciously accepts my compliment with a half-smile and after sliding herself back into her chair, she studies me intently.
“Interesting lesson there, Noah. Thank you for the wise words. But, as I clearly displayed last night, I have issues. Not everyone would take me back after what I did last night. But he did. Because, he loves me. We all have our faults, not everyone can be perfect, like you. I hope you know that’s not meant to be an insult, so please don’t take it that way. I just mean that some of us are flawed and have to deal with what we’re given.” She breaks from my eyes to watch the waitress pick up the empty plates from our table. Once they’re cleared, she begins again, still gazing off in the distance.
“Broken hopes and expectations can leave very, very broken people. So, after a while, you learn not to aim so high, because when people fail you, you land hard and there’s only so many times a person can be shattered before they’re beyond repair.”
She brings her eyes back to mine. “What you’re so quick to label assettling, I simply call survival,” she finishes with a defeated shrug of her shoulders.
After her statement, she casts her glance away from mine to smile at the person passing by. Although as usual, it’s not genuine. It’s the same one she plasters on her face to appease everyone around her.
What the hell happened to her?
The waitress conveniently drops the check off at our table, providing Tatum the perfect way out of this conversation and therefore any further interrogation. She stands and pushes the chair out from underneath her with the backs of her knees. “Ready?” she asks, purse already in hand and stepping towards the direction of the register.
Well, I guess that’s all I’m getting from her for now. I know it’s not much, but I’ll take it.
It’s not like I can actually concentrate on asking her any more questions, because there’s one gigantic conclusion I’ve just drawn and it’s currently blocking any other thoughts from entering my mind.
A person who judges someone without really knowing them, without walking in their shoes, or without at least attempting to understand what they’ve gone through or experienced during their lifetime – loser.
Lesson number four.