Ruthie Knox's Camelot Series was one of very first contemporary series I sampled and the first that really connected with me. I tried Ruthie's novella "How to Misbehave" on the recommendation of Sarah Wendell after I heard a DBSA podcast on contemporary romance, and I asked her on twitter for some recommendations. She recommended I try Ruthie Knox, and the library had “How to Misbehave” available.
What I remembered from my first reading: Amber is on the younger side of her twenties, she works running the town rec center in the college town she grew up in. She doesn't feel all the way grown up. Tony works construction and has noticed her noticing him, but would have never done something about it. There is a big cloud over Tony’s family, but she isn't aware of it. A Tornado warning traps them in the rec center and they have to take refuge in the basement...then there was flirting, and talking, and they get together, they fall apart, and there was some begging/hot sex and a happy ending. I didn’t retain a lot of details beyond how much I liked them.
Just like when I first read it, I really connected with Amber. Set in 1999, Amber is roughly the same age I was back then. She seemed entirely familiar, after all she is recent Bible college grad, a good girl, she has a loving but over-bearing over-protective mother, she is very invested in her responsibilities and so was I back then. She is an adult but she is still trying to figure what she wants out of life, while I was newly married in 1999 and trying to figure that all out.
Amber has been fostering an "inadvisable crush" on one of the construction workers working on the expansion of the rec center but she feels the weight of her inexperience, torn by her attraction to him and transparency of her blushing fumbling and mooning. But a Tornado Warning siren is starts blasting and she torn between excitement and worry about having to take shelter in the basement with Tony because she isn't sure if this the best or worst thing ever.
"Now she was alone in the dark with an unreasonably sexy man who thought she was Mother Teresa"
Tony had overheard Amber have embarrassing phone conversation with her mother and can see how nervous she is, she fidgets. He teases her gently and playfully, setting up a pattern to their interactions, and when Tony admits to his own discomfort in the dark after he lights go out, she returns the favor, keeping conversation going to help avert his panic attack.
The darkness, the force closeness, lets them both expose themselves in ways they usually wouldn't. Amber coaxes out of Tony how feels about himself:
"That's a lot of nots. You're not the bad one, the smart one, the ambitious one or one of the girls. Which one does that make you?
The one who's never going to amount to anything."
And Amber takes a risk she normally wouldn't,
"that's a relief. If you were a saint, who would teach me to misbehave?
She'd walked off a conversational cliff."
Tony tries to let her down gently but she is not having that. She has had it with just doing what is safe and trying to always be so good. She talks back to him, pushes him and he doesn't even know how big of deal that is for her. She owns her attraction to him, lets herself feel it, lets herself pursue it. That ups the stakes in their flirtation. But it doesn't go from 0-60; they aren't suddenly having sex on the floor of the rec center basement even if that is exactly what they talk about. Acknowledging desire, talking about sex and their wanting of doesn't mean that bam, she is suddenly sexually liberated, and that he has forgotten who they both are. I love that Ruthie didn't go there then, after all Amber is still says things like "Son of a biscuit!"when she bumps into obstacles in the dark and "Gosh darn it!" when she discovers an oak branch has crushed her car. What changes is that she is willing to do, try, say and reach for things she never would have before that siren blew and that proves irresistible to Tony who just can't keep himself kissing her after she indulges yelling out some choice curse words at the tree that killed her car.
And what an incredible kiss it is! He is not kissing her in the soft gentle way she has been up to this point in her life. This was a raw, urgent mind-blowing kiss, followed by even hotter against a tree near-sex. And God bless Ruthie, for remembering that for Amber this is huge, and that it would unsettle her, make her question and panic just a bit:
"the longer she looked at everything that wasn't Tony, the more aware she became of how uncertain she felt.
He was right. This was crazy.
A few hours ago, she'd never even spoken to him and no they were...what? What were they?
She didn't even have a name for it."
It is these little moments that turned me into Ruthie Knox fan. Amber is a real person, she wants something but she also gets scared of it. And Tony has good intentions, doesn't want to start anything, until he can't help it, and then he sure doesn't want to like it too much because he knows he is just going to screw it up. And Ruthie reminds us it has only been 90 minutes since the Tornado Siren. They might have learned lot about each other in that time, but it still reckless and all that Tony can think about it how wrong this will go for Amber and he tries to use that scare her off when she regains enough nerve to invite him up to her apartment. But he ends up in her apartment anyway because of the way she fought back against his patronizing chivalry.
But yet again, they aren't just simply in bed. Instead Ruthie builds more intimacy, by having Amber tell Tony exactly where she is coming from when it comes to men.
"It was a purging, a necessary cleansing so she could have Tony the way she wanted him.
Because neither of her previous sexual experience had been honest. Her first was a seduction out of fear that she was going to lose her boyfriend, and the second out of obligation to someone she didn't care enough about. The confession changes brings down the tone and changes pace of their seduction. Ruthie uses their word play to lead them back toward sex.
We return to Tony’s POV for the sex, where we see just how careful he is being, intentional and just how much he wants her to belong to him. And he fires up her lust of him by making her ask for she wants, coaxing forbidden words and with it her forbidden desires, which in turn turns him on, playful, dirty and sexy. But Amber is not the only one affected by their shared words.
"Amber, he said. Like an experiment, an acknowledgement that she was who he was with, the woman he wanted more than he wanted to be smart."
And there is just so much joy and messy frantic abandon in their sex with both of them reaching for what they want but I have to give Ruthie extra points for making me laugh with this little passage post-sex:
"It didn't look so much like cudgel when it wasn't standing to attention. It looked almost domesticated in its nest of black curls. Lovable.
Or maybe that was just Tony."
Reality and history intrude into their sexy night, with the shrill rings of the telephone and Tony's hesitation trying to get out her bed before she wakes. He doesn't succeed then, and instead bares even more of himself to her, finally letting her know just exactly why her mother and others would call him trouble. It is a truly horrific admission. Tony doesn't cut himself a break and Amber takes it all in with grace, which makes it all the more painful when:
"When the sun came up, he put on his clothes, laced up his boots, and left."
Surprise upon Re-reading: Janet Clark, Amber's mom, shown in what is probably the most positive light ever in the whole Camelot Series when she carefully comforts a broken-hearted Amber. I had forgotten how awesome she was in this scene only remembering her shrewish behavior later in Caleb's book. Janet gives Amber just the right amount of comfort and tough love, sharing ice-cream and humor instead of I-told-you-so, letting Amber unload her sorrow so she could gather herself back up.
Tony doesn't get ice-cream instead he gets a well deserved rebuke from his brother, Patrick when he tries to take out his anger and frustration with himself on Patrick. Upon re-reading I am no less surprised that Ruthie never got around to giving him his own story or subplot. He is given here almost classic introduction as future leading man; he is smart, flirtatious and tortured. He is certainly more interesting than the Clark siblings whose books Ruthie had already written or plotted and who are mentioned in passing. I am not calling it a missed opportunity because I think Ruthie did that intentionally, but I still would have loved to know the answer to Tony's bellow:
"Well, what did you want? Why aren't you doing?”
That question reverberates within Tony shaking him, making him aware of his own double standard, demanding Patrick get over something he isn't over himself, to ask him to think of the future when he is been too scared to want one for himself. This encounter really worked for me, because I've in more than one occasion had similar eye-opening realizations in the middle of a fight and it is a bewildering feeling to have. It takes a few hours for it all to sink enough for him to find the right words, but Amber is waiting for him.
Tony and Amber get back together the same way they first got together, with words, playful, sweet & flirtatious mixed up the intimate, dirty & the loving. A vow to do his best, and HFN.
And then bam the novella is done, which was honestly a surprise even thought this was my second read through, but it is precisely why I ended up spending my time reading the other books looking for and treasuring any glimpse of Amber and Tony. I loved that this novella was about acknowledging desire and letting yourself reach for what you want and that Ruthie skill-fully set up the anxieties that resurface in “Making it Last” the bookend novella that completes Tony and Amber’s love story.
Still 5 out 5 Stars!