Once upon a time Rachel had a boyfriend that she loved, a car, an alcoholic mother and a whole lot of ambition. One night her mother in a rare moment of lucidity gave her a wad of cash and told her to take the money and get out of town. Rachel took the money and ran. She ran to a new life, one where she worked her way through college and law school, where she remade herself to remove any traces of her trailer park past. She now lives in showroom-spotless apartment, she puts in late hours at her firm and she has a perfectly boring golf-loving boyfriend that she can't stand.
But when prep-work for a large class-action case brings Rachel to depressed neighborhoods that remind her too much of her old hometown, the last person she expected to run into is Dean. Dean is the boyfriend she left behind. Her surprise abandonment shook him & set him on an even more self-destructive path than he had ever been before, one that led him not long after she left to a felony arrest and conviction for Armed robbery.
When Dean runs into Rachel he is very angry. In some ways Rachel left a lifetime ago but now that he has served his time, he wants answers and now that he knows where she is he is not going to give up till he has them.
Dean and Rachel's encounters are fraught. They have so much history, hate, regret, guilt & sexual tension. They end up agreeing to hate-fucking arrangement that serves as a twisted form of closure/revenge as they try to work each other out of their system once and for all. Their encounters leave them both raw and confused. They stop knowing what they are to each other and what they can ask from each other. Their time together reignites feelings that they don't dare trust in light of their history. Keyes does a fantastic job building the angst as Rachel and Dean try to sort out what they are and what they want against the backdrop of Rachel's increasingly distressing work-life.
The story really worked well as second-chance at love/reconciliation story. Both Dean and Rachel have changed since they first knew each other as teens. They are intimately aware of the baggage they carry from those days. The way they challenge each other is quite remarkable and compelling well grounded in their history together. Dean can question and interrogate her about her life choices in ways even her best-friend Parker can't because he didn't know her then. Dean can push her to consider whether she has the life she wanted, if it is everything she wanted it to be because he was there when she first started dreaming of a life outside the trailer park.
When Dean re-enters her life, Rachel realizes that somewhere along the way she has lost sight of her goals. Running into Dean helps her see that she has never stopped running from herself and her feeling of inadequacy. Rachel however has a hard time accepting and understanding Dean's seeming lack of ambition. I really liked how hard it was for Rachel to understand what Dean wants out of life. She has been on approval seeking carousel for so long, that his goals are baffling in their simplicity. I loved that in the end all Dean wants it to be happy, and that he defines happy as being with Rachel. He only starts seeing a future for himself and becomes motivated to advance in his career when it becomes something that might help him stand by her side.
The whole relationship arc was fascinating — They move from playing painful dominance games, to tentatively building trust that crumbles into disappointment, to experiencing defeat and surrender, before being able to start clean again. In the end they need to figure out how to stop keeping a tally of hurts and wrongs and to start again with forgiveness & maturity.
However, as much as I was sucked in by the raw angsty romance I really struggled being able to finish the book. Some secondary elements about Rachel's workplace rivalry really made me uncomfortable, nearly kicking me out of the story.
At work Rachel and Parker are working on gather evidence and plaintiffs for their class action suit. Rachel's number one workplace rival is Caitlin. Caitlin is Rich-Blonde privilege personified, beautiful and highly connected. She is everything Rachel with her trailer park roots can never be and she is tipping the scales in her favor by sleeping with some of the senior partners. Rachel is fixated on that, and tends to reduce her problem with Caitlin down to that consistently describing and defining her as a "whore". While Caitlin is morally & professionally compromised and seemingly all-around shady, it bugged me every time she was called a whore by Rachel. It bothered me that their complicated relationship was reduced to base-sexual judgment. While it made sense for Rachel to have screwed up relationships with women, stemming from her difficult relationship with her mother, I found it off-putting and troubling that with the exception of her secretary Belinda and Parker's wife Moira, (who is friendly but Rachel finds intimidating), all the women in Rachel's life are either enemies, sexual rivals or both and Rachel never recognizes that as problem.
I have mixed feelings about this book. It reminded me of some of my favorite Cara McKenna books, Willing Victim and Hard Time. I found the emotional arc quite profound, the sexual relationship hot while complicating and advancing the plot. In the end I did really connected with it despite the fact the stuff that bugged really bugged me.
I received a review copy of Time Served by Julianna Keyes from Carina Press via NetGalley.