Wednesday 27 December 2017

#CBR9 Book 121: "Wrong to Need You" by Alisha Rai

Page count: 373 pages
Rating: 4.5 stars

Sadia Ahmed has been a widow for over a year. She works days in the little cafe originally founded by her late husband's family, and at night tends bar and enjoys regaling customers with the history behind the exotic cocktails she concocts. She is determined to provide the best possible life for her little boy, Kareem, and will not let anyone see just how much she's struggling to keep her head above water. Having disappointed her parents by dropping out of med school and eloping, she cannot admit to anyone that when Paul, her husband died, they were thinking about getting a divorce, that there are debts on the cafe that she's struggling with paying and that part of the reason she enjoys bar tending so much is because it gives her the opportunity to meet men and women she can hook up with, no strings attached, as she's so desperately lonely.

Jackson Kane has been travelling the world for the past ten years, after he was accused of a crime he didn't commit and felt abandoned by his family. Lured back to his home town after his sister pretty much emotionally blackmailed him, he's still reluctant to reconnect to his past, but he just can't stay away from Sadia, the woman he's always loved, long before she married his brother. When it becomes obvious that she's in desperate need of a cook in her café and generally someone to just help out, he fights the instinct to leave town again, even with a lot of the locals still viewing him with suspicion. Sadia offers him a place to stay above her garage, and he can't resist the temptation to be close to her. Deeply ashamed that he never answered any of her e-mails in his decade away, he now wants a chance to connect with his nephew. He doesn't dare hope that Sadia could ever return his feelings - she's his brother's widow, for heaven's sake!

I read my first Alisha Rai book in October, telling the story of Livvy Kane and Nicholas Chandler. That book also introduced Sadia and Jackson, as well as outlined the complex family dynamics between the Kanes and the Chandlers. For the first half of the book, Sadia, who was Livvy's best friend before she became her sister-in-law spends a lot of time telling people she doesn't have any idea where her friend has disappeared off to with her reunited lover. When Jackson suddenly reappears in her world, Sadia misses Livvy a lot, needing to talk to her to work through her feelings.

Sadia and Jackson were clearly also best friends for a very long time, with Sadia never realising that Jackson felt more for her than mere friendship. He never said a word when she got together with his brother during their senior year of high school and he never told her or his sister the truth about why he willingly let himself get arrested after the Kane/Chandler flagship grocery store burned down, shortly after Mr Kane died in a car crash with Mrs Chandler. Instead he left town, and despite Sadia sending him countless e-mails, never responded. Not when her child was born, not when she told him his brother died. Naturally, Sadia is deeply hurt by his actions, and Jackson is justifiably ashamed.

Sadia is used to picking up random strangers in the bar where she works part-time and satisfying her physical needs without any long-term consequences. She notices and lusts over Jackson for several days before she discovers who he really is, and is shocked by her reaction to him. Because she was married to his brother, and is still struggling both with survivors guilt because Paul died and because their marriage was coming apart when she lost him, she's very conflicted about her new feelings. Interestingly, once Sadia and Jackson actually act on their attraction for one another, none of their family members seem surprised or upset by the development.

While the complicated romance as well as long-nurtured family rivalry was front and centre in Hate to Want You, the strongest theme in this book is probably family bonds. One of five sisters, the daughter of successful immigrants who were both doctors, Sadia very much let her parents down when she eloped with her high school sweetheart and refused to take the path her family expected of her. Now both her elder sisters are successful doctors as well, married to other doctors, while her younger twin sisters are making their way through medical school. After the birth of her son, Sadia reconciled with her family, but it's clear that they never accepted Paul, her husband, or that he really wanted to interact with her side of the family. Now her sisters take turns babysitting her son while she works to keep the café afloat and providing Kareem with the best possible life, even as she's struggling. She doesn't tell anyone in her family about her loneliness, her financial troubles, the truth about her crumbling marriage before she was widowed - because she already feels like the black sheep of the family and why give them more ammunition to be disappointed in her?

Jackson also has a lot of complicated issues to work through with his mother. Clearly always introverted and uncomfortable in social settings, despite his size and build that might suggest otherwise, Jackson felt betrayed by both his mother and brother Paul after he was arrested for the shop fire, despite being completely innocent. He was promised that they would do everything to get him out quickly, yet spent weeks in prison. Having convinced himself that opening himself up to loving people will only lead to intense hurt, he's closed himself off from nearly everyone, never settling long in one place, barely even communicating with his twin, Livvie. Having been taught to cook by one of his grandfathers, he's trained himself into a top-level chef and now runs pop-up restaurants to great acclaim all over the world with his business partner, all the while keeping his own identity secret. Even back in his home town, it takes him a long time to go see his mother, because he's worried how both he and she will react to the reunion.

Both Jackson and Sadia need to work through their trust issues with one another, but much more importantly, with their families. Jackson is none too pleased that Livvie and Nicholas are back together, because he saw how deeply Nicholas hurt Livvy back in the day, and while Jackson barely allows himself to love anyone, it's clear he can't help but love his twin. While Jackson and Sadia's gradual change from long-time friends to lovers is a nice one, the bits that had me in tears were the scenes where Sadia finally breaks down and shows her vulnerability to her sisters, only to see just how much they love her and support her and don't at all see her as the family disappointment or failure.

The third book in this series is out in March next year (featuring Nicholas' younger sister and an old family friend) and I am already waiting for it with bated breath. Having read these two books, I can see why Alisha Rai is such a celebrated contemporary romance novelist. Both books in the Forbidden Hearts series are among the best in the genre I've read this year.

Judging a book by its cover: Very much in the same style as Hate to Want You, this cover features cover models that look pretty much like the descriptions of the protagonists. You are left in no doubt that this book will feature a diverse, non-Caucasian couple and while I don't think this cover is as sexy as that on the previous book, it's still a pretty great one.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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