After nearly being beaten to death, Mary Grace Winters took her young son and ran from her abusive husband seven years ago. She faked their deaths and has been living under the assumed name of Caroline Stewart ever since. As Caroline, she has finally been able to reclaim her self-respect and build a new and fulfilling life with her son, Tom, but they still always seem to be looking over their shoulders, expecting disaster to strike. Caroline has been working as the assistant to a college professor while attending classes to become a lawyer, but her dear friend and mentor recently passed away and she must now face a new boss.
Max Hunter is a former basketball star who was seriously injured in a car accident leaving him scarred and unable to continue playing the game. With the help of his brother, Max worked hard to regain the use of his legs, but is still left with a lot of guilt and self-pity over the loss of his chosen career. After his fiancée cruelly broke up with him, leaving Max with even more baggage, he finally moved home to Chicago to be near his family and fall back on his second choice of being a history professor. From the moment Max walked into his office the first day, he was wildly attracted to the lovely Caroline, so it doesn't take long before he asks her out.
For quite some time, my fellow romance readers have been telling me how good Karen Rose's novels are, and now that I've finally read my first one, I have to whole-heartedly agree. Don't Tell had everything I could have possibly asked for and more. There was a wonderful hero and heroine who are sure to take their place among some of my favorites, and an amazing cast of secondary characters to back them up that I couldn't help falling in love with too. The main couple share a tender, swoon-worthy romance against nearly impossible odds that had me rooting for them every step of the way. They were pitted against an evil, sadistic villain who was about the nastiest piece of work I've ever read. The story arc was a taut, suspense thriller that had me feeling just about every emotion possible. There was even a dash of humor to keep things from getting too intense. Don't Tell is quite simply one of the most well-crafted and engaging books I've ever read. I wanted to scream in frustration every time I had to put it down and couldn't wait to pick it back up again.
Caroline Stewart (aka Mary Grace Winters) is one of the strongest heroines I have ever read, but also one of the most tortured. She was about as beaten down as a woman could possibly get, both physically and emotionally, after enduring years of abuse at the hands of her barbaric cop husband. The courage and determination she showed in getting herself well enough to leave him, and then faking her and her son's deaths to start a new life in secret, was absolutely inspiring. Once she was away from the people who tore her down (namely her husband), that innate strength grew and blossomed into something utterly beautiful. She was a fabulous mother too, with an extraordinary love for her son, Tom. What I loved and admired most about Caroline though, is that after all the years of torment she suffered, she still hadn't lost her sense of humor and perhaps more importantly, she hadn't given up on the notion of someday finding someone who would love her in the way she so richly deserved. Of course, her patience and persistence was rewarded with all that and more when she met Max.
Max is a brainy history professor, but that wasn't his first choice for a career. He was a talented basketball player whose dreams were cut short by a tragic accident that left him severely injured. I admired his determination to walk again, although admittedly it took a lot of prodding from his brother, David, to make that happen. Initially, Max seems like the absolute perfect guy, but it soon becomes apparent that he still harbors a lot of guilt and self-pity over the loss of his career and the fact that he's now scarred and walks with a cane. I was almost taken aback by his angry outburst about all of this, but it turned out to be a good thing in that it gave Caroline a chance to show her mettle by standing up to him and calling him out on it. I also realized it was a way to build his trust with both Caroline and Tom by showing them that a man could get upset without resorting to violence. Other than that one character flaw, Max is a fabulous hero. He is a gentle, caring man who isn't afraid to express his feelings. He's confident without being cocky, and the man absolutely oozes sex appeal with a very controlled lust that I found irresistible. He also comes with a wonderfully loving family who embrace his relationship with Caroline without reservation.
Max and Caroline together make a marvelous couple. Everything isn't always wine and roses between them, because they both bring a lot of baggage into the relationship. Caroline is understandably rather afraid to tell Max the truth about her past and because of his own past hurts, Max sometimes misconstrues her intentions. They occasionally say or do things that hurt each other which would normally not be my cup of tea, but here it works quite well. They always find their way back to communicating and apologizing in fairly short order, and I thought the tensions in their relationship were very realistically rendered. Mostly, I was very impressed with how often they take the time to observe each other's body language and are pretty intuitive of the other's feelings. The sexual tension is positively exquisite and so much more than I was expecting. Karen Rose is very talented at using simple things like smoldering looks and tender touches to convey so much meaning. This book is a great example of how an author can use only mildly to moderately descriptive love scenes, but make it feel much hotter by expressing such an intense emotional connection.
Don't Tell also has an incredible cast of supporting characters who are loaded with depth and whom I fell in love with almost instantly. Many of them pop up again in later books and/or become the hero or heroine of their own book. Steven Thatcher is the special agent assigned to investigate the disappearance of Mary Grace Winters when her car is finally found in a lake. It only took a moment for me to start wondering if this guy was going to be a future hero, and I was thrilled to find out that he is in the very next book, Have You Seen Her?. I loved his determination to bring Rob Winters to justice and that he never wavered in his belief that the man was as guilty as sin even though others did. Caroline's son, Tom, is such a good kid. He's very protective of his mother, and understandably has a hard time trusting men, especially around her. I admired his strength and maturity in the face of everything that happened both in the past and the present. Once he ages and matures, I think he would make great hero material. Caroline's best friend, Dana, is another strong woman who has been through a lot in her life. I really enjoyed the banter between this pair and how Dana is always the voice of reason. She also becomes the heroine of Nothing to Fear. Max's brother, David, is an out-going charmer who would be nearly impossible not to like. His loyalty to Max is absolutely endearing, and what he did to get a predatory co-worker to leave Max alone was utterly hilarious as it was, but even more so because I wasn't expecting such a funny scene in an otherwise pretty serious book. David gets to be in a couple more books before finally becoming the hero of Silent Scream. Caroline's friend and Dana's roommate, Evie initially didn't win points with me because of some bad choices she made, but I couldn't help sympathizing with her anyway. It seems she had as bad of a life as Caroline and Dana but is still rather young and naïve and hasn't quite learned the lessons that the other two women have yet. She also paid for her mistakes in the worst way imaginable. I'll be looking forward to seeing her redemption in I Can See You. These and a whole host of other secondary characters, all of whom were very well-written, made this a tight and well-rounded story.
I also have to give the author kudos for writing the best (read nastiest and vilest) villain I've ever read. I'm not sure how Karen Rose got inside the head of this animalistic psycho, but she somehow managed to portray him in a very real and frightening way. He's a classic abuser and sociopath who truly thinks he's right and has no conscience whatsoever. He's made everyone around him believe that he's the perfect husband and father even though nothing could possibly be further from the truth, and he gets crazier and crazier as the story goes on. I went back and forth between feeling the sheer terror that he instilled in his victims and wanting to jump into the story and kill him myself. In my opinion, it's the mark of a truly good writer when she can make me feel the bad emotions equally as intensely as the good.
Don't Tell made me feel such a plethora of emotions I'm not sure I'm really doing it justice in my descriptions. My stomach turned and I felt anger and horror for all the victims sufferings. I cried for what they went though but was also joyous at the love Caroline found with Max. I read the climax with my heart in my throat and through a blur of tears, but rejoiced in Caroline's victory over her abuser, not only physically, but emotionally as well. I don't think the author could have chosen a better way to empower Caroline, Tom and Max than the way the suspense portion of the book wrapped up, and I thought she managed to perfectly tread the fine line between defending oneself and avoiding becoming what they despised. I've heard that some of Karen Rose's books can become rather descriptive of the violence, but in this one, I felt that she took the psychological thriller approach. While there were some violent scenes, in my opinion, it was more the anticipation and/or knowledge of what was happening off the canvas that made the story so intense. It was so good, I had a hard time believing this was the author's debut novel. My edition of Don't Tell was nearly 500 pages, but it never felt that long. In fact, I was quite sad when it ended, and think I may have a hard time moving on to another book. I'm so glad that I'll get to visit with these characters again, including Max and Caroline, as I work my way through the rest of Karen Rose's books. After a positively stellar first read like this, I am more than eager to pick up another of her books as soon as possible.
Note: Karen Rose has a highly interconnected character web throughout all of her books, and they are considered something of an unofficial series. Although it appears that each book stands well on it's own story-wise, I think the reading experience would probably be enhanced by reading the books in the chronological order in which they were written, which is what I intend to do. A complete list including the recommended reading order and character connections can be found on Karen Rose's website.
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