Cody Carlyle and Josh Pierce are both bounty hunters who share a friendly rivalry and a mutual attraction to one another. Until now, Cody has been resisting Josh's charming propositions. She knows he has a reputation as a playboy, and while she's not exactly a relationship kind of gal herself, she has no desire to become just another notch on his belt. Josh is incredibly sexy, though, and very persuasive, so it isn't long before Cody can no longer resist. She intends to have a one-night stand that will get him out of her system and then walk away, but she didn't count on having the best sex of her life and still wanting more.
While Cody tries to forget their incredible night of passion, her search for a high-profile bail jumper with a hefty bounty on his head places her on a collision course with Josh who's working on the same case. They're not the only bounty hunters who are searching, though, and it soon becomes apparent that they're more likely to get their man if they work together. Cody reluctantly agrees to a partnership with Josh, only until the case is closed, but they end up in Mexico, pretending to be an engaged couple who wants a quickie marriage ceremony as their cover story. It was only supposed to be a ruse to stay out of jail, but before they know it, they're being railroaded into a real wedding. Cody fears her heart may be getting wrapped up in it, but she also knows that everyone she loves eventually leaves. Cody and Josh may not have intended to get hitched, and neither of them claims to want it, but the more time they play pretend, the more they realize it might not be such a bad thing if it were real.
The first two books of Karen Kelley's Southern series were OK reads for me, so I went into reading Hell on Wheels with fairly low expectations. In fact, if it weren't for me using this series for a reading challenge I'm working on, I would have been tempted to skip ahead to the final novella and possibly call it quits, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that I enjoyed this book better than her others. I find this rather odd too, because Hell on Wheels is the lowest rated book of the series on GoodReads, yet I liked it the best so far. This one has less suspense than the first two, which might partly account for why most readers didn't like it as much, but for me it worked well. I had felt like the suspense plot and the sexy scenes were unbalanced in the first two books with one or the other making some sections of those stories top-heavy. That wasn't really the case here, since Hell on Wheels was pretty much a straight-up contemporary. There's a little action but no suspense to speak of. It may have been a bit less exciting, but I felt like the narrative flowed a lot better and more evenly.
At least in this series, Karen Kelley seems to have certain go-to character archetypes. Much like the heroines of the previous two books, Cody is an alpha female who works as a bounty hunter and she's damn good at her job. She had a rough life growing up. Her father left her mother before Cody was born, so she knows nothing about him and her mother isn't exactly being forthcoming. Her mother also spent much of Cody's childhood at the bottom of a bottle. She did have a long-term boyfriend to whom Cody became attached as a father-figure. He taught her to fight and do many of the things she does today, but he also left without warning. As a result, Cody has trust issues and believes that to care about anyone means that they'll leave her. Also like the previous two heroines, she's not a relationship kind of gal, but instead prefers one-night stands, but at least her reasons seemed more sound to me. She's also a little softer and slightly less edgy than the previous heroines, so I liked her better. As the book opens, she's very obviously attracted to Josh, but she's fighting the idea of sleeping with him. She knows he's a playboy and has no desire to become just another notch in his bedpost. In the end though, it doesn't take long for her resistance to wear down, and once they've done the deed, it's so good, she just can't get enough of him. But that doesn't stop her from being afraid he'll break her heart eventually. She tries to guard her heart against his inevitable leaving, but ultimately she can't resist taking the chance over and over. As a little aside here, the name Cody for a woman was a little jarring for me. I know it can be used interchangeably as a male or female name, but it's much more commonly used as a male name. Therefore, I kept getting her name mixed up with the hero's when the POVs switched.
Again, like the first two heroes in the series, Josh is a sexy charmer. He used to be an undercover police detective, but he gave up that life to become a bounty hunter. It pays better, and he's been saving up, hoping to open his own private detective business. He's as good a bounty hunter as Cody, so they respect each other as equals on the job. They also prove to work well together. Much like the first two heroes in the series, I felt like Josh was lacking a certain depth to his character. A couple of times, he experiences nightmares that I thought might go somewhere, but they didn't. He says very little about them, just that it was an undercover operation gone bad, in which a young woman was killed and he somehow felt rather responsible. I think if the author had explored this part of his life a little more, he would have been a more interesting character, but I still liked him. He didn't seem to be nearly as much of a dog as Cody initially thought. In fact, he appeared to be very kind and considerate of female sensitivities, even though Cody isn't a particularly sensitive woman. Cody's temperamental nature is a point he uses often to tell himself it would never work between them, but he's still mostly amused by that side of her rather than off-put. He's also very vocal about how beautiful and sexy he finds Cody even though she doesn't entirely believe him. And he's as completely into her as she is into him.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the emotional connection between Josh and Cody was a lot more palpable too. I could tell from the opening pages that they were totally hot for one another. That and them knowing each other for a while before the story opens made their quick hook-up much more believable for me. Even though they both fight their feelings pretty much all the way to the end, I still felt the connection because it was obvious from their body language and the way they were behaving that they were falling in love and just couldn't see it for themselves. Luckily fate intervened to bring them together in a way they might not have connected on their own. Also the love scenes in the first two books just didn't quite do it for me, but in this one, I thought they were much better written. They're longer, more descriptive, and contain lots of the steam I expect from a Brava romance. I very much enjoyed their sexy bantering too. All of these things came together to make me believe in their burgeoning love and rightness for one another.
While Hell on Wheels was better for me than the other books of the series so far, it still wasn't perfect. Like I mentioned earlier, I felt like the author could have deepened her characterizations more, particularly Josh's, and the plot could have been a little tighter. I'd also like to see her branch out a bit more and try writing some different types of characters besides the alpha female loner and the charming Southern playboy. Ms. Kelley also has a tendency to overuse certain words and character actions. In this book, she repeatedly uses the word 'skip' to refer to the bail jumpers Josh and Cody go after. I'm all for using lingo to set the atmosphere but the amount of times she uses that one word, especially in the opening chapters, was complete overkill. As with the last book of the series her characters are constantly opening their mouths and snapping them shut. Not only was it repetitive, but wording it this way reminds me of an alligator or some other wild animal. I kept thinking these poor people were going to need a dentist pretty soon.:-) Otherwise though, I generally enjoyed Hell on Wheels. It's kind of on the lighter side, more so than I typically like to read, but at least the heroine was more relatable and IMHO the book was better written. Now I just have the final novella, Southern Star (previously titled It's a Wonderful Life from the anthology I'm Your Santa), to read, so we'll see how that goes before I make a determination on whether Karen Kelley stays on my TBR list.
Hell on Wheels is the third book in the Southern series, but it can easily be read as a stand-alone. It's only connection to the other books is that Josh used to work with and is still good friends with Wade, the hero of book #1, Southern Comfort. Wade's name pops up several times, but no carry-over characters are actually seen in the story. I think Josh may have been introduced in book #1 too, but my memory is a bit foggy on that, and since I don't own a copy, I can't confirm it for sure.
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