Marley Knight-Williams had an inseparable bond with Michael O'Shea and his best friend, Carlos, from the time they were twelve years old, until the day her parents died in an accident when she was eighteen. Feeling guilty over events that were beyond her control, she left her boys behind and skipped town. She's been running from the memories of what they shared ever since.
Now back in Chicago, working as her cousin's super-assistant for the past four years, Marley has had every opportunity to reconnect with the men she's never stopped loving. But she hasn't had any contact with them until the day that Michael shows up on her doorstep, asking for her help with bringing Carlos back to the land of the living. Badly wounded just before his tour duty in the Marines was up, Carlos has been even more distant than right after Marley left, making Michael feel like he's losing his best friend all over again.
As it turns out, Marley is the perfect cure for what ails Carlos, and reconnecting with her brings out a more dominant side of him that neither she nor Michael have seen before. Now he has a plan to relive the last Christmas they all spent together with a few sexy additions. Marley can no longer resist her boys, even though she thinks it's only a temporary arrangement. Can they find a way to make it last even after the holiday has ended?
Marley In Chains is the final novella in the A Kinky Christmas Carol series. This holiday-themed trilogy was written by three different authors, but the stories are connected by each being about a different member of the wealthy Knight family who all live in the same building, Dickens Towers, in Chicago. As with the other two novellas, the magical doorman, Frost, who looks suspiciously like Santa Claus plays a role as well, giving it a touch of whimsy. Overall, this was a pretty good wrap-up to the series with a few caveats which I'll get to shortly.
The heroine of this novella is Marley, cousin and super-assistant to Holly from the first story, Getting Scrooged. She was born into wealth, but her mother lost two husbands (for some reason I can't recall now whether it was to death or divorce) and remarried a man who was not of her social station. This left Marley suddenly adrift in a public school, when she'd been used to private school, and being teased by the other students. In stepped best friends, Michael and Carlos, who became her defenders. The three were inseparable for the next six years until Marley turned eighteen. They had shared some sexual intimacies and were close to making love when Marley lost her parents to a car accident just before Christmas and later left town. She was gone for several years, but returned to become her cousin's assistant four years earlier. However, she never contacted the men she'd been in love with and had never forgotten, so she doesn't reconnect with them until Michael comes looking for her and asking for her help to bring Carlos back to the land of the living. I mostly understood Marley and the issues that sent her running seventeen years ago, but it takes a while for those issues to fully surface. Once they did, I didn't feel like they were really given the weight they deserved and were overcome a little too quickly. However, I did still like Marley and thought she was a pretty good heroine.
Marley's heroes, Michael and Carlos, were devastated when she left town. Michael went on to become a champion boxer and now owns his own gym where he trains fighters and tries to keep at-risk youth out of trouble. Michael has always had strong family ties to fall back on, but Carlos didn't. After Marley ran, Michael watched Carlos pull further and further away until he finally enlisted in the military and left town, too. At the end of his second tour, Carlos was badly injured by an IED blast, nearly losing his leg, but since returning he's still been distant. Because of a letter Carlos wrote to Michael about Marley (unfortunately the reader is never let in on the details of its contents), Michael thinks the only thing that will revive Carlos is being reunited with the woman they both never stopped loving. This is what sends him to Marley's doorstep, and he's right about it being the only medicine Carlos really needed.
I liked Michael, but he's maybe a little too rough around the edges for my taste. Over the years, he'd watched Carlos connect with Marley on a more tender and intellectual level that he doesn't share with her, so when he sees that the same connection between the other two still burns brightly, he's ready to bow out of the threesome gracefully. I generally understood where he was coming from and thought it was an interesting move on his part, but I would have liked to have felt a little more of what he was feeling that drove him to that decision. Others may disagree with me, but I thought that Carlos was the more intriguing of the two male characters, probably because as a writer, he seemed to have a softer, more poetic and intellectual side. I wish the author had dug a little deeper with his characterization, because I feel like he had a lot of layers that were only cursorily explored, if at all. I understood that he'd been hurt by Marley leaving, but his giving up a Harvard scholarship to drive a cab and work menial jobs, later entering the Marines, seemed at odds with the rest of the man being portrayed, who had typically been the beta to Michael's alpha. All that suddenly changes, though, when he surprises both Michael and Marley by taking the reins in their relationship after they reconnect. I also thought that his seeming depression after returning injured was told much more so than shown and was magically overcome simply by seeing Marley again. So while I liked both men, I thought they were similarly underdeveloped as Marley.
I think to some extent the underdevelopment of the characterizations played into the three characters' relationship as a whole. We learn only enough to see that they had meant a lot to one another years ago and still do. I couldn't help feeling that they have this rich backstory that's barely explored. There's a decent amount of steam fairly early in the story, but at first there isn't much of an emotional connection given how close they'd all been before. It takes until the end of the story when they finally all come together to make love for this to right itself. Until then their interactions felt lusty but not particularly romantic or emotional. I also wasn't fond of the author telling about certain events in hindsight, when, IMHO, they would have had a greater impact if shown in the moment. Otherwise, though, it was a good story. Despite my feeling it was lacking in some areas, it was still pretty enjoyable. I might be making some allowances for it being a novella, whereas if these types of issues had persisted in a full-length novel, I might not have been as forgiving. But there was just enough to keep me reading and generally satisfied with the outcome, so I couldn't really justify marking it down any further. Marley In Chains was my first read by R. G. Alexander, but it has left me open to perhaps trying something else by her in the future.
Note: This book contains explicit language and sexual situations, including a spicy M/F/M menage, a touch of M/M action, use of sex toys, creative use of a cane, one scene of bondage with chains, a little spanking, exhibitionism, and anal sex, which some readers may find offensive.
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