Quadruple Review: SEALed series by Mary Margret Daughtridge
Dear Ms. Daughtridge:
This review is a testament to the power of the Kindle free chapter. I had never heard of your SEAL books until Jane wrote her opinion piece on the caretaking alpha, and someone mentioned your books in the comments. Although I’m not a big fan of military heroes, for some reason I was intrigued, went to Amazon, and downloaded the first chapter of SEALed With A Kiss. That evening, while I was looking for a new book, I hit on that chapter and started reading. By the time I got to the end of the chapter, I was so hooked I immediately flipped back to Amazon and bought the whole book. And read it almost all the way through that night, enjoying it so much that I quickly purchased the three remaining books (to date) in the series, consuming those almost as quickly as I did the first. Normally I’d just review the newest release, but it was – by far – my least favorite book in the series, and because I knew I could not fairly talk about my responses to the fourth book without comparing it to the first three, I decided to review all four books in one shot.
SEALed With A Kiss: In his tenure as a SEAL, Jax Graham has faced many impossible situations, but none more difficult than trying to connect with his four-year old son, Tyler. The product of a brief marriage, Tyler lived full-time with his mother until she died unexpectedly as a result of cosmetic surgery. Now living with his maternal grandmother, Tyler is a quiet, sad boy, and no matter how Jax tries to relate to this child he now has full technical custody of, the boy barely responds. Of course, Jax doesn’t know much about relating to children, and his brusque manner doesn’t help.
As soon as family therapist Pickett Sessoms sees the man and boy down at the North Carolina beach, she knows how easy it would be for the father to engage his young son. Introducing herself to Jax, Pickett only needs a few minutes to change the atmosphere between father and son entirely. Walking away she thinks about how attractive Jax was, not knowing Jax was thinking exactly the same thing. What neither anticipates is that the coming hurricane will leave Tyler and Jax without a place to stay (some bad luck, bad timing, and bad parenting to blame there). But thanks to Jax’s sharp memory and ingenious skills, father and son show up at Pickett’s mainland house needing a place to wait out the storm.
As far-fetched as the set-up for this book sounds, the story itself – the growing romance between Jax and Pickett and the equally strong relationship developing between Jax and Tyler – is sweet, smart, and down-to-earth. Pickett is a woman content with her path in life, with her independence and her obligations. She is slowly renovating and refurnishing her home, and while she struggles financially, she is not looking for someone else to save her. Jax is equally satisfied with his life, and initially believes that he will simply spend a few days with Tyler and then send him back to his grandmother, Lauren, whom he does not really like but assumes will be a better parent to Tyler. Over the course of the story, though, Jax realizes that he wants to bond with his son, who does not really want to go live with his grandmother, although Jax cannot get a straight answer from him as to why (it’s nothing horrifying, but significant enough to make Jax think twice).
The attraction between Pickett and Jax is immediate and visceral:
The salt breeze carried the scent of his sun-warmed skin overlaid with coconut oil sunscreen, and she inhaled reflexively. She ignored the way her heart was beating much too hard and told herself to get a grip. Working at a Marine base, Pickett dealt with well-built, thoroughly masculine men all the time. How different could this one be? Resolutely she held her hair out of her eyes with her left hand, and thrust out her right.
“Hey.” She infused her tone with a combination of friendliness and authority. “I’m Pickett Sessoms. I noticed y’all from the deck of the Howells’ cottage. I thought I should warn you two that both of you are wasting that sand over there,” she indicated the strip of firm sand beyond the reach of the breakers, “and that’s wrong. In fact, it’s a crime.”
Jax’s smile broadened at her cheerfully imperious tone. As a pickup line, it was a little thin, but he’d give her points for originality. He still wished for the bikini, but he would settle for shorts. Nobody needed to be that formally dressed on a beach.
Her hand in his was slightly cool, tiny, and soft. So soft. She was tiny all over. He wondered if she was this soft all over.
Often in Romance, children present an obstacle to a developing relationship, but in this case it is the opposite – Tyler both brings Jax and Pickett together and offers them the opportunity to formalize their relationship much more quickly than they might otherwise have done. And it is this aspect of the story that is the most interesting – for Jax to secure custody of Tyler, he is going to have to be more stable than he currently is, and that most likely means marriage. In many ways, Jax and Pickett are well-suited to one another, but neither has had much time to know if they are in love or not, and while Jax doesn’t really care about that, Pickett certainly does. Watching these two negotiate their strong attraction in the midst of these difficult issues around Tyler and Jax’s life as a SEAL make for a surprisingly touching and insightful book. Neither character is perfect, nor does either hesitate to rely on the other’s strengths when the occasion calls for it. And Jax’s SEALness is not the sum total of his character, nor a gimmick. Likewise, Pickett is a nurturer, but she’s no pushover, nor an innocent woman in awe of the big, bad SEAL.
There are some elements of the story that seem clichéd. Pickett is one of those near virgins you meet in many Contemporary Romances, and Tyler is the cute little urchin who literally blooms under Pickett’s nurturing guidance (I also had a hard time remembering he was only supposed to be 4). There is also a lot of therapy-speak in the book, as Pickett instructs Jax on how to handle Tyler more effectively. On the flip side, though, there is frank treatment of Pickett’s celiac disease, which is something I cannot remember seeing in Romance, and which makes Jax initially think Pickett is unreasonably picky about food.
Of all four books, SEALed With A Kiss is my favorite, both for its often fresh phrasing and its thoughtful attention to the poignant and mundane aspects of the protagonists’ relationship. B
SEALed With A Promise features Jax’s best friend, Caleb “Do-Lord” Dulaude, a complicated man who has overcome tragedy and who now makes a point of playing down his frightening intellect with a smooth good ol’ boy demeanor. A nerd at heart who also believes in the existence of extra sensory perception among the SEALs, Do-Lord is hanging out at Jax’s wedding and planning his revenge against the man who destroyed his childhood, a powerful senator who just happens to be a guest at the wedding. And a very friendly acquaintance Pickett’s maid of honor, Emmie Caddington.
Like Do-Lord, Emmie is hiding her real self, despite the bright blue sling on her arm protecting her recently dislocated shoulder. The sling stands out because everything else about Emmie is meant to shift the eye away from her. A biology professor and child of missionaries, Emmie prefers invisibility to what she perceives as showing off, especially with her large breasts and rebellious intelligence. But once she corrals Do-Lord with an unusual request (to secretly switch a tier of the wedding cake to an identical one that is gluten-free), she inadvertently invites Do-Lord to notice her in a very visceral way.
I am not, as a rule, overly fond of revenge stories, in part because I think they generate artificial conflict between the protagonists for the purpose of drawing out the sexual tension. And I also dislike it when the heroine is used by the hero for his secret revenge. Fortunately, both Do-Lord and Emmie are so intelligent that Daughtridge does not insult them or the reader by keeping Emmie in the dark for long about Do-Lord’s intentions. Instead, once they are involved, he tells her everything, creating a nice alliance between them and a chance for their relationship to deepen. Because these are two characters with long-standing disguises, they need time to proceed through the different layers.
Still, there are some clichéd elements in SEALed With A Promise that threaten triteness. Senator Calhoun has a young daughter, who enchants Do-Lord and Emmie, and a subplot focused on her creates a lot of the book’s dramatic tension, which felt contrived and manipulative. Emmie also gets the standard girlie makeover early on, as she (not)shockingly realizes that her invisibility is really cowardice, not a bid to be taken seriously.
Still, it is nice to see two not traditionally beautiful characters appreciate each other fully, and it is especially nice to see a SEAL who is not mythologized as an alpha god. I did not like this book as much as the first, but I still enjoyed it overall. B-
SEALed With A Ring also has an interesting premise. Ladies man Davy Graziano is hanging out at Jax’s wedding, enjoying his general good fortune, when he sees the beautiful and distressed JJ Caruthers, somehow talking her into coming back to his hotel room for the night. But when JJ slips out the next morning without giving Davy her name, for once he finds himself on the wrong side of luck.
Cut to almost a year later at Emmie and Do-Lord’s wedding. JJ is almost engaged to a man she doesn’t love but who will satisfy her grandfather’s demand that she marry within the year, and all JJ needs now is that ring to keep her grandfather from selling her first love, the family car business. Still, when Davy recognizes JJ and approaches her, sparks fly again. Unbeknownst to JJ, Davy almost died in Afghanistan and brain trauma has taken most of his memories of the past year, including their night together. Davy recognizes JJ but doesn’t know why, and JJ assumes Davy has slept with too many women to remember her.
Still, the attraction is very strong, and when JJ’s current fiancée-candidate shows himself to be a total cad, JJ proposes a fake marriage to Davy. While Davy doesn’t want a fake anything, he has recently lost his mother, and his three siblings require a small fortune in support, forcing him to broker a deal with JJ that will hopefully satisfy them both.
SEALed With A Ring is a book with more promise in its premise than its execution. JJ’s pride and ignorance of the extent of Davy’s brain trauma understandably keeps her from telling him that they slept together at Jax’s wedding. Davy tells no one how extensive his brain trauma is, nor does he remember anything about his first encounter with JJ, despite the effort he made to discover her name after their night together. Davy’s uncertain future as a SEAL weighs heavily on the relationship, too, because Davy is constantly – and secretly — pushing himself to gain back the function he has lost, with mixed results.
What I like about this book is the undermining of clichéd elements that might otherwise have diminished the emotional issues in the story. For example, JJ’s grandfather is not the villain his actions suggest; he just wants JJ to have a full life outside the business and thinks he can force his vision of happiness on her. At the same time, though, there is not a great deal of dramatic tension in the story. Davy keeps his brain trauma so well-hidden, for example, that even the reader is shielded from much of its impact. And because the reader knows Davy and JJ care about each other, their ambivalence does not create much suspense. It’s not until relatively late in the book, once JJ finds out what’s really going on with Davy, that true conflict between JJ and Davy arises, but for me it’s too little too late.
One more odd thing: there is a scene in Emmie and Do-Lord’s book in which Davy delivers a terribly crude insult about Emmie, which, I suppose, is intended to demonstrate his shallow approach to women and to incite Do-Lord’s protectiveness. Davy’s brain trauma seems to have erased this aspect of his character, eliminating in this book a growth area and point of tension that I think would have been very interesting. Still, JJ and Davy are both likeable and I appreciate a heroine who is unabashed about her own career ambition and who isn’t going to throw everything over for a guy. B-/C+
SEALed Forever was just released in May, and it features JJ’s best friend Bronwyn Whitescarver and Davy’s buddy and fellow SEAL, Garth Vale, who was injured in the same raid that almost killed Davy. Garth is working at a North Carolina air strip (a government cover) until his leg fully heals and he can go back to active SEAL duty. Traumatized by the violent death of her fiancé, a cop, Bronwyn has relocated from Baltimore to North Carolina and out of ER medicine into a hopefully calmer life as a community physician. When Garth discovers a baby smuggled, abandoned, and likely drugged on board an arriving plane, he knows he needs to take her to the nearest doctor, who just happens to be Bronwyn.
Bronwyn and Garth previously met at JJ and Davy’s wedding of convenience, and because they ultimately recognize each other (he remembers her first), the story does not end with Bronwyn turning the baby over to the cops. Instead, Garth tells Bronwyn that he is the father of the baby, and together they care for the child, despite Bronwyn’s reservations about the circumstances and Garth’s story. Garth, however, quickly determines that Bronwyn is the woman for him, “[h]is mate. The woman he would marry. The woman who would bear his children . . . his forever love.” His goal, then, is to keep as close to Bronwyn as possible at all times.
Like the first book in the series, SEALed Forever places the hero and heroine together with a child in a somewhat isolated house. However, where Jax and Pickett’s relationship is based on open communication and honesty, there are many secrets between Bronwyn and Garth. One of those secrets is that Garth does not want Bronwyn to get too settled in Sessoms Corner or her new house, because as his “forever love,” she will have to travel with him once he returns to active duty. And because he cannot tell her the true circumstances of the baby’s discovery, the very thing that brings them together is based on an illusion. It’s the opposite of the situation between JJ and Davy – where that couple openly plan a fake marriage but have real feelings for each other, there is nothing open about the playacting Garth is doing, making their feelings for each other suspect, as well.
Consequently, I found the set up problematic and Garth imposing and even creepy, especially when he overtly thinks things like “…it was in his best interest for her to be uncomfortable in the house. When he returned to operating as a SEAL, she would have to move sooner or later to wherever he was stationed.” On the surface, Garth is helping her unpack, installing reliable locks and baby monitors and security cameras, because there are some strange happenings in the house that neither can explain. And yet, all the while, underneath he is pushing Bronwyn. Even on a physical level he tells her explicitly that he will “not push” her, but when he takes her farther than she intends to let him go, he tells her, “’…you knew I’d go as far as you’d let me. . .Your head is talking, Bronny. Not your body. Your body says something else.’” It doesn’t really matter what Bronwyn says she wants; he even takes it on himself to create a nickname for her without caring if she likes it or not.
What is particularly perverse about Garth’s perspective is that the very qualities that make Bronwyn such a good and dedicated doctor are those that make her attractive to him, something he recognizes. Still, it is not unprecedented for a Romance hero to crave in a heroine what he seems to lack in himself. But why Bronwyn would have feelings so quickly for Garth is less clear to me. Every time she distrusts her feelings (and his), I wanted to encourage her in that, because it seemed to reflect true intelligence and the perceptiveness she showed in her medical practice. Yet every time Garth manages to override her resistance, and Bronwyn seems to be following along more than coming into her own, undermining her characterization as strong and insightful.
JJ and Davy testifying to Garth’s good character makes things even more problematic for me, as does the way the resolution to the baby mystery basically lets Garth off the hook rather than forcing him confront the possibility of sacrificing his own career for Bronwyn’s. Late in the book Garth does seem to gain awareness that he must change to be a good man for Bronwyn, but it does not erase the previous imbalance of power between them. For me, SEALed Forever is a C- read, saved from D territory only by its competent prose and Garth’s eventual maturation.
Had I read SEALed Forever first, I may not ever have picked up the three previous books, so I am glad that chance led me to start at the beginning. With the exception of the most recent book, I really enjoyed the series, especially the first book, SEALed With A Kiss, which for me is the freshest and deepest of the lot. Still, I would definitely recommend the discounted digital Kindle bundle, which contains the first three books, and I hope that if there is going to be a 5th book in the series, that it returns to the thoughtfulness and consistency of the first three.