I rarely dive into a series mid-stream, because I usually can't feel the connections to the characters that were forged in the previous books, since I haven't read them. However, I was fairly confident, given my experience reading books by Hope Ramsay, that I could start anywhere in the series and be perfectly fine. This book could absolutely be read as a standalone, although I do have the feeling there are parts of the book I could appreciate more had I started from Book 1. While the underlying trope with this book is Beauty and the Beast, there are a lot more elements at play than just a love story. The author touches on racial tensions, parental emotional abuse, and the idea of forgiveness even when the other person has never apologized. It can be a difficult book to read if you have even remotely experienced any of the above, because it will definitely dig deep into your emotions. While the cover seems bright and cheerful, the story within is best characterized as dark and emotional.
Jessica Blackwood never intended to return to Magnolia Harbor, after she was essentially banished from her hometown by her father sixteen years ago. Sent away to a school for troubled girls, for a "crime" she did not commit, she has never forgiven her family for not believing her. However, when her mother was ill two years ago, she returned, and now that her mother has passed, she is left with a grandmother who disdains her and an aunt who tries to keep the peace. Christopher Martin, or Topher to his friends, remembers Jessica as brave, but she got involved with the wrong person as a teen and paid for that decision, He has returned to Magnolia Harbor a broken and scarred man after a terrible car accident, and all he wants is for Jessica to build him a house on a neighboring island, where he can live his life away from people. However, all Jessica remembers is that he was a member of the football team who spread nasty rumors about her in high school, and she has never forgiven him. It's just a job to her, but as they spend more time together, the truth comes to light and soon a decision must be made about how much they're willing to fight for what they want.
This was a really engaging story, though one that took me a few days to get through due to the heavy themes. It was interesting how racial tension was apparent without being obvious, which I think is how things often work. There was only one moment in the book where it was written out plainly, when one of the secondary characters comments how it was annoying that "the most eligible bachelor of color" was interested in a white woman. That put me off a bit, since it was fairly early on in the story and this character is getting their own book later, but I forged on hoping that such thinking wouldn't be so overtly apparent throughout the book. Thankfully it wasn't, though it was definitely implied by several other characters. I enjoyed the character development between Jessica and Topher, especially as they uncovered secrets about each other and learned to forgive. It was a story of forgiveness, for sure, and healing, and without the two of them together, it would have been harder, if not impossible, for them to move forward in their lives. They stuck up for each other, even when it wasn't easy, and I appreciated that. I was so proud of Jessica when she became more confident in herself and spoke out against the people who had been looking down on her for so many years.
Hope Ramsay always writes an engaging story, and I'm now motivated to read the other books in the series! I can't wait to learn more about Magnolia Harbor and all the people living there.
**I received a free copy via NetGalley and this is my honest review.**