Close to the Skin by Zara West

A hardened criminal? Or a loving protector? Bella debates whether she should turn to the intimidating Vernon for help considering his past, but she can’t deny how he looks at her with love in his eyes.

What’s it About?

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Never back down, never turn your back, and never fall in love. Head of a multi-million dollar criminal enterprise, Vernon Newell doesn’t let family ties or misplaced sympathy get in his way. But there is one chink in his armor—Sirena Patras, the beautiful young Greek girl he seduced and deserted eight years ago. When Vernon discovers that Bella Bell, a prospering tattoo artist in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is actually Sirena, he sets out to woo and to win her. Despite her attraction to the fabulously sexy man, Bella wants nothing to do with a hard-headed, ruthless criminal. But when threatening messages start arriving, and Vernon disappears, Bella must choose to abandon the man she loves, as he did her, or risk her life to save him.

First Impressions

This novel presents us with a fascinating debate of whether or not to love a “former” hardened criminal. I think a quote from this book which perfectly encapsulates our heroine’s struggle is “Could a man who touched her with such love, kill over and over again in cold blood, and still have a heart left in him?” It’s basically a question of whether a killer can transform into a passionate lover. However, as the novel progresses we also question if the two personas can coexist at the same time. Such an intriguing dichotomy that doesn’t necessarily have a nice answer.

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Falling for the Criminal

First of all, Vernon is charming as hell. He and Bella have a ton of chemistry, not to mention a passionate past, and he draws on it every chance he gets. He’s intent to marry her, constantly trying to convince her of his worth, and how amazing their lives will be together. On the one hand, you really do want them to be together, as they seem like kindred spirits. At the same time though, you completely understand her hesitancy to get involved with him. It almost reminded me of a mob movie, like Goodfellas, where you almost scream to the woman on the screen, “Why are you risking your life to get involved with this man?”

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The last thing Bella wants is to get mixed up in Vernon’s criminal world. You just never know when his former enemies might come looking for him, or possibly torture her to get to him. Vernon insists he’s given up that world. That he’s gone straight. The fact that he constantly has a bodyguard with him reflects that danger still lurks behind every corner. I will say, he’s so charming and convincing that even I believed him. Unfortunately, we quickly find out that he wasn’t necessarily telling the whole truth.

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Stretching the Truth

Sooooo, Vernon basically straight out lies to Bella regarding his criminal activities. While he’s not necessarily his father’s heinous henchman anymore, he still hasn’t removed himself entirely from that world. Definitely an interesting set up for a main character. When Bella initially pushes Vernon away we want her to overcome her hesitations, and realize he’s the only one for her. However, when we see how he lies to her we also question if she deserves someone better. Probably the most intense up and down of an emotional roller-coaster regarding my opinion towards a main character ever! I didn’t really know as the novel progressed what my final opinion of him would be, or if he could redeem himself in Bella’s eyes. Or mine for that matter! Fascinating progression to be sure.

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Burning Fire

Bella has a fiery personality, which also equates into a burning temper. She’s often quick to pounce on Vernon, and jump to conclusions with those closest to her. We also see how this “quick to assume the worst” attitude carries over into her business life. When she has the opportunity to design tattoos for a new TV show, she’s convinced she doesn’t have the time to draw them all and still maintain her tattoo parlor. But, she does. When she loses those designs she laments over the fact she could never possibly recreate all that hard work in such a short amount of time. All is seemingly lost. But, she does.

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It shows that when she sets her mind to something she can accomplish the most seemingly impossible of tasks. At the same time though, when it occurs repeatedly throughout the novel it also makes us wanna tell her to “calm down girl, have some tea and take a deeeeeep breath”. When Bella also insists that she could never possibly love Vernon because of his violent past, and determinedly swears they’re over it’s easy to question how steadfast she’ll really be.

Some Additional Minor Points

Vernon has a pretty strange relationship with his younger brother. He’s tried to keep him out of the criminal world, but to no avail. Their relationship is almost in limbo as Vernon struggles to acknowledge that his little brother isn’t necessarily sweet and innocent. I don’t want to give away too much of this story line, but I will say it didn’t seem 100% resolved to me by the end of the novel. It does however allow for Vernon to make a choice of what is more important to him: Bella, or his family and extravagant lifestyle.

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Lastly, I’m sorry to admit that I did have some trouble remembering all of the details surrounding Bella and Vernon’s relationship from the previous novel. I read a lot of books, okay?! 87 books to be precise since I read the first one. I think a brief summary at the start of the novel would have been extremely beneficial, especially concerning the dynamic with Vernon’s deceased brother who kidnapped Bella. While the story does eventually come full circle, answering a lot of the question marks from book one, it came together a bit too piece meal for my liking. At one point I even found myself rereading some of the end of the last book to try and remember some of the details.

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*A copy of this book was provided for an honest review*

Series: The Skin Quartet, book 2. I am absolutely in love with the supporting characters in this series, specifically our band of graffiti artists. If a future novel features one of them as the lead character I am sooooo reading it.

Should you read it? I did prefer this over book one, even though we do see some of the same themes carry over into this novel as well. Most significantly, our main characters aren’t always 100% likable. They have flaws, just like we all do. However, whereas this feature in book 1 made it difficult for me to relate to said characters, I felt it was developed so much more prominently in book 2. It demonstrates our feelings towards the characters are fluid. One minute you want Bella and Vernon to have a happily ever after. The next you wonder if Bella is right to keep her distance. So interesting that as Bella contemplates her feelings for Vernon, we too can sympathize with her debate.

Smut Level: Nothing like a little hanky panky on the kitchen floor!

Get it on Amazon: Click Here. $5.99 Kindle Price. The Wild Rose Press, Inc. 264 Pages.