by Tori Ross
In this clever novella-length book, spicy romance and erotica author Tori Ross introduces readers to an ensemble of characters linked by the fictional bar of Rocks Tavern. Set in contemporary Missouri, Rocks is both a single narrative as well as a trio of interrelated short stories, each one focusing on the emotional, personal, and sexual lives of the women who work there.
In the first one, "Cherry Burn", we meet the Tavern´s bartender, Cherry. She had plans to leave this small town after high school, but the loss of her mother combined with the failing health of her father forced her to forego those ambitions so she could take care of him and her younger brother. When her first love, Dylan Wilcox, shows up at the bar one night, Cherry is immediately defensive and upset. And rightfully so: Dylan pulled a disappearing act ten years earlier, right after the two had had sex for the first time. Despite her near-primal attraction to him now, Cherry needs him to explain where he´s been before she will even contemplate a reconciliation--much less any sex.
In "Blue Balls", the book ´s second chapter, the story centers on the perspective of Piper, the hardworking no-nonsense waitress working the Tavern. Every dollar she makes through tips goes to help support her grandmother´s medical bills, as she is suffering from lung cancer. Creed, the local sheriff as well as someone who has known Piper since high school, is having difficulty expressing how he feels towards her. In fact, he even arrests her and takes her to jail for a few hours over a minor neighborhood complaint (there´s an eyesore of a hot tub in the front yard of the grandmother´s front yard, and Piper hasn´t saved up the money yet to have it removed or pay the fine). But when tragedy befalls Piper´s life, we see that Creed is more of a man of action, rather than words; and this waittress quickly admits that she likes what she sees.
In the final entry to Rocks, we shift focus again to Libby, the middle-aged owner of the Tavern.
While she has appeared tangentially in the first two stories, it is only in "Pistol Fire" that we get to learn her backstory--why she keeps her distance from everybody, and why she is so scared of attempting to have an intimate relationship with a man. Sure, Libby has sex with guys from time to time, but nothing serious until confronted by Brock, the town fireman. He is determined not only to get close to Libby, but to affirm that she is worthy of being loved as well as sexually turned on.
Ross is a skilled and patient author. In each of these stories, she takes her time introducing her cast of characters, each one who can be alternately sassy, annoying, a cause of resentment, and a source of compassion, all at the same time. Her fiction includes discussion of some past abuse, articulating the lingering impact of past trauma on our present-day lives, and is done so with intelligence and understanding. Refreshingly, Ross also clearly touches upon issues of class, gender-roles, and economic opportunities (or the lack thereof). In other words, the people in Rocks are real, and Ross wants you to get to know them before they take off their clothes.
And get naked they do. Each of these short stories features a steamy happy-ever ending between its pair of lovers, each one done in a location which reads as both unusual as well as inevitable (I´m not going to spoil it and tell you where or what they do). The depictions of sex possesses greater heat, because the reader has had the chance to see these men and women grow intimate. We know what is at stake, for each of them, and that makes their vulnerability and their nakedness all the more hot.
Bonus: check out this episode of Sitting Here Reading Corn with..., and listen to Tori Ross and I talk about writing erotica.