Story Rating: 3.75 stars
Audio Rating: 4.5 stars
Narrator: Joel Leslie and Philip Alces
Length: 8 hours
Teddy Harris has an unusual job: he hugs people for a living. Officially, he’s a TLC provider, giving people the human touch that they may be lacking due to any number of factors. He can provide a hug, a cuddle, or companionship for someone who is lonely or hurting. Many of his clients are older people near the end of their lives, or abandoned children who need someone to hold them and let them know they’re loved. His newest client, though, may be the most challenging yet.
Riordan — better knows as Dullahan, the headless horseman — is an assassin for hire whose latest hit went wrong. Instead of the target, a powerful and despicable man, the bomb Riordan planted in the car killed a child and his mother. Riordan is wracked with guilt and rage, and the last thing he wants is his sister pressuring him into a family meal — a family who doesn’t know their son kills men for money. When his sister offers him the choice of having Teddy stay with him for a month as a companion and caretaker, or dinner with his mother, Riordan decides he’d rather deal with the professional cuddler.
Still trying to figure out what went wrong with his last hit, Riordan’s digging uncovers the possibility of a mole in his organization, one with enough information to destroy Riordan and all his fellow hitmen. Not only is his boss on high alert, but so are all of Riordan’s co-workers. With paranoid and dangers assassins on high alert, looking into every shadow for the traitor trying to kill them, it isn’t long before their attention lands on the new man in Riordan’s life. After all, what better cover for a vicious killer than as a sweet, helpless hugger for hire?
Hug it Out is the second book in the Haven Hart series, but is, in essence, a standalone. While Snow and Christopher make an appearance, it’s brief enough and so smoothly inserted that I don’t think anyone would have trouble following along. However, the first book is fun and charming (especially the audio version) so I really do suggest you start with book one, if only because it’s well worth the read.
Teddy grew up with an absentee mother and a grandmother who never let him feel for a moment that he wasn’t loved. With her as an example, Teddy has gone on to try to bring that same love and warmth to the rest of the world, giving emotional support and physical comfort to a variety of people. When one of his clients — an elderly woman — dies, Teddy feels the loss keenly. He knew she would pass soon, but that doesn’t make the hurt less. The chance to help someone a little younger and more vital, someone who needs him just as much, is, I think, part of what makes him say yes so quickly to working with Riordan. Knowing that his new client has PTSD, that he’ll be given a full month of near-constant access to help him through his pain, Teddy is more than willing to accept the job.
However, and this is where you see Teddy’s character, he isn’t going to accept the job if Riordan doesn’t say yes. He will not have this just sprung on some unsuspecting man; he needs Riordan’s consent before he’ll step one foot in the man’s house. What he does is to bring healing and love, not to make fun of someone or to be part of some surprise — no matter how well intentioned. We see Teddy’s thoughtfulness again and again, such as when Riordan refuses even the thought of cuddling. Thinking the man might be touch averse, or suffering from some trauma or reaction, he takes them to meditation instead, giving Riordan a chance to relax that isn’t reliant upon being touched against his will.
Riordan became an assassin when he was young and stupid and thought the idea was cool. Now, older, he’s tired of the death — no matter how well it pays. He’s tired of lying to his family, of sitting in uncomfortable positions for the chance at that perfect shot, of sneaking into morgues to steal heads (he’s not called the headless horseman for nothing), and he just wants … something else. What, he doesn’t know. But it isn’t this, not any more.
As in the first book, Teddy and Riordan, while they feel that instant spark of lust, don’t fall in love at first sight. Their chemistry grows through moments of humor and friendship. They talk, they find common interests, and Teddy makes it clear he’s not going to sleep with a client. He’s also not going to have a one-night stand, not even with Riordan. He wants a relationship, he wants Riordan to want him, not just the convenience of a willing body.
This is a world made of lethal killers that would feel at home in a movie or a comic book. It’s not gritty and realistic, it’s fun and a little goofy. The writing is good, the pacing is quick and sharp, and the conversations feel true to the characters. There’s a sense of humor and whimsy that keeps the story from feeling too dark or heavy. However, some of that lightness passes on to the main characters, as well. Teddy never felt like a real person, to me. He was a bit too perfect, too obliging, too forgettable as a character. His flaw was that he was too much of a nice guy, maybe, or that he didn’t want to be the lover of a hired killer? Riordan was a bit more developed and a more sympathetic and interesting character. He didn’t want to be an assassin, he wanted to just sit on his sofa and watch horror movies with Teddy; he wanted to sleep in, wake up, and snuggle Teddy. When he put on his assassin hat, it felt very much like a conscious act, turning him from who he was into who his job needed him to be.
As with this first book, the audio book of Hug It Out was narrated by Joel Leslie and Philip Alces. Leslie performed the voice of Teddy, while Alces did Riordan. These two do another amazing job, giving the characters vulnerability, humor, and personality. And, as ever, I highly recommend the audio version of this book.