Most of All You by Mia Sheridan is a heartbreaking and beautiful story about the struggle for survival and hope for love. MUSTREAD for fans of contemporary and new adult romance!
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
[Some Spoilers; For Mature Audiences]
Mia Sheridan has this talent of writing the most heartbreakingly beautiful stories that explore multiple facets of love–familial, friendship, romantic. The characters and their experiences will gut you, but watching them struggle for happiness and find love will always be the most edifying experience. Even years later, just thinking about Archer’s Voice is enough to make me verklempt and swoon me off my feet. This was 100% my experience with Most of All You, too.
We meet Crystal in the midst of her giving up on life and her prospects. Through various flashbacks, we learn that Crystal had a desolate childhood. When her mom passes away, Crystal is left in the care of her very reluctant and negligent father. After years of abuse and disregard, Crystal completely dismisses the possibility of having love in her life. The most she can rely on is physical attraction and sex. Men are going to take what they want, no matter what, either with pseudo-sweet words or with violence. But Crystal believes that if she’s docile enough, the physical attraction to her body can provide some form of security. Crystal is an exotic dancer at the Platinum Pearl and walking through life in this way has helped her to survive most things.
But Crystal is not at all expecting to meet Gabriel Dalton. Gabe survived an incredibly harrowing experience as a child, one which he never thought he would would make it out alive. The trauma from the ordeal leaves Gabe unable to tolerate physical touch, even as an adult. This is particularly frustrating because he wants to pursue relationships and find love. Gabe comes to Crystal with a proposition. He’ll pay her to spend time with him and help him practice being touched by a woman. At first, Crystal is reticent, but when an unanticipated financial difficulty emerges, the funds Gabe promises change her decision. As Gabe and Crystal get to know one another, they find they have a lot in common. However, when their sessions begin to unfurl emotions Crystal has kept bottled up, it seems that she has just as much to learn and heal from with Gabe.
Truth be told, Crystal absolutely shatters my heart. This is a woman who has survived so much abuse from men–from being groomed and sexually abused as a young teenager up until repeated physical and sexual attacks from various men she knows from town and work. We see how, over time, these experiences condition Crystal to cower and acquiesce. But I never, ever begrudge Crystal, because doing so has allowed her to survive. Above all else, Crystal is a survivor. It’s likely what draws Gabe to her. I want so much for Crystal, which is why her relationship with Gabe makes me happy.
Gabe is a shining example of the resilience of the human spirit and the strength of love. As a child, it’s the love of his parents that allow him to survive years of abuse. Gabe takes the memory of that love and uses it to continue his art as a stone carver and his family’s quarry business. It’s also part of what motivates Gabe to seek help from Crystal and he’s very clear about what he needs:
“I can teach you what I do when someone gets close to me. I remove myself completely, and it makes it bearable.” She bit her lip, her brow furrowing as if considering something. “I think I can teach you how to do that.”
My body stilled as I stared at her. Her words caused my heart to ache. Oh God.
“That’s not what I want, though. I know how to remove myself. I know how to do that. I want to stay present. That’s what I need you to help me with. Staying.”
This resilience and hope rubs off on Crystal and gives her the courage to fight back during a horrific attack at Platinum Pearl. And, in the aftermath, Gabe is there to help provide a safe space for Crystal to physically heal. Slowly, but surely, Crystal and Gabe both learn to trust again. They learn how to STAY, even when the possibility of love scares them:
“How do you do it?” I asked. “How do you let go of the fear?”
He had been hurt before, too. So very, very profoundly. How did he move past that when I couldn’t seem to figure it out? Still held so tightly to it.
“The fear?” he asked, his gaze moving over my face.
“The fear of loving.”
A look of sad understanding came into his eyes.
“Because, Ellie,” he said, and his voice was filled with so much resolve it made me blink in surprise, “I win every time I’m bold in how I love. I want to say I win a hundred times a day, a thousand, by loving the sunrise, and the wind, and the way raindrops sound on my window.”He paused, his thumb moving lightly over my cheekbone, caressing my face like I was precious. “And you, most of all, you. I want to look at you and say, one evil man did not stop me from presenting my heart to the girl who claimed it. You get my heart. You. And, God, I hope you want it. But if you don’t, I still won’t regret giving it to you. Even then, I won’t regret loving you because it means I win.”
…Gabriel’s gaze moved to my mouth and lingered. I saw him swallow and knew he was going to kiss me. The butterflies in my belly all started flapping their wings at once as he leaned toward me, looking hesitant, and certain, and more beautiful than any man had ever looked. His lips parted slightly and then they were pressed against mine, warm and soft, and I let out a small moan of pleasure at the meeting of our mouths. He scooted toward me until there was no room between us, and I wrapped my arms around his neck slowly, weaving my fingers into the silky thickness of his hair. I tilted my head and opened my mouth so he could explore me, and he groaned, shooting a spark of desire between my legs. He took my invitation, brushing his tongue tentatively along mine, and then with more confidence as our tongues danced and tasted.
What I love most about this story is how their friendship and eventually romantic relationship also teaches Crystal AND Gabe how to stand up and have confidence in themselves as INDIVIDUALS. When the two are driven apart, though we sincerely wish for their reunion, we get to see how much Crystal and Gabe have grown in their individual strength and fortitude. In an emotional and inspiring moment, Crystal says it all:
“I’m here for me. I’m here because it took almost dying for me to realize that I’m not a piece of garbage. I’m a woman, with a heart and a soul, and with pain and regrets. I’ve made mistakes and poor choices, but I don’t deserve to be hit. I don’t deserve to be used. And I don’t deserve to be left to die in a pool of blood in an empty parking lot. It took almost dying to realize that the words you used against me only hurt because I agreed with them. But I don’t agree with them anymore. I don’t know what brought you to the point where you felt justified in beating a woman unconscious, and I hope you figure that out. But that’s not my concern. I’ll say it again: I’m not here for you. I’m here for me.”
Gabe also goes through a situation in the end that brings him full-circle. It’s pretty terrifying, but provides an empowering moment of redemption and further healing.
Mia Sheridan does give us an HEA, but what makes it even more glorious is that we have watched Crystal and Gabe claw and battle to find happiness on their own terms. They more than deserve it and we, as readers, definitely get to savor it, too.
In addition, Crystal and Gabe have a network of friends that provide a necessary support system–Kayla, Crystal’s co-worker; George, Gabe’s business partner and family friend; Chloe, a grad student who helps to document Gabe’s story; and eventually, Dominic, Gabe’s brother, too. From them, we get to see the importance of levity, patience, and forgiveness.
I highly recommend Most of All You for contemporary romance and new adult fans, especially if you like your stories a little dark and angsty. Go ahead and add this one to your Summer TBR list of Goodreads and download your copy ASAP! Also, check out a longer excerpt below, courtesy of our friends at Forever Romance!
I swallowed heavily, my mouth going dry as I took in the masculine beauty of his practically naked body. He was…divine. That was the word that immediately came to mind. Divine. Angelic. Godly.
My gaze soaked in his strong, broad shoulders, the tight, lean muscles of his chest, the taut ripples of his stomach. As if my eyes were drawn to him like a magnet, they moved down his chest to his muscled thighs, his well-formed calves and then back up to his boxers, where the outline of his male anatomy was just barely visible against the thin material.
My core clenched, wetness pooling between my thighs. I blinked, completely unaccustomed to this kind of reaction when it came to a man’s body. I wanted to simultaneously run away and step toward him, to reach out and trail a finger down his chest the way I’d just run a finger over the tiny stone bird.
“My father made that.”
“W-what?” God, my voice sounded too breathy, too stunned.
He crossed his arms over his chest, obviously self-conscious about his state of undress. He gave a quick nod downward. “Sorry, I didn’t know you’d be up.”
Again, my eyes moved to his bare chest. There was a sparse trail of hair under his belly button leading into the waistband of his boxers. My eyes leapt back up to his, and I practically gulped, sure he had heard it when his eyebrows twitched slightly.
I turned my head, my heart beating so loudly in my own ears I was sure he could hear that, too, even from where he stood. “It’s only fair, I suppose,” I murmured.
“Now we’ve both seen each other half-naked.”
Gabriel tilted his head, assessing me in some mysterious way. He suddenly turned and walked back toward his room. I stood rooted to the spot, confused, when he returned just as quickly as he’d left, pulling a T-shirt over his head. He walked toward me, coming to stand directly in front of where I stood. His expression was slightly shy, slightly teasing. “I hope…that if we see each other naked again, it won’t be a job, or an accident. It will be because we both want it, and because it means something.”
Visions swirled through my mind, unbidden: tangled limbs and twisted sheets. Heat filled my veins, blood pumping between my legs. It was too much. It was…out of my control and it scared me. I didn’t want to think of Gabriel that way, couldn’t think of Gabriel that way. In truth, had never thought of any man that way. “Mean something?” My voice was a mere whisper.
He nodded, his expression going serious, his eyes filled with sudden gravity. His hand slowly moved up to my hair, and he brushed a piece back from my face. His hand lingered, his knuckle brushing gently down my cheekbone. My breath hitched at the subtle touch. His full lips parted slightly, those angel eyes moving over my features as if he was memorizing me, memorizing the moment. I was spellbound, caught once again in his gaze. No one had ever looked at me the way Gabriel was right then, not in all my life.
“Yes.” It was all he said, leaving me to try to comprehend his meaning. But of course getting naked always meant something. A bribe, a paycheck, a coercion, a means to an end…only I knew very well Gabriel didn’t mean any of those things, and it was impossible to convince myself he could. I already knew better. And I didn’t want to think about what getting naked would mean to Gabriel because the very idea filled me with terror and an aching, needy want. But mostly terror.
*Many thanks to the publisher for an advanced review copy.