Romance One Excerpt: Does this Conversation Work?

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Here’s a longer excerpt from Romance One. I’m still tweaking this, but would love to have your comments.

Darwin arrived at Marianna’s campground earlier in the day. She found him attractive, but unprepared for camping. She’s curious about why he is there, but happy to have a paying customer. He’s there on business – his employer holds a mortgage on her property, and wants the land. He’s not above a little flirting to get information his company can use against her.

This is their first conversation of any significance, and it’s a challenge, as I need to establish the mutual attraction, his duplicity, and her hesitation, and do a little foreshadowing. Does it work?


[Marianna is in the pump house for her well].

Marianna was replacing a clogged filter when it started to rain . She could hear it lightly tapping on the tin roof, slowly increasing in volume and frequency. By the time she had put away the tools and opened the door, it had become a heavy, wind-driven downpour. As she headed for house, she looked over to Darwin’s site. She could not see him, but it looked like there was a light inside his truck. He might be drier sleeping in there, she thought. By the time she reached the house she was soaked through to her underclothes.

She shucked her wet clothes in the kitchen. She put a kettle on the stove, and while it heated she went upstairs to her room, and put on some sweats. The kettle started to whistle as she was heading back down the stairs, and as she entered the kitchen there was a knock at the door. “Just a minute,” she called, turned off the stove, and briefly considered changing. She decided to get the door. Her hope that it was another guest lasted only until she opened the door and saw Darwin in her porch, in a shiny yellow rain poncho that was too thin to last a week. “Yes?”

“Sorry to bother you, but I was hoping to charge up my phone. Given the weather, I can’t use the outlet at the site.”

“No, of course not. Come in. Wait – hang your poncho over to the left there,” she said, indicating a row of hooks in the porch behind him. “I’m just making some tea. Would you like some?”

“That would be warming, thanks.” Darwin hung up his poncho in the porch, and stepped into the kitchen. “Wow – this is gorgeous.” Darwin surveyed the large kitchen. It ran the length of the back of the house, with a wall of windows facing the ocean, above a long counter. The windows and pink cupboards were decades old. A modern fridge and stove along the far wall contrasted with a huge old wood burning stove opposite the windows. “Do you use that,” he asked, pointing at the wood stove.

“Sometimes. If the power goes out, and it’s a good source of heat in the winter. What kind of tea would you like? I’m making herbal for me – hibiscus, but I have others. Please, take a seat at the table.”

“Just regular tea – with lots of sugar, thanks.” Darwin walked over to the table. Where can I plug in my phone?”

The kettle started to whistle. Marianna turned off the stove and poured the tea.  “Sorry, over here.” Darwin walked over to her, close enough that she could smell a mix of the lingering vinyl scent of the poncho and something like a cedarwood soap. He plugged in his phone. She took a step sideways to put a little distance between them.

“This one mine?” he asked, indicating the mug with the brownish tea.

“Yes. I know it’s not a proper tea cup, but I prefer a larger serving.”

“That works for me.”

She poured water into her mug. The water turned bright red. He wrapped a hand around his mug. Large hands, she thought, but that doesn’t mean anything. “Spoons are in the drawer in front of you.” He took a spoon, and offered her one, but she shook her head. “No thanks – never in herbal tea. Sugar’s on the table.”

Darwin crossed the room and sat at the long side of table, in a chair opposite the window. She followed. Definitely works out, she thought.

“You get rain like this much?”

“Not too often. And it usually passes quickly.” She sat down at the short side of the table.

“Oh? You checked the forecast?”

“No,” Marianna said, “But you can’t rely on the forecast here anyway. Sometimes there is heavy rain on one part of the island, and just a light shower next cove over.”

“Must be bad for business, though.”

“Usually when people go camping, they’re prepared for bad weather.”

“And you’re saying I’m not?”

“I don’t get many tent campers, and they’re usually, more…”

“Outdoorsy?”

Marianna blushed. “Well, no offence, but you look like you work in an office, and you didn’t show up on a bike.”

“People do? But yes, you’re right, I do work in an office. I work out, though. How can you tell I work in an office?”

“It’s late summer, and you have no tan. Short hair, neat nails. And a lucky guess.”

“So you were checking me out?”

“I’m in a service business – I need to know my customers.”

He sipped his tea. “Usually campgrounds have a shelter or some something for rainy weather.” A gust of wind splashed water against the kitchen window.

“I’m hoping to build one next year. I was going to this year, but I had to upgrade the water system, which cost more than I was expected, and it’s hard to get bank loans, especially when you are not an established business, and especially when you’re a woman. As it is, my mortgage is with a shady outfit, at a ridiculous rate, but that’s all I could get. I’m hoping to transfer to a more respectable company next year, and that should free up some funds for a picnic shelter.”

Darwin digested this news. Her interest rate was very fair, under the circumstances, but if she thought she could refinance, she might be more resistant to takeover plans.

“What made you decided to start up a campground, especially with the financial challenges?”

“After I finished my marketing degree –“. The light flickered once, a second time, and went out.

“I guess I can’t charge my phone now.”

“It may not be out very long. I’ve got a generator if it is. For now, I’ll light candles.” Marianna got up and went over to the counter.

“I’ll help.”

“No need. I just need to get a match – there’s already candles beside the table.”

“So this happens a lot too?”

“No, I just like using candles.” She got up, moved some candles from a shelf to the table, walked over to the stove, and returned with a long match. She lit the candles, put the match on the stove, and sat down again.

“Now isn’t this romantic?” said Darwin. “I’m a lucky guy – just got here, and I’m already enjoying a candlelit evening with a beautiful woman.”

Marianna felt the heat of her blushing, and was grateful it was too dark for him to notice. Her hair was a ragged mess from the rain, and she was wearing worn sweats. But no one had shared her bed since that French cyclist at the beginning of the summer, and the season was almost over. Darwin was a little odd but seemed decent. The changed light made him look more rugged, and his stubble was noticeable. “Just trying to show you some good old fashioned Cape Breton hospitality.”

“So you’re from here?”

“No. My family’s from here. I’m from Toronto, but my mother was from here. This was my grandmother’s place, and I used to come here in the summers. I moved out here a couple of years ago, and started turning it into a campground. What about you? How far have you travelled to get here?”

“I’m working in Toronto now, “said Darwin, “but I’m actually from down Yarmouth way. Moved to Toronto when I was 17, and never looked back.”

“So I left the corporate world, and you sought it out.”

“Looks that way. But tonight we are both here. Funny how that happens.” Darwin reached over, gently took her hand, and started stoking his thumb across her palm. She looked up at him, but he was looking out the window. He turned to her, smiled, and took a sip of tea. She smiled at him and took a sip. Another gust of wind splashed water against the windows. The lights flickered on and Marianna jumped up. She picked up her mug with both hands.

“Well, there we go. Power again.” She walked over to the counter, feeling foolish. He was charming enough, but as pleasant as it might be, she didn’t need a one night stand with a pale gym rat who probably wanted to share her bed because he thought it was a better option than a tent in a storm.

“I think the rain is slowing,” said Darwin. He got up and walked around to the window. “Yes, it’s clearer now, and I’ve taken enough of your evening. I can just leave the phone here, if that’s okay with you?”

“Yes.”

“Thanks for the tea.” He bought his mug to the counter, then checked his phone for messages and texts. “No signal. I guess with the power outage it might take a while to restore cell service. Your website said you have internet service, but I’m not picking up Wi-Fi.”

“I don’t have it yet. The internet is a shared computer up front, but it uses the cell service for internet, so until the cell network is back there’s no internet.”

“Well, I wanted a vacation. Guess I can get some reading done. Thanks for the tea.” He opened the door to the porch and put on his poncho.

“You’re welcome. Hope you have a good night and keep dry.”

“You too. I mean, I’m sure you’ll keep dry, but have a good night.” He opened the outer door, and Marianna was relieved to see the rain had almost stopped. She waved as he closed the outer door, then closed the inner door, and leaned her back against it. She touched her palm where Darwin had stroked, and smiled. His phone buzzed. She walked over to the counter, and saw New Message, from Carla, the words “miss you” and a heart. It was only there an instant before the phone locked and the screen went blank.

Just another pig, she thought. It’s a good thing the power came back on before that went any further. She considered calling him back to tell him there was message, but decided against it. He could get his damn message in the morning.

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A Redemption Mystery: The Black Sheep’s Redemption

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The Black Sheep’s Redemption, by Lynette Eason, is a 2012 Harlequin in the Love Inspired (Christian Romance) Suspense line. This is number five in a set of six stories, and there are the usual references to recently married family members. Just in case you were not aware of the religious aspect of the genre, a church is prominent on the cover. In fairness, an important scene takes place in the church.

Demi is new in town. Following an attack that left her with amnesia and no identification, she winds up in a rented room above a bookstore, in the small town of Fitzgerald Bay. She gets a job, working as a nanny for Charles. Charles, a divorced doctor with toddler twins, is willing to hire a nanny with no experience, background, or ID, because his last nanny died under mysterious circumstance, and he’s a suspect.  This setup is a little too soap opera for me, but let’s see where it goes.

The suspense plot is good. Someone is threatening Charles or Demi. We don’t know who is targeted, which adds to the suspense. On the other hand, they never suspect each other, which would be a nice twist (perhaps a little too darkly, I’m thinking of the final two in And Then There were None). There is also the mystery of Demi’s identity, and her original attack, though, predictably, that’s related to the current threats, or at least some of them. There are a many loose ends, which I suspect and hope are part of the series arc. The threats provide action to keep the plot bustling along – no outing or event is safe, not even a morning at church.

The romance plot is fair. The couple are together, single, see each other as decent people…sometimes that’s enough, but this is a story, and I expect more. There did not seem to be any internal obstacles to their relationship, and little in the way of external ones. Consistent with the Love Inspired line, the main characters have a religious life. It’s present, but unobtrusive in the story. (Ever notice how often religion comes up in The Simpsons? And the city nearby is Springfield – a common city name, but also the home of the Simpsons. Coincidence? Probably.) Heatwise, there’s mild longing, but no lust or sex.

Charles was married, but his wife left him. Demi also has a good reason for being single. The character histories deftly answer the question of why these people are single, a question I often have, but unfortunately an opportunity for character growth is missed. There’s no explanation why Demi is now open to a relationship, and Charles did not have to redeem himself to enter a new relationship, as he was apparently completely blameless in the divorce.

The title tells us the black sheep is redeemed, but there’s no black sheep in the story, and not much redemption either. The title could refer to Charles being a suspect, and then cleared, but that’s a minor point in the story – it does not happen due to any decision or change by a character. This is not the first time I have questioned a title, and perhaps I expect too much from my titles. Perhaps someone with a draft romance title Romance One should wait until they have come up with a good title before criticizing others.

In the end, the story does not go far from the soap opera set up. The pacing and writing is good, so it reads well enough to pass the time on the bus, but it needs more drama in the relationship to be more memorable.

Danger in a Small Town: Confessing to the Cowboy

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Confessing to the Cowboy is a 2013 Harlequin Romantic Suspense by Carla Cassidy. Given the random nature of my romance book purchases, I’m surprised this is my third title from Cassidy. I’ve previously read Just Joe and Cowboy with a Cause – the latter from the same Cowboy Cafe series. That was number three, and this is the fourth and final.

Cameron, like Adam in Cowboy with a Cause, is a cowboy in name only. He’s the sheriff of Grady Gulch, and, as the book opens, he is at the scene of the third recent killing in his quiet little town. I know this is a suspense, but starting off with a dead body, the third in the story, and all women, casts a shadow that makes it hard to be happy about anything that follows. I prefer the suspense element of my romances to be cozier (and I’m not keen on dead bodies to establish bad character in any story). All three victims worked at the Cowboy Cafe, and Cameron suspects its owner, Mary, might be the next target.

Mary arrived in town eight years ago, baby in tow, and started working at the Cafe, eventually buying it. Cameron is fond of her, but she’s been cool to him, and in eight years he hasn’t given up on her – or bothered checking her background. Most nights he drops in for a late coffee and a chat with Mary, and they have a friendship of sorts. Mary’s attracted to him, but doesn’t want to get involved with someone in law enforcement, so the friendship works for her too.

The set up is a more forced than Cowboy with a Cause, and it’s the friends become lovers plot. The titular confession comes early, which avoids the annoying plot device of a secret causing the climax. On the other hand, once the confession is out-of-the-way, the bulk of the story is the suspense plot, with very little relationship or character growth. The suspense plot is solid enough, but unlike some suspense plots (such as in Cowboy with a Cause), the existence of a killer, their name, and their motivation are all established early, so it’s just of matter of who will find who first.

The timing of the one sex scene contributes to the heat level, and Mary is a strong character from beginning to end, though she takes more risks than necessary. Cameron rescues her more than once, but in the end she rescues herself. That’s good, but her actions were, for me at least, another dark note in the story.

Overall, it’s a competently told story, and it has the ordinary characters I prefer. I preferred Cowboy with a Cause to Confessing, but didn’t mind seeing the loose ends tied up. Now

Pride and Other Worlds: The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic

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The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, by Emily Croy Barker, is a 2013 fantasy novel. As I said when I reviewed The Demon’s Daughter, many stories marketed under the umbrella of fantasy have the superficial aspects of the genre, but not the core elements. I’m happy to say that Guide to Magic has the core elements. There’s even a dragon, both dangerous and common, as Ursula K LeGuin warned. However, what struck me most was the romance – subtle and sweet.

Nora is in her late twenties; a graduate student with a stalled literature thesis and a ex-boyfriend who dumped her after four years. She’d expected a proposal, not news that he’d decided to a) leave her, and b) marry someone else. Away for a weekend with some friends, she goes for an early morning walk in the woods, takes a wrong turn, and ends up at the fabulous home of Ilissa.

There are days of glamorous parties, with Nora unsure of things, yet happy in a dreamlike state. She meets Oscar Wilde at a 1920s party in New York, while vaguely aware that she is nowhere near New York, it’s not the 1920s, and Oscar Wilde died decades before the party. Ilissa’s son Raclin meets her, courts her, and makes a proposal, which she happily accepts.

The wedding plans are interrupted when Nora, strolling in the woods, meets a group of soldiers patrolling the border. Among them is a magician, Aruendiel, who points out that since she cannot answer how many legs a horse has, while looking at one, she may not be in the best state of mind to marry anyone, let alone Raclin.

The wedding goes ahead, Nora is soon pregnant, and her situation becomes less and less tolerable. Aruendiel rescues her, and she reconnects with reality, to the extent that she can, since reality is now a pre-industrial world with magic. She becomes a guest at the modest castle of Aruendiel, working in the kitchen to pay her own way, and decency is maintained by the presence of a house-keeper.

We are now about a hundred pages into a story of 563 pages, and there are several plot threads established. Common to this type of fantasy, Nora needs to learn about this new world, and therefore herself, in order find herself and her home. Barker has done a good job of creating a coherent and functional world, and of keeping it in the background. The magic is subject to complex rules and conditions, so it cannot be used to solve every problem. Part of the pleasure of the story is the exploration of the world, though it slows the pace at times.

This new world is threatened by a dark force (also a common element), and since that force is Nora’s husband and mother-in-law, both of whom want her back, it’s also a personal threat (but not the foretold destiny variety – the threat arises from her actions). The portrayal of her husband is a great example of what fantasy does best. Then there’s the relationship between Nora and Aruendiel. It grows slowly but surely, allowing the reader to savour every movement and word that builds the bonds between them. They develop that rare and quiet love that can exist between friends or lovers, together or apart.

Nora left for her morning walk carrying only a copy of Pride and Prejudice, and the book plays a couple of roles in the story, in addition to being an unsubtle hint about the progress of the romance. There are also echoes of Jane Eyre, and, in one example of the book’s humour, Nora’s knowledge of poetry literally saves her life. I am also reminded of A Princess of Mars, with the genders reversed, and the heroine battling sexism on top of everything else. Although she is rescued by the hero, she becomes a rescuer.

After some leisurely pacing in the middle of the book, the ending comes quickly, and some might consider it unsatisfying. I found it satisfying, and deeply romantic, but would still like to know more. The characters are rich and interesting, and many elements of them and their world remain unexplored. The sequel has been completed, and is looking for a publisher. I hope it continues the magic of this  book.

An Update and Two Questions

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Opening Update

Thanks to all who responded to my call for comments on the opening of Romance One, whether it was here, on Facebook, or by email. After considering everything, I’ve decided to shift some things around. Instead of starting with the heroine saying good-bye to the honeymooning couple, the story starts with the arrival of the hero. This came about a paragraph after the excerpt. She’s on her way to fix the well, when a new camper arrives, obnoxiously honking when he can’t find anyone at the office. Starting there, with the hero and conflict at the very beginning, works better. The honeymooning couple play no role in the story except to provide some back story for the heroine, so that incident will be presented later. Another excerpt coming soon.

Newsletter?

Many authors have an email newsletter. It’s a great way to keep in touch without relying on social media, and less formal than blog posting. On the other hand, it can end up being more clutter in the mailbox. Do you read or write newsletters? Would you sign up if I offered one? Let me know, thanks.

Blog Content?

This blog is mostly book reviews, with a few posts about what I am working on, and occasionally other thoughts. Are you only here for the reviews? Would you be interested in reading old love poems I’m found of, and other romantic (more or less) ramblings? Romantic photos and images? Again, let me know.

Happy Spring, Beth.

 

 

A Decent Thriller: Two Days in Caracas

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Two Days in Caracas book coverI receive several author newsletters (and might start my own soon – stay tuned). These often contain promotions for free or inexpensive ebooks, and I might click the download or purchase button without reading much about the book. A few weeks or months later, I’ll be on the bus, or waiting at the doctor, and there’s an unread book on my phone. I don’t remember where it came from, but I start reading it. It might be a romance, or it might be something completely different.

Two Days in Caracas, by Luana Ehrlich (2015), is something completely different. It’s not a romance. It’s a thriller, and from Potter’s Word Publishing. According to their site, they publish”‘flinch-free’ fiction, which means you as a reader will never encounter profanity, erotica, or excessive violence while enjoying their books.” Many of their authors “write Christian fiction with a definite emphasis on the gospel message,” and Ehrlich is one of them.

I’ve read Christian romances under the Harlequin Inspired label (sometimes added to Suspense or Historical), and generally enjoy them. They are sweets, and the main characters might go to church or pray. I don’t, but then I’m also not a cowboy or a duke, and I don’t mind reading about them. The religious element is much stronger in Two Days in Caracas, and, as this is a thriller, romance is relegated to a minor subplot. The main character, Titus Ray, is a born again Christian, and his religion is a significant aspect of his life. That’s fine – for me, that’s a touch of the exotic – but he’s also a CIA anti-terrorism field agent, who seems to have no moral qualms about his job. He prays before interrogating a tied up suspect, not for guidance on whether or not he is doing the right thing, but for assistance with the interrogation.

Apart from the moral issues, that Titus can readily reconcile his work and his faith makes him a simpler character, and a less interesting one. (He does struggle with his faith, so there is internal conflict, but his struggle to be a better Christian does not include doubts about his work. In fact, he sees his work as an opportunity to spread the good word.) Action heroes are not generally known for their moral complexity, so it may be unfair of me to note that here, but the professed faith of the character raises the issue. The agent with a conscience can work well. One great example is Joe Haldeman’s All My Sins Remembered.

Two Days in Caracas is one of a series of novels featuring Titus Ray, and while this stands alone, there are continuing narrative arcs. The series has a catchy set of titles:

One Step Back, a novella, the prequel to One Night in Tehran
One Night in Tehran, Book I
Two Days in Caracas, Book II
Three Weeks in Washington, Book III
Four Months in Cuba, Book IV
Five Years in Yemen, Book V

In Two Days in Caracas, Titus is in South America, on the trail of a hired assassin who killed a fellow agent. Titus needs to find him, but also wants to learn who hired him, and why. The plot is handled well, though the ending is a little weak. Then again, I have the same complaint about the ending of The Day of Jackal.

Although a thriller, many sequences are padded with ‘police procedural’ details. Ehrlich knows, or seems to know, a lot about how the CIA operates, down to some very mundane and occasionally questionable details. The old airport car rental counter suitcase switch is used to swap identities when Titus returns to the United States, but in today’s vigilant and monitored airports, it’s hard to believe no one would notice. The snares of CIA bureaucracy, on the other hand, are entirely believable – I’ve worked in government offices.

I didn’t miss profanity or violence, but the romantic subplot suffers, like some sweets, from characters who seem to lack any interest in sex. There is one tiresome style note: too frequent foreshadowing. Many chapters end with something like “As it turned out, we never got the chance to try” or “Little did I know I would never see him again.” These are not necessary to build tension, as the plot incorporates various plans, goals, and deadlines.

Although there is flat characterization, padding, and excessive foreshadowing, as action thrillers go, this a fine if unusual read. It has the plot, action, and characters of a thriller, with the sex and violence of a cozy mystery. However, one aspect left me uneasy.

Ehrlich has chosen to use the names of real products and organizations in her story. For example, the hero drives a Land Rover, and another character drives a Buick Enclave. Characters have meals at IHoP and Chick-fil-A. And the good guys works for the CIA, while the bad guys work for Hezbollah. In any subject, using real products and organizations is artistically risky, as events can make your references outdated or embarrassing. A benefit is that this approach heightens reality, but when the subject is terrorism, I prefer some distance from reality. That’s my idea of flinch-free fiction.

Editing Needed: Stranded with the Suspect

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Stranded with the Suspect is a 2018 Harlequin Intrigue from Cindi Myers. Yes, I’m reviewing a book that is less than a year old. It happens sometimes, and since it is a current novel I’ll be more attentive to not revealing spoilers.

The title is misleading, since no one is stranded with a suspect. The back cover blurb also misleads. “They’re both undercover…and in way over their heads.” No, neither is undercover. Andi is on the run after escaping a cult of sorts, led by a charismatic and criminal man. Her self-appointed protector, a cop of some sort, never claims to be anything else. They do seem to be over their heads though. Perhaps it’s petty of me to point out title and blurb glitches, but unfortunately there are also errors in the text, and they distract from a decent plot.

Like many of the romantic suspense genre, a relationship grows between a woman in danger and the man protecting her. I’m sure someone’s written a story about a man in danger and the woman protecting him, but I have not read it yet. In this case, the woman is very wealthy, thanks to an inheritance, so at least she’s financially independent. The plot is complicated by the existence of two enemies, and the woman’s advanced pregnancy. A pregnancy is always a handy plot structuring device, and our couple are on the run, allowing for lots of action set pieces and close escapes as befits a suspense plot.

So far, so good, although it’s a series of poor choices that place our couple in increasingly perilous circumstances. There were moments where I wanted to shout “Don’t split up!” and “Turn back – don’t drive into the storm!” And then we get to the character details.

Andi is a poor little rich girl. She’s twenty-four, and remarkably naïve. She’s pregnant, but has no idea when the baby is due.  I had a lot of trouble accepting this. Yes, I know there are women who don’t even know they are pregnant, but Andi did not grow up in isolation or poverty. Given her circumstances, teenage rebellion would make sense, but she was with the cult for only about six months. Her life in her late teens and earlier twenties is a mystery. The issue of her uncertain due date is rendered moot early in the story, when a doctor examines her and claims the delivery could come any time in the next few weeks. No one pays attention to this news.

The baby was fathered by an an older married man who misled her, and who is now dead, in circumstances never fully revealed, but apparently unrelated to her present troubles.  As the story opens she’s still sympathetic to the leader of group she left.

Simon has been keeping an eye on Andi while he tracks the cult leader, and when she leaves the group, Simon realizes she is in danger. He considers Andi attractive, but dislikes her as a spoiled rich kid. Talking with her, he finds her vulnerable and lonely, and is disgusted that men like the cult leader and the father of her baby took advantage of her. He feels she is worthy of a husband who would treat her well. He also feels she will marry someone wealthy and sophisticated like herself, despite her own rejection of that lifestyle. My inner feminist wonders why he can only see her as partnered with a man.

He sees himself as a tough cop, a member of the working class, maintaining law and order, though there are suggestions that his background is also privileged. He’s proud of his work sending “widows and orphans back to uncertain futures and poverty because they had the bad luck to be born on the wrong side of the border.” Not much of a hero, especially to a woman who has apparently rejected wealth for a communal camp.

Both characters are wounded by their pasts, but they don’t seem to connect on that basis – at least not in the sense of healing from their wounds. Their relationship seems to come out of proximity and sharing some intense experiences. This brings people together, but a lasting relationship needs a deeper connection. It does not help that the relationship becomes sexual very quickly. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Andi has unresolved issues with her father. That was apparently the cause of the relationship that led to her pregnancy, and a factor in her relationship with the cult leader. Within a day or two of rejecting the cult leader she’s in bed with her latest rescuer and considering a life with him. Third time’s the charm?

Some errors in the text suggest the character backgrounds were not completely thought out. For example, early in the story, Simon notes that Andi’s father is dead. Later, Simon and Andi discuss visiting her father in prison. This is not a minor detail. Early in the story, Simon reflects on good people he knows, such as nuns who care for children in border town slums, and doctors who use their own money to help patients. Later, Simon thinks about his aunt, who runs a border town orphanage, and his uncle, a doctor who runs a clinic for the poor.

Then there’s this passage:

She turned her back to him and began to undress. He watched, mesmerized, as she stripped, revealing full, heavy breasts and the taut rounded mound of her abdomen. . . . She looked over her shoulder at him. “Well?”

I read this passage, and the surrounding text, several times, to make sure I had not missed reference to a mirror. I had not. I also considered that one might turn somewhat as undressing, but it’s clearly stated that she still has her back to him once undressed. Perhaps he just catches glimpses? That would be more erotic. But it seems to just be an error that should have been caught in editing.

The pacing is good, and there are a lot of good elements in this story, but it never quite comes together, thanks to unlikable and not fully developed characters. This is a well written story, but it could have benefited from another round of editing.

Romance One Excerpt: Does this opening make me look interesting?

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Yes? No? All comments appreciated – thanks!

“This is the most beautiful campground we have ever seen. It’s a lovely spot.” The young woman gave Marianna a hug, and stepped into her car, shepherded by her husband. He closed the passenger door, then turned to Marianna. “Fabulous spot for our honeymoon. We thank you.” He walked around to the driver’s side of the car, got in, started the engine, and drove up the hill to the gate. Marianna waved as they drove away.

She envied the young bride’s happiness, evident throughout their three night stay, but I love not being a passenger, and not having a man speak for me, she thought. The night they arrived, Marianna cooked a lobster dinner for them in her kitchen. They’d appreciated it, but then the groom told his wife she’d need to learn to cook lobster.

“I can show both you of,” Marianna had said.

“No, I stay out of the kitchen,” said the groom. “We’re kind of old-fashioned that way.” The bride just smiled. I give it three years, Marianna had said to herself. But she had to admit the couple seemed close. During their stay they had hiked together, gone swimming, and spent a couple of afternoons sitting on the beach, just reading.

Marianna watched until their car disappeared around the first curve of the mountain, into the bright red and yellow leaves. She thought she heard another car coming, and waited, but the sound faded. She had no reservations for today, and while a paying guest or two would be appreciated, she was hoping to spend the next few hours fixing the well pump. Two weeks ago she had replaced a defective main breaker that left half the sites without electricity, and now none of the sites had water.

“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” she said, as she started walking up the hill to the well shed. The shed was at the highest point on her land. Before going in, she turned to look down across the empty campground and out to the open ocean. After two years she still found the view breathtaking.

An Old-Fashioned Woman in an Old-Fashioned Plot: The Secret Life of Connor Monahan

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Book cover: Secret Life Of Connor Monahan The Secret Life of Connor Monahan is a 2001 Harlequin Desire by Elizabeth Bevarly.  It’s also available in an illustrated and presumably condensed version from Harlequin comics, something I have not seen before.Cover: THE SECRET LIFE OF CONNOR MONAHAN (Harlequin comics) Kindle Edition by Elizabeth Bevarly (Author), Kei Kusunoki The plot is a variation of the French Lieutenant’s Woman plot (man is attracted to fallen woman, who he can have sex with but cannot love or marry, only to discover she is a virgin, and therefore was suitable for love and marriage until he ruined her.) In this case, the man, Connor, is an undercover police officer. He’s investigating a prostitution ring that appears to be running out of a restaurant, and he assumes the owner, Winona, is the madam, and a former prostitute. It doesn’t help his assumptions that the restaurant is decorated like a bordello, features phones on the tables to encourage communications between different tables, and that Winona’s fondness for the Victoria era includes elaborate and old-fashioned dress.

The phones on the table is an odd gimmick, more appropriate for a singles bar (circa 1990s) than a fancy restaurant, and not in keeping with Winona’s usual preference for genteel behaviour. The phones are one of several odd items that show up for narrative convenience, and require great suspension of disbelief. As the story opens, the local police force has been watching the restaurant for three weeks – a significant amount of resources to investigate possible prostitution. Mid-story, we learn that Conner has been watching the restaurant, and Winona’s apartment above, yet never noticed she had a small balcony off her bedroom. And late in the story a twin brother pops up, as part of a series of coincidences. This is also one of those stories where the couple are immediately attracted to each other, and of course the sex is amazing.

The coincidences and inconsistencies keep the story light, and remind the reader not to take any of it too seriously. Connor’s assumptions and Winona’s naivete lead to some amusing conversations. He soon learns the truth about her, and the romantic tension before and after his awareness is steamy, though relatively generic, and resolved well before the end of the story. That just leaves the question of whether or not there is a prostitution ring, and how Winona will react when she learns who Connor is. For these to be questions, Winona has to be both unaware of what is happening in her restaurant, and never ask Connor what he does for a living.

That she never asks him underscores how little she knows about him, which is not ideal for a long term relationship. When she does find out, the quick and easy resolution is disappointing. Am I cruel to point out that these characters did not suffer enough? Or just forgetting that the story has been light from the beginning? Is it petty of me to point out that Connor does not actually have secret life? Probably. The title may be misleading, but at least it’s neither generic nor too specific.

I always enjoy witty dialogue. Winona is relatively independent, older than Connor, not a virgin (barely), and somewhat feisty, and these are all points in the book’s favour. As long as you don’t take it too seriously – and that’s hard to do – this is a fine book to accompany a bubble bath.

We Should Have Talked About this Years Ago: The Sheriff’s Pregnant Wife

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Sherriff's Pregnant Wife coverI’ll admit being hard to please. Sometimes the titles are too vague, while other times they are too specific. The Sheriff’s Pregnant Wife sounds more like a working title than a release, but I must admit it’s a better working title than I use (Romance 1, Romance 2, etc.) This is a 2007 Harlequin from Patricia Thayer. A look at her books (40 in twenty years) shows a fondness for western themes and babies, and this one is part of a series of five books, all featuring single parents, usually with someone coming, or coming back, to Destiny, Colorado. (My inner cynic wonders if the town slogan is “There’s no escaping”?)

Paige and Reed were childhood sweethearts, and stayed close through high school. Then they broke up and went separate ways. They started lives,  careers, and relationships in different cities, but came back to their hometown. Reed had to care for his mother, and left the FBI after his partner and lover was killed. As the story opens, Paige, a lawyer working in the Denver DA’s office, is coming back to set up her own law office and have her baby, after her lover announces he is not actually divorced, and returning to his wife.

This is a second chance plot, enriched with a mystery concerning the long ago disappearance of Reed’s father, which made things harder in his already difficult childhood. There’s a hefty serving of family events and conversations, with siblings, parents, and weddings all going on. I grew up with few relatives nearby, and moved enough that the concept of a hometown and ancestral home means nothing to me, so it’s an odd and slightly exotic world.

The biggest problem I have with second chance plots is their tendency to have people, usually men, who have never gotten over someone. It’s romantic, I suppose, but also slightly creepy. All these years, and you never met someone else? Or if you did, it was meaningless. Granted, some lovers are not as special as others, but that brings me to a second common problem with these plots: The significance of other lovers is minimized. Reed misses his partner, but also downplays her, saying “we’ve all needed someone to be there. Sometimes it might not be the person we want it to be.” And Paige’s former lover is such scum we are left wondering why she ever connected with him in the first place. Former lovers, it seems, have plot functions (create a wound, get a character pregnant), but are rarely allowed any positive current role in a character’s life.

I always felt sorry for Rosaline:

FRIAR LAURENCE
Our Romeo hath not been in bed tonight.

ROMEO
That last is true; the sweeter rest was mine.

FRIAR LAURENCE
God pardon sin! wast thou with Rosaline?

ROMEO
With Rosaline, my ghostly father? no;
I have forgot that name, and that name’s woe.

Then again, considering how things turned out, she might have decided being dumped by Romeo was for the best. Contemporary romance novels have gotten away from virgins finding their husbands, but the way some second chance novels are written, it’s as if that’s still the ideal, and any interim relationships were a mistake. This novel is by no means the worst example of this.

This novel also perpetuates a pet peeve where children are involved – no child support, and no involvement of the biological father. Paige is hired to collect child support by one of her clients, so the issue is acknowledged, but Paige herself neither needs nor wants child support. Contemporary romances try to acknowledge modern families, where there may be children from different parents, but then don’t want to acknowledge the implications of that, which is families where children have different parents. All of this makes me want to write romances where former lovers are still friends, and children can have both a birth parent and a caring step-parent.

Okay, enough ranting.

The mystery subplot is well done, and well integrated into the romance plot. It increases the suspense, provides more reasons for our couple to be together, and the climax of that plot is also the all is lost moment of the romance plot. On the other hand, our couple might never have been apart for so long if they had talked a little more, a decade ago, or if Reed had read her letters instead of throwing them away. As a result, there’s not a lot of character growth, but it is suggested that both are more mature than they were in high school, and better prepared for a relationship than they were as teens.

Romantic tension is well maintained throughout, and the characters are ordinary people, both aspects I appreciate. The writing is good, though a couple of times there’s a static description of clothing when a known character appears, and I’m not sure, what, if anything, it is supposed to mean. “He was dressed in a pair of faded jeans and a burgundy polo shirt.” “The big man was dressed in a dark blue sport shirt and taupe colored trousers.” These sentences seem like character notes that made it into the final draft, and perhaps they stand out because most of the writing is smother.

In my ideal romances, the couple come together because they want to be together, not because they need to be together, and that’s the case here. Reed rescues Paige in a few minor incidents, such as a fall, but he’s not rescuing her from her pregnancy, and she helps him resolve the disappearance of his father. It’s also made clear that she rescued him when he was picked on as a child, so they come together more or less as equals. As second chance stories go, this is a pleasant read.