Her Secret, His Surprise, is a 2014 novel by Paula Altenburg. This is from the Red Hot Bliss imprint at Entangled Publishing. The Bliss imprint promises “sweet contemporary category romance with a small-town, family vibe,” and it appears Red Hot Bliss replaces sweet with some heat.
I am predisposed to like this, partly because Altenburg is a local author, and partly because the story is set in and around my own town of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The main character actually lives in a fictional suburban area, but many of the local references, real and fictionalized, are familiar. On the other hand, the terrible title put me off for a while. It should be called something catchier, like The Spy who Loved Me.
The plot is the standard “accidental pregnancy leads to romance with father,” with the “he doesn’t find out until later” variation. The story is well told, with good characters. There is also a suspense subplot, which adds well integrated narrative tension and complications.
The opening sequence has Cass, a mid-twenties engineer working for a defense company, in an Ottawa hotel bar, enduring the sleazy advances of a fellow conference attendee. She’s in a mood to celebrate her progress with the company, but not with this married man. Instead, she catches the eye of the hot bartender. The hot bartender, Logan, is actually an undercover CSIS agent (national security), but he’s also in a celebratory mood. A little flirting confirms mutual interest, and she invites him back to her room.
Two months later, she’s realized she has more than just memories from the best night of her life. She’s also reconsidering the wisdom of carrying condoms in a purse for many months. She doesn’t want support from Logan, and doesn’t expect it from a mere bartender, but thought he should know. She gives up easily when no one at the hotel seems to know him.
A couple of years pass, and Cass begins to think about dating. She’s living in a big old house in an expensive neighbourhood, and has just bought a new van, so despite her progress at the company, money is tight. Her father does not want to see her or “her bastard,” and the other mothers at the daycare pity her single status. Cass’s elderly and matchmaking inclined neighbour wants Cass to meet her grandson, who will be moving in with her for a while. Cass is not keen to meet him – she wants to find someone stable and responsible, not someone whose only achievement is being “a nice boy.” Meanwhile, Logan starts investigating a leak at the company Cass works for, and is brought in, undercover, as her personal assistant. He is of course also the grandson.
The set up is great. Our couple are suddenly together day and night. They both remember a great time together, but she does not see Logan as father material, and he sees Cass as someone living beyond her means at a company where an employee is selling military secrets. He cannot tell her who he really is. She is reluctant to have him in her daughter’s life, and he wants to get to know his daughter.
The whopping coincidences are well balanced with lots of small touches of realism in the characters and situations. Unlike many children in romances, the daughter is sometimes difficult. Logan gets teased at work for doing what is sometimes considered a woman’s job, and Cass deals with sexism from the old military men in her office, as well as gossip about who the father is and what she might have done to advance in the company. Minor characters enrich the plot with just a few lines or a brief reference.
Cass is richly developed. She’s ambitious and hard working, but her spending habits are a flaw, and she soon realizes that Logan is a more patient parent than she is. She is also reluctant to trust. Logan is more heroic. Despite never considering fatherhood, he takes to it quickly, thanks to some experience with nephews. His flaws are entirely those which Cass assumes, or he encourages as part of his somewhat flaky office temp persona, so there is not much room for character growth on his part.
Making my best effort to be objective, I really enjoyed Her Secret, His Surprise. It’s a fun mix of romantic fantasy and realism. Altenburg has another Halifax based romance, about an architect, and with a better title, Desire by Design. However, it seems most of her work so far has been paranormals, under her name and also under Taylor Keating. Visit her site: http://www.paulaaltenburg.com/