Under the Lights by Shannon Stacey

Do you like small town romances set in towns that feel like they actually could exist?  If so, you should try reading Shannon Stacey if you haven’t discovered her already. For this month’s multiblog TBR Challenge, I decided to read her 2015 novel, Under the Lights, first in the Boys of Fall series.

When I talk about small towns that feel real, the setup of this book hints at it.  Stewart Mills is not an idyllic little town with financially secure residents shopping in cute, trendy businesses who seemingly do not need to worry about money or deal with commuting to larger cities. In fact, we learn right away that this small New England town has fallen on hard times and may need to cut one of its social staples, the high school football team, if enough money cannot be raised.

Local police officer Kelly McDonnell, the coach’s daughter, has been tasked with convincing members of Stewart Mills’ old championship team to come home and play in an exhibition match against the current team. Organizers hope that proceeds will be enough to keep the team going for another year. Among the men Kelly calls is her unrequited high school crush, and yes, the sparks do start to fly as soon as he comes to town.

Chase Sanders left Stewart Mills after graduation, but he decides to come back and play in the fundraiser for several reasons.  First of all, he had a tough time as a teenager and both the team and his coach’s house were refuges for hum.  In addition, his construction business has faltered in the tough economy, his partner stole what little bit of money remained, and his girlfriend left him.  Since he doesn’t have much going for him at the moment, what can he lose by going to Stewart Mills for a few days?

He and Kelly get thrown together right away as Chase runs the new stop sign in town. Kelly’s old attraction to Chase starts to come back, only this time it looks like it might be returned. A fun development but there are definitely complications.  For Chase, the coach is like the father he never really had so getting romantically involved with his daughter poses problems  – particularly if all he can offer if a fun fling. The fact that Chase has a failed business and few prospects at the moment doesn’t exactly help the situation.

What life Chase has is currently located in New Jersey. However, Stewart Mills is Kelly’s life and she has no intention of leaving. She’s not tied to home in the treacly, heavily sentimentalized way that one sees in some novels. She knows her town has problems, but she loves the town and its people, even as she acknowledges their problems.  As a police officer, it’s obvious that she also feels deeply responsible for her community.

These issues create some realistic background tension in the romance. I actually liked that Chase was not the usual semi-perfect hero who has everything in the world going his way. People who have made mistakes or who are just in generally craptastic circumstances can still have something to give, and Stacey does a good job of showing that with her hero. In addition,there is no easy way for either main character to uproot and move, so deciding to stay together and figuring out where they will live necessarily involves some teamwork and sacrifice. At times, I felt like some of this process was a bit rushed and abrupt, but the author certainly makes up for it with a truly romantic ending.

As I mentioned above, parts of the story do feel rushed and while I liked see the town pull together, I did sometimes wonder how a town in such dire straits managed to raise sponsorships, pay for tickets and so on for the exhibition game.  Still, aside from those quibbles, I did generally enjoy Under the Lights. The mix of small-town warmth with some real and gritty issues made this a solid read. It’s not quite the Kowalskis – or Boston Fire – but still not a bad way to spend the weekend.

Grade:  B              Sensuality: warm

– Lynn Spencer

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The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin by Maisey Yates

I haven’t read a Harlequin Presents (or Mills and Boon Modern, as we call them here in Blighty) for quite a while, so I picked one up for the April’s TBR Challenge prompt of Contemporary Romance.

Sometimes, a girl just needs to get sucked into that glitzy world of rich, alpha playboys who are eventually tamed by love that the Presents line does so well, and The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin certainly didn’t disappoint on that score.  Maisey Yates also comes up with one of the most believable reasons for her twenty-three year old heroine being a virgin that I’ve come across. It must be harder and harder these days to convincingly write about a young woman in her twenties who has no sexual experience whatsoever (outside of Inspirationals, perhaps), but making Esther Abbott the product of a strict upbringing in a commune that allowed no contact with the outside world makes her inexperience  completely plausible.

Esther left the commune and her family following a confrontation – in front of everyone – with her incredibly strict father during which he told her she could denounce all the ‘evil’ things (like books and CDs) she had brought in from the outside or be thrown out – and she left.  Determined to make her own way and her own life, her ambition is to go to college, but for now, she is travelling and working abroad with the intent of seeing a bit of the world while she makes sufficient money to support herself through her studies.

But she’s not earned enough yet, and has run out of money in Rome, where she is currently working at a bar waiting tables. Completely out of the blue, she is approached by a woman about becoming a surrogate for her and her husband – and the amount of money involved convinces Esther to agree to the idea.  But just a few short weeks later, the woman tells Esther that her plans have changed and that she wants her to terminate the pregnancy.  Esther baulks at this, believing that the father should at least have some say in the matter.  Which is how she ends up on Renzo Valenti’s doorstep, explaining that she’s carrying his child.

Renzo is astonished and – not unreasonably – extremely sceptical.  It seems that his ex-wife had planned the whole thing without his knowledge (and here I had to stop to wonder if doing something like that without the consent of both potential parents is even possible), but even knowing this, he finds himself unable to believe such a ridiculous story, and Esther leaves, believing she’s at least done the right thing by telling him. But over the next few days the thought that she might possibly be carrying his baby nags at Renzo, and he eventually seeks her out at the bar and insists she accompanies him home.

Renzo is heir to the vast Valenti business empire and is the product of a fairly strict, old-fashioned upbringing.  His disastrous marriage to the most unsuitable woman he could find was made, in part, to spite his father for something that happened a long time ago, and partly out of Renzo’s deep-seated feelings of worthlessness.  At the age of sixteen, he fathered a child as the result of a brief affair with a married woman, but was forced to give up all claim to his daughter and to agree never to acknowledge her.  He hates himself for the ease with which he allowed himself to be manipulated – although he was only sixteen, which poses the question as to what he thought he could have done instead? – but it makes him even more determined to keep Esther’s child – or, as it turns out, children.  He pretty  much tells her they’re going to get married, but when Esther turns him down flat, he realises he’s going to have to tread more carefully.  He very reasonably points out that she will be able to do all the things she wants to do – travel, go to college – if she marries him, and makes it clear that he will not interfere; but the only marriages Esther has ever seen are ones in which the husband has complete control and in which the love they profess isn’t love, but a way of exerting control.  Even her father’s supposed love was a way of tying her down and that’s something she certainly doesn’t want.  When Esther refuses Renzo’s proposal of a marriage of convenience, he plans a seduction instead – something that certainly won’t be a hardship for him considering that he is already attracted to Esther –  fully confident that he can make her fall in love with him and agree to marry him. They strike a bargain; Esther will move in with him and act the part of his fiancée until the babies are born, which will afford Renzo the necessary time to convince her that marrying him is the best way forward… and to put his planned seduction into action.

I won’t deny that the premise is more than a bit implausible. Surrogacy is illegal in Italy, but the author gets around that by having Esther travel across the border to undergo the procedure; and I can’t deny that I rolled my eyes at the throwaway line about Renzo’s ex-wife getting his sperm from a condom!  But if you can get past the unlikely set up, then the story is a reasonably enjoyable rags-to-riches tale buoyed up somewhat by Esther, who, despite her upbringing, isn’t a doormat and isn’t prepared to just roll over, do what she’s told and put up with Renzo’s crap.  He’s got issues of his own, too, although I didn’t really  buy that whole “I married a crazy-pants woman because I’m not worth anything better” thing; he’s thirty-two now and I was puzzled as to why he’d waited so long to pull that particular stunt.

Overall, however, Renzo and Esther make an engaging pair.  He admires her spirit and finds her innocence and lack of artifice refreshing, while she can’t help falling for this man who, she realises, is much more than the rich playboy he is widely believed to be.

The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin satisfied my temporary craving for a quick, fairytale-like fix and I enjoyed reading it.  It’s not something I’m likely to pick up again, but it did the job, and I think perhaps other HP devotees may enjoy it.

Grade: B-                Sensuality: Warm

– Caz Owens

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