All or Nothing
I’ve always admired author Claire Delacroix and her entertaining Medieval romances, but my admiration shot up even more when I found she writes contemporary romances under the nom de plume Claire Cross. All or Nothing was a strongly pleasing read.
Although Jen is young, she got breast cancer two years ago. Her fiancé deserted her when he heard the news, and to save her life, she had one breast removed. No wonder she doesn’t smile anymore. She’s been better for a year now, but has lived her life as if she isn’t alive. Her mother challenges her to bring a date to Thanksgiving dinner or else she will start fixing Jen up. And Jen knows she won’t like her mother’s choices at all.
Jen’s friend advises her to find a man that her mother will hate and be relieved not to see again, and then to pretend to continue going out with him so that she can’t be nagged about dating. Using a man bothers her, but with Thanksgiving only days away, Jen is desperate and launches into her search.
Zach looks forward to meeting his friends from law school at a local pub, but is dismayed when he can’t relate to their fancy careers, cars and wives; he doesn’t have any of those things. In fact, he dropped out of school and wandered around Europe. He only returned home because of a most dramatic event – his father killed himself. Since then, he’s been busy performing the duties of executor of his father’s estate, but that hasn’t helped to reconcile him to his family; there’s that matter of his sordid stay in jail, which has estranged him completely from his brothers.
Lingering behind at the bar, Zach becomes attracted to the clever but quiet server. When some chance remarks in his conversation with Jen bring up the pain of his father’s death, he abruptly leaves. Jen follows, and when she catches up to him, impulsively asks him to her grandmother’s Thanksgiving dinner.
This is a somewhat slow moving, but by no means a boring, book. It’s thoughtful and sensitive. Zach is the black sheep of his family, rebelling against his father’s domineering ways, even dabbling in some minor illegal activity. He doesn’t want to end up with the shallow, selfish lives of his law school friends, and he realizes the waste and hazards of his old life. Underneath the surface he’s a nice guy, with a bit of a temper – but a sunny disposition to balance it. He thinks winning Jen’s interest is just an irresistible challenge, but he has no idea how her secret will test him.
Jen initially seems dour because she never smiles, but in spite of that, her smart and caring personality shines through. She suffered tremendously, first from fearing that she might die, then from having her fiancé reject her. She thinks that since she’s physically “less” of a woman, Zach wouldn’t want to stay with her.
The scene where Jen reveals her secret to Zach was everything I’d hope for and more. While her news understandably shocks him, how he handles it and treats Jen afterwards is utterly wonderful. It’s also nice to see not only how the leads were perfect for each other, but also how well they get along with the other’s family. Jen’s family is a quite vivid one: boisterous, unconventional, and loving; it sports brothers with the improbable names of Pluto and M.B. Zach’s family is interesting, too. There was enough back-story mentioned for Zach’s siblings to make me wonder why; sure enough, after going to Cross’s webpage, I found the siblings were the heroes and heroines in previous novels. However, since Zach is working toward reconciling with his family, the subtle references didn’t bother me too much.
A few things did pull me out of the story. I never came across a reason why Zach was the executor of his father’s estate considering he’s the scapegrace of the family. Zach’s sister Philippa goes by the name “Phil”, which I thought off-putting when her husband thinks about hopping into bed with “Phil.” And then there’s the private joke between the lovers at book’s end about using “brother Zach” and “sister Jen” as endearments as they passionately kiss, which made for a rather icky moment than a romantic one.
But quibbles aside, All or Nothing is a well-written, eminently readable story with sympathetic, likable characters that I cared about and that I wanted very much to achieve happiness. The author’s Medieval titles were already on my TBR pile, and now I have to add her contemporary titles, too!