Romantic suspense is my favorite subgenre and it has been frustrating for me that it is so sparse on the shelves lately. Fortunately, several excellent authors have been bold enough to go out and publish through alternative options. Ms. O’Neill is one such writer and Mr. Write is the first book in what appears to be a new romantic suspense series for her.
Sarah Barnwell’s return to Sweetwater, SC is part mercy mission and part savvy business decision. Her best friend from childhood, who is going through a tough time, has invited Sarah to be a partner in a bookstore that will include a coffee shop/bakery situation. Sarah gave it some long hard thought before agreeing to be a part of such a risky endeavor, especially in a place that didn’t hold the fondest memories. Her dad at one point had been the town drunk and the much of the town had given the family the label of “trailer trash”. But Sarah is a strong, independent woman now who has made a success of her life by managing shops just like this. Returning to Sweetwater has given her the chance to invest her time and efforts into something that is her own rather than just working for the man. The bittersweet nature of her return, with sweet getting top billing, has come to her as a surprise. What doesn’t come as a surprise is when the losers next door open fire on each other to settle a dispute. She had been familiar with the brothers in the past and knowing that they are as mean and violent now as they were when she was younger doesn’t exactly come as a shock.
It does come as a delight when the rental agency evicts them for their shenanigans, although she is not sure the replacement is much better. Dark, brooding and muscled Tucker Pettigrew’s surly nature makes it hard for her to see him as much of a step up from the last tenants. It doesn’t help that he is the grandson of the most powerful – and many claim most dishonest -man in town. Sarah’s own experience with the elderly Pettigrew was less than stellar. However, as Sarah comes to know Tucker she learns his crabby demeanor hides a man who is chivalrous, honorable and sexy as all get out. Everything seems to be going like gangbusters for these two prodigal hometown kids who’ve returned to the fold. But as Tucker discovers unexpected secrets from his past and Sarah encounters nasty pranks with a dangerous edge to them both realize that their happy homecoming hasn’t pleased everyone in Sweetwater.
Part small town romance and part romantic suspense, this hybrid story is a bit softer around the edges than some of Ms. O’Neill’s previous works. It succeeds because the leads are charming, the town is pictured as real than rather quaint, and the relationship building between our two protagonists is strong enough to carry the story.
Tucker and Sarah aren’t looking to fall in love. She has a new business that needs a lot of TLC and he has a whole host of issues ranging from the recent death of his mother to his reasons for coming home to confront his grandfather. Their relationship is very organic, developing a life of its own as a result of the interaction that comes from them living beside each other. I like that it felt so natural and that their falling in love seemed spontaneous and instinctive. I don’t want to give the impression that it was all sweetness and light – there is a lot of confrontation and trouble throughout – but the characters seemed to fit together so well, to form a unit so naturally that coming back together seemed the only logical response to any drifting apart they did.
And part of that drifting apart is caused by what makes them perfect for each other – both are strong, independent people used to relying on themselves. Sarah lost her mom to illness at a young age and her dad to the bottle. Getting through school and making something of herself fell to her. Tucker was raised by a single mom and learned to become self-reliant quickly in order to help her out. While they each have close friends, there is still a fierce autonomy to both. For Sarah, learning to accept help in the form of protection from someone bigger and stronger doesn’t come easily. For Tucker, learning to love and trust again after the loss of the person he loved and trusted most comes doesn’t come easily either. Learning that it doesn’t weaken but strengthen to take and give help is an important part of their journey.
I liked that they were taking that journey in Sweetwater. The town had all the things that make up a real life small town experience – old high school friends who are still living life like graduation never happened, powerful towns people who like to rule over the others, busybodies, troublemakers and those who just don’t really care much. Gossip may rule supreme but help for the problem doesn’t always come on the tail of the wagging tongues and that is on full display here. Many a time in small town romances you get a town full of wonderful, warm caring people. Here you just get people.
I love mysteries based upon what I call Ordinary Evil – someone doing something that isn’t right but that isn’t meant to be catastrophic either. That is what is at the heart of the mystery Tucker is digging into and it makes for an interesting if not hair-raising sub-plot.
This novel is more love story than gripping suspense which makes it work very well as romantic suspense. I recommend it to fans of that genre.