Desert Isle Keeper
Small town romances tend to have certain elements in common that appeal to their readers. Shops with cute names; seniors coffee or craft circles where the latest gossip is discussed; best friends who’ve known each other since kindergarten; fundraisers for a neighbor needing a hand; etc. Erin Nicholas is no stranger to this subgenre of contemporary romance, having self-published her successful Sapphire Falls series. But in Twisted Up, the first story in her new Taking Chances series, she takes things up a notch by adding a bite of reality – the consequences for a small town that lives along Tornado Alley, a colloquial term for a region of the United States that is prone to strong and damaging storms. For the people of Chance, Nebraska, tornadoes are no laughing matter. The author succeeds in taking a serious subject and still providing the heartwarming romance her readers expect while offering up a unique contemporary story.
The last few summers in Chance have been tough for the town. Since the first EF4 strength tornado hit in recent memory, the townspeople have rallied to fix the damages and work on their preparedness for future storms. As the fire chief, Avery Sparks is always one of the first to respond to any emergency and these definitely qualify. But with storms this big, state and federal officials get involved. And that means her old friend, long ago crush, prom date and virginity taker, Jake Mitchell, keeps showing up in town. On site for brief periods after the last two tornadoes, they’ve had a little flirtation, some stolen kisses, but nothing more as Jake stays only as long as he’s needed, then he’s off to another small town in need of help. When stormy weather once again descends on Chance, Jake, in town for his ten year high school reunion, is in the right place at the right time. But the outside weather is no match for the rocky emotions Avery is experiencing over his being back in town again. There’s no denying the attraction between them – will they finally take a chance on a future together?
Knocked down and still fighting, the town of Chance is a definite star here, the setting and plot of the story definitely highlighting the small town spirit and togetherness found in any location where natural disaster strikes. But where things could descend into sadness and grief, those emotions, while present, don’t overwhelm the story. Instead there is an emphasis on being prepared, knowing what to do and where to turn to in an emergency. The different leaders of the town – the mayor, the police chief (who happens to be Jake’s father) and Avery as the fire chief work together to provide as much safety for the town as they can, while coordinating relief efforts. It gives you a warm feeling to see these people all pulling together.
Amid the backdrop of summer storms, Avery and Jake’s romance is unstable too. Avery has been hurt by Jake in the past. She was raised by a cold and rather cruel grandmother and Jake’s family was a safe place for her. When he asked her to the prom, she knew it was because his mother had suggested it, but she didn’t care. And when she asked him to kiss her and things escalated quickly, that was okay too. What wasn’t okay though, was the morning after when she discovered that Jake had left town without saying goodbye, en route to his basic training in the national guard. Hurt by this, and abandoned by her grandmother once she was eighteen, Avery made her own way. First college, then training as a firefighter that enabled her to return to Chance and eventually gain the position as fire chief. Adversity has made her strong but her heart is very guarded.
Some readers will see Jake’s actions as insensitive. And they are right to think so. But it’s important to understand Jake’s overall character. From a young age, he wanted to help others. While this sentiment is of course encouraged, it manifested itself in Jake as the continual desire to help more and more people. This desire led him to apply to the national guard and he knew that his mother or Avery would be emotional over his leaving so he didn’t tell them his post-graduation plans. In hindsight he knows he should have approached it differently. But he was eighteen and already thinking of the good he could do for so many other people. Chance became a distant memory in the focus on his career – at least until the tornadoes started bringing him back again. But the truth is, he’s more comfortable helping strangers. It hurts to see his neighbours struggling and to avoid this, he stays in town only as long as necessary before heading back to the emotional safety of his office and his desk job. But every time he comes back and sees Avery, he finds a way to spend some time alone with her and it gets harder and harder to leave. This time, things go even further, and they share some steamy scenes that emphasize the depth of the feelings they keep trying to hide. This time, Jake finds that he doesn’t want to leave.
There is a mystery that quickly becomes apparent in the first few chapters, and it kept me reading late into the night. Avery was close to Jake’s parents when she was young, but when he left, something clearly happened to their relationship and they are as strangers to each other now. I wanted to know what happened! And Jake is in the thick of it too, realizing that the future he had envisioned for his parents and Avery – that his parents would take care of her while he was gone – never happened. The unraveling of that mystery, combined with the romance finally developing between Jake and Avery makes for a very satisfying story. As well, Jake’s two cousins Max (a former army corps engineer) and Dillon (an ER doctor) who are home for the high school reunion provide some humorous moments, and the same goes for Avery and her two best friends Kit and Bree. There are some clear match-ups for future books in the series with these friends that it seems, based on some of the events in this book, will take place concurrently with Jake and Avery’s story. If you enjoy small town romances but are looking for one that stands out, Twisted Up provides a refreshing change.