We’ve reached the end of another year (already?!), and it’s time for the holiday romance portion of TBR Challenge. This month we’re challenged to read a romance set during any holiday. One year Lynn was able to find a Mardi Gras romance, but otherwise Christmas still seems to dominate the holiday market. I think and hope that in years to come, we will have a larger variety of holidays to choose from in my holiday romance stash, but for now it’s still heavy on Christmas. We both read Christmas books this go-round, with Caz finding a solid winner and Lynn picking an anthology that provided mixed results.

The Christmas Deal by Keira Andrews

Usually, when I’m choosing a book to read for the TBR Challenge, I pick one I already own that’s at least a year old.  I can’t remember if that’s a stipulation of the challenge or if it’s one I’ve imposed on myself – after all, the point is to read something from my ever-expanding TBR!  But when I looked through the Christmas-themed romances I have on my Kindle (and I don’t have many) none of them appealed to me, so I ended up reading a newly published title instead.  Keira Andrews is an author who’s been on my radar for a while, but I haven’t yet read anything of hers so I picked up The Christmas Deal, as the fake-relationship trope is one of my favourites.  It proved to be a good decision, as I devoured it in a couple of sittings on the same day, always a good sign!

Former marine Logan Derwood is at an all-time low.  After a work-related accident which left him badly injured, the company he worked for blamed him and hung him out to dry and as a result he’s finding it incredibly hard to find another job.  On top of this, the sudden death of his wife has left him sole guardian of her teenaged son, and Logan is struggling to parent the boy, who is permanently angry and for whom Logan can seem to do nothing right.  And to make things even worse, he’s about to be evicted from his ratty bungalow.

Seth Marston relocated to Albany on the promise of a promotion which hasn’t yet materialised.  His boyfriend moved with him but left him not long afterwards, and now, more than a year later, Seth is still single and still living in the mess of his partly remodelled house, not having either the time or the inclination to date or to finish the work.  But at least the promotion is back on the table; although news that the company’s new CEO is very family oriented and all her new hires/promotions have gone to people with families (to her credit, she’s not prejudiced against same sex couples), could put a spoke in that particular wheel.  When Angela Barker arrives at the office, Seth’s friend and colleague Jenna decides to help him along a bit and sneaks a framed photo of her brother Logan and his stepson onto Seth’s desk and, when Angela notices it, tells her it’s a photo of Seth’s fiancé and their son.  Seth is completely stunned and doesn’t really know what to do so just goes along with it – but things get complicated when Logan arrives at the office to see his sister, Angela recognises him from the photo, and promptly invites herself over for dinner.

Just as confused as Seth (whom he doesn’t really know), Logan plays along until Angela leaves and Jenna explains what she did and why she did it. Logan is too weighed down with other problems to really care very much, until Seth mentions the fact that Angela is expecting to come to ‘their’ home for dinner and that his kitchen is still in pieces.  Which gives Jenna another idea.  Logan needs a place to stay – temporarily – Seth needs his remodelling finished.  Couldn’t they help each other out?

The set-up is a bit bonkers it’s true, but the author makes it work and turns this particular Christmas Deal into a sweet, sexy and charming fake-relationship romance, crafting a convincing emotional connection between two very different men who find, in each other, something they never thought they’d want or be able to have.  Logan has always identified as straight, even though he’s hooked up with guys in the past, but in his mind, that was just sex. Relationships, kissing, physical closeness, they’re all things that happen with women; with guys it’s about getting off and nothing else.  But he can’t ignore the fact that he’s starting to want something other than ‘just sex’ with another man, and it confuses the hell out of him.  His gradually-dawning awareness of his bisexuality is very well done; it’s not that he’s suddenly gay for Seth (this isn’t really a GFY story), it’s that for the first time, he’s experiencing romantic feelings for a man, a desire for intimacy he’d thought reserved for his relationships with women.

Seth comes from an ultra-conservative, highly-religious family who threw him out when he told them he was gay.  That was twelve years ago, but Seth is still grieving for their loss (even though they’re plainly a bunch of arseholes who don’t deserve him!), and this part of his backstory is truly heartbreaking (and made me want to break something!).  He’s a lovely guy with a lot to give, but deep down, can’t quite believe he deserves good things.  His ex was his first and only sexual partner, and even though Seth knows he should get out there and date (and maybe hook up) he dislikes the idea of casual sex, finding it hard to throw off the ideas drummed into him as part of his upbringing.

But things change one night when, after learning that Seth has only ever been with one partner, Logan realises that while he might not be able to offer much, he can at least offer Seth the chance to experience casual, no strings sex and maybe help him get past his hang ups about it. Seth is surprised, to say the least, but decides he needs to stop over-thinking everything and just go for it. The attraction between the pair that has sparked and crackled from their first meeting – and that they’ve tried to suppress – roars to life, and it quickly becomes very clear to each of them that whatever this thing is between them, it’s far from casual.  But owning to wanting something more crosses every boundary they’ve set, and both men are understandably wary of risking their hearts.

The Christmas Deal has quite a lot going on within its pages, but I never felt as though anything was glossed over or rushed.  The characterisation of the two leads is excellent, and there’s a really well-drawn secondary cast including Jenna and Logan’s dad; and even Angela, who could easily have been an unpleasant character, is written with a degree of charm and heart that makes it hard to dislike her.  And then there’s Connor, a grieving, angry thirteen-year-old who is confused and hurting and lashes out whenever and however he can.  Logan really wants to do the right thing for Connor, but he’s finding his way, too, and the two of them clash horribly almost all the time – and I loved that Logan was prepared to listen to advice – from Seth, and even from Angela – as to how he might build bridges with Connor and get things between them on more of an even keel.

I really enjoyed The Christmas Deal and would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a heart-warming – but not cheesy or overly sweet – love story with depth and charm.  It’s an emotionally satisfying read laden with plenty of Christmassy goodness, warmth, humour and a swoon-worthy romance with enough heat to keep anyone warm in the depths of winter!

Rating: A-                    Sensuality: Warm

~ Caz Owens

Buy it at: Amazon

Mistletoe Courtship by Janet Tronstad and Sara Mitchell

For my December TBR Challenge, I dug into my stash of holiday anthologies and picked out a Christmas historical anthology from 2009. With one Western romance and one Americana romance, I was hopeful for a little holiday cheer. As it turns out, one story delivered and the other really did not.

The first novella, Janet Tronstad’s Christmas Bells for Dry Creek, takes readers to the Montana Territory in 1880. Virginia Parker is in for an anxious year, as we see from the story’s opening. Following the death of her father, Virginia headed west to live with her brother. The brother died not long after her arrival, and in desperation Virginia has been working in the kitchen and playing piano in one of the town saloons. Her position is a precarious one and she has no family left to help her.

As the story opens, Virginia fears that her boss, Colter Wells, is about to fire her. Instead she is told that Colton has recently learned of his illegitimate daughter whom the child’s mother has demanded he take in to allow the mother can move on to California and start over. Colter wants Virginia to manage his property while he’s gone.

The tale picks up eleven months later, as Colter returns with the young daughter. Christmas is approaching, and much of this story focuses on Virginia and Colter’s adjustment to change around the business as well as their growing feelings for one another. And then there’s the matter of the suitor that started courting Virginia while Colter was gone. There’s definitely attraction and deepening love between Colter and Virginia, but in many ways this is the story of a small band of outcasts coming together to form a family. It’s achingly sweet but without being saccharine, and for that, I really enjoyed it. There are some plot points tacked on that felt extraneous to the story, but even with that, I still liked this novella. I’d give this tale a solid B.

The Christmas Secret, on the other hand, is a horse of a different color. This Christmas tale by Sara Mitchell is set in Canterbury, Virginia in 1895. Not to put too fine a point on it, but by the end I was irritated with the entire cast of this ensemble and just wanted to slap them all into next Tuesday.

As a Virginia native, I found the location of the story a tad confusing. The town of Canterbury is described as a quaint small(and rather upscale-sounding) town about an hour outside of Washington, DC. From the descriptions, it sounded somewhat like the well-heeled town of Middleburg. However, the real Canterbury, Virginia is located in Culpeper County. It is both further from Washington DC and far less affluent than the town of the story. Artistic license, I suppose.

Be that as it may, we learn at the opening of the story that one Dr. Ethan Harcourt, a former US Congressman has been widowed and has moved to Canterbury. This news excites Clara Penrose, a shy and somewhat eccentric daughter of an elite local family. She had encountered Ethan at a party in the city, and has entertained something of a crush on him.

The story starts off well enough but starts downhill early on and just keeps going. For starters, the background of the story is rather hazily developed. I found myself kind of wondering what was going on. Why were the Penroses so prominent? Why did Ethan Harcourt decide to settle in Canterbury even though he had no connection to the place? Did he just love small Virginia towns? This is where his carriage broke down, maybe? Readers can accept a fair amount of coincidence and wacky happenings, but the worldbuilding and context need to be there to lead us along.

The story settles into a very familiar tale of a sheltered eccentric woman from a wealthy family catching the eye and winning the heart of a worldly and desirable man. Powerful fantasy, but the characters in this book just felt flat. Clara never really came to life, and Ethan was just a standard issue good guy. Also, the author chose to portray his late wife as such a nasty Other Woman in his life that not only did it not elevate the heroine in comparison but it jsut made me wonder about this guy’s taste in women. Oh, and just for funsies, there is an absolutely ridiculous mystery with an overly neat, sugary ending. Good times. Not quite bad enough to fail, but this one is definitely a D.

Rating:         C               Sensuality: Kisses

~ Lynn Spencer

Buy it at: Amazon/Barnes & Noble

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