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TBR Challenge January 2023 – Starting Over

It’s 2023, and time for a fresh start to the TBR Challenge year! This month’s prompt is “starting over”, and we both found great ways to explore that theme. Lynn read a contemporary category romance featuring a heroine in need of a fresh start, both personally and professionally, while Caz picked up a historical m/m novella featuring leads getting a second chance at their relationship. Whatever you’re in the mood for, fresh starts and second chances abound in romance, so dig in and start reading!

Her Hometown Detective by Elizabeth Mowers

“Starting over” is a popular theme in small town category romances, so that’s where I immediately started looking when I saw this month’s TBR Challenge theme. Her Hometown Detective by Elizabeth Mowers is an entry in Harlequin’s kisses-only Heartwarming line. The characters and storyline are a little outside what I usually see in small-town romances, but they reflect the sorts of folks I actually encounter in small towns and I enjoyed this one quite a bit.

Faith Fitzpatrick grew up in Roseley, Michigan and has come back in search of a fresh start. As a child, her father was involved in a scandal and after being shunned, Faith fled as soon as she could. She’s clearly had a tough time of it in life and now that she’s exiting a bad marriage, she’s coming back to Roseley to try to put her life together. She has cousins there, with whom she is clearly close, and even though she is nervous about her reception in town, she’s found a place where she can afford to start her dream business – and it’s not a cupcake shop.

While trying to find her way in life, Faith discovered a love of motorcycles and the skills to repair them. Roseley is quite rural, but it’s popular with weekenders and summer folks so there’s room for a shop that can help locals and tourists with fixing and detailing their bikes. I did like that the author feeds tidbits about the town economy into the story so that one can see how various businesses fit into Roseley rather than simply expecting them to survive on  good vibes and fairydust.

Faith’s nervousness about her new start in life and her wariness of some folks in town feels natural. Even though she’s older and has a new last name, someone’s bound to put it all together at some point, after all. And it doesn’t help that a vandalism spree starts up in Roseley around the time of Faith’s arrival. The incidents at local businesses bring Faith in contact with her long-ago high school crush, John McTully, a local detective.

Even though he clearly doesn’t remember her from before, John is certainly drawn to Faith now. On the surface, the clean-cut hometown hero and the edgy biker don’t seem like an obvious pair, but the author does a great job of letting readers get to know her leads as they interact with each other and with their neighbors. Along the way, we learn that while John is truly a fair and decent man at heart, he has his own scars and some serious family dysfunction to work through. Not  only is it a hard situation for him personally, but as readers, we see John’s own struggles giving him empathy for others. Faith, on the other hand, may not be the stereotypical small-town sweetheart, but in her interactions with others, one can see that she’s clearly a decent person.

This book gives readers a lovely romance between two wounded and sometimes tentative leads. One thing I loved is that not only do Faith and John gradually learn to trust each other, but they also start to believe in themselves a little bit more. The author weaves some mystery into that story without letting it overwhelm the romance, and while the ending ties everything up in an extremely neat bow, I still enjoyed myself. If you are looking for closed-door romance that isn’t also religious/inspirational, I’d definitely recommend that you check out this novel and others in the Heartwarming line.

Rating:    B+              Sensuality: Kisses

~ Lynn Spencer

Buy it at: Amazon

Tommy Cabot Was Here by Cat Sebastian

For the first prompt of 2023 – Starting Over – I chose Cat Sebastian’s Tommy Cabot Was Here, a short and sweet second-chance romance set in 1959 about two men who were best friends (and more) at boarding school, went their separate ways after college and who unexpectedly find each other again fifteen years later.

On “Visting Sunday” – a month after the start of the new school year – Everett Sloane is surprised to see a familiar face among the crowds of parents at Greenfields, the prestigious boarding school where he was once a pupil and to which he has returned as a teacher. The face belongs to Tommy Cabot, the youngest son of an influential political family, with whom Everett shared his first kiss, his first sexual experiences and who was his first love – until after graduating college, Tommy told Everett he would be getting married, to exactly the ‘right’ sort of wealthy young woman his family have been expecting him to marry. Heartbroken, Everett left for England right after the wedding, and the two haven’t seen each other since.

Catching a glimpse of the boy at Tommy’s side, Everett realises this must be his son, Daniel, but when he really looks at Tommy, he looks nothing like the polished, successful politician he had imagined Tommy would be by this time; instead he’s a bit frayed around the edges, his clothes slightly dishevelled, his hair overlong, his shave not quite close enough – and he’s holding himself stiffly and somewhat defensively. Before Everett can beat a hasty retreat, however, Tommy notices him and greets him warmly – and with an unexpected hug; after a few excruciating minutes Everett, confused and upset, makes an excuse and walks away.

Tommy is surprised to see Everett at Greenfields, but not surprised to see how little he’s changed over the years, still neat as a pin and just a bit starchy… it hurts to remember how much Tommy had loved coaxing him out of that stuffiness, getting a smile or a laugh out of him, and hurts even more to think how clueless he’d been as to the nature of his feelings for Everett back then, how stupid he’d been not to realise how deeply that cluelessness had hurt the man who had been his best friend. And who could, perhaps, have been so much more.

For all it’s only ninety-one pages long (the rest of the Kindle edition I read is taken up with a preview of  Peter Cabot Gets Lost), Tommy Cabot Was Here doesn’t lack depth or emotion. The author rounds out the characters very well indeed, so we get a real sense of their quite different personalities; Tommy the people pleaser, Everett, reserved and quieter, but far more aware of his feelings than the outgoing Tommy was when they were younger, and she creates a strong emotional connection between them so that their rekindled romance is entirely believable. There’s a real sense of longing between them in the early stages of the story, with both of them feeling conflicted about seeing each other again and fearing that maybe it’s too late to be anything more than nodding acquaintances. But the pull they feel towards one another is strong enough to give them the courage to work through past hurts and losses to find a way forward together.

I’ve read a lot of novellas I wish had been longer, but I can’t say that’s the case here. In fact, I think that had this been novel-length, I might have found it too drawn out and criticised it for not containing enough plot! That said, I do think some things are a bit too glossed over (such as Tommy’s decision to come out to his family – it’s 1959, wasn’t he worried someone might report him to the police for being “bent”? – and seek a divorce given he knew he’d be cut off ) and the cameo by Tommy’s nephew Peter (presumably to set up the next book) feels a bit contrived. Despite that, however, I found Tommy Cabot Was Here to be a rather lovely, warm and moving story about finding hope, love and second chances and I’m glad I read it.

Rating:  B           Sensuality: Warm

~ Caz Owens

Buy it at: Amazon

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