I am almost pathologically unable to leave a series unfinished. If I hate the first book, I can walk away, but once I've read two or more, I feel compelled to close out the series even when I'm just not that in to it. That's why I read Sarah Morgan's Suddenly Last Summer, a summertime contemporary sandwiched between the Christmas-themed Sleigh Bells in the Snow, which I read last December and rated 2.5 stars, and Maybe This Christmas, which I read last week and rated 3.5 stars. In reading Maybe This Christmas, I discovered that I'd missed this book, and had to go back and close out the trilogy even though none of the three books really stood out from the crowd.
Suddenly Last Summer is the story of Sean O'Neil, an orthopedic surgeon whose love of career leaves no time for relationships, and Elise Somebody, the chef at the O'Neil family resort. Elise is also a workaholic, but her resistance to relationships has more to do with her abusive ex-husband than with her work schedule. Sean and Elise have steamy chemistry, but neither wants anything more than sex. When each starts to develop Feelings, they both get uncomfortable and things get messy.
I'm not a fan of I-don't-want-to-love-you-because-REASONS stories. You know what I mean: where the conflict between the lovers is entirely in the characters' heads and not based on any real obstacle. This is such a story. I didn't love it. I didn't hate it. I finished the series.
That is all.
This is my favorite of the holiday-themed romances I've read this year so far. I'm a big fan of the blue-collar realism of Shannon Stacey's contemporary romances: she writes about ordinary people with ordinary jobs living in an ordinary town and searching for (and finding) ordinary solutions to ordinary problems. In a genre glutted with sexually-traumatized heroines falling in love with ex-Navy Seals struggling with PTSD as they work together to track down serial killers, child-molesters, or evil shape-shifting were-beasties, Shannon Stacey's writing is refreshingly free of angst, melodrama, and violence.
That said, the main characters in Her Holiday Man are less "ordinary" than Stacey's usual fare. Sure, they're solidly blue collar -- Will is a car mechanic and Christina clerks at a gas station -- but their backstories are more over-the-top than is typical for Stacey. Will's wife and unborn baby were killed by a drunk driver a few weeks before Christmas, five years prior to the start of the story. He's spent the intervening time wandering, avoiding home and the life they'd shared, but the recent death of his father has brought him home to care for his widowed mom. Christina is the new neighbor across the street, a single mom raising her young son alone after her ex-husband was imprisoned for a massive financial fraud that bankrupted Christina and lost her the wealthy, privileged lifestyle she'd always known.
Another writer might have put the focus on all that these characters have lost, maximizing the angst and tragedy of their situation. Not Stacey. Even with their unusually-wretched histories, Will and Christina are both really genuine, down-to-earth people. Some little examples of what I mean:
When Will arrives in town, upon learning his mother has been doing so much to help out this new neighbor lady -- watching her son, inviting them for meals, etc -- he initially worries that Christina might be some scammer trying to take advantage of his lonely, widowed mom. A lot of writers would have milked that mistrust for conflict, and had the hero just assume (based on the innate mistrust born of his tragic past) that the heroine was up to no good. Instead, Will keeps an open mind, gives Christina the benefit of the doubt, and quickly notices all the things she does to keep her relationship with Gail (Will's mom) reciprocal: Gail watches Christina's son, but Christina helps Gail with the housework, and so on.
Christina was a pampered only child raised by extremely wealthy parents, and then she married an even wealthier man. Her whole life, she has had a household staff to cater to her every whim, but now she's lost everything. She is extremely, painfully sheltered -- she's never even put up her own Christmas decorations; her servants always did the decorating the Monday after Thanksgiving -- but rather than knuckling under and breaking under the sudden pressure of financial and personal ruin, Christina just does what needs doing. Her smoke detectors start to beep and she doesn't know why -- so she googles it, and watches online videos about how to change the batteries. She's independent and resourceful, but not so pigheaded that she won't accept a helping hand when it's offered by Gail or Will.
The conflict between them is real -- having loved and lost (in Will's case) and trusted and been betrayed (in Christina's), neither is eager for a new relationship. There's also the issue of collateral damage to loved ones if the relationship goes badly -- Will's mother is eager to see her son settled and happy, and Christina's young son looks up to Will like the father he's lost. None of these problems have easy solutions, and Stacey doesn't offer a grand gesture or deus ex machina to deliver her happy ending: Will and Christina just talk through their fears and hopes like rational adults, and eventually decide to brave the future together, risks and rewards and all.