June 2008, Series Romance
Harl Superromance #1496, $5.50, 243 pages, Amazon ASIN 0373714963 Part of a series
Sometimes you pick up a romance, expecting pleasant entertainment but nothing special, reading a well-known plot, and – wham! – you end up curled in your bed into the small hours, braving your husband’s grumbling because your reading light is still on, sometimes dabbing a tear from the corner of your eye or smiling, because what you have stumbled across is a treasure. This is what happened to me with Not Without Her Family, the debut novel of Beth Andrews (not to be confused with the other Beth Andrews, who writes Regencies and historical mysteries for Robert Hale). The novel, then still titled All or Nothing, won a Golden Heart award at RWA in 2007, by the way. I am delighted to have the opportunity now to discover such a promising new author.
Ten years ago, Kelsey Reagan’s older half-brother Dillon killed a man because she was in deep trouble. Dillon pushed her away while he was in prison and vanished after he’d been released, but now she has tracked him to Serenity Springs, New York, where he works as a carpenter and is currently renovating a bar. When she enters the bar to speak to him, ignoring the “closed” sign, she is accosted by a policeman in civilian clothes who seems to believe he has caught her robbing the cash register. Although Kelsey has led an exemplary life during the last decade, she was often in trouble with the police as a teenager, and does not trust them. It does not help that this policeman is decidedly good-looking.
Chief Jack Martin first comes across as more interfering and suspicious than the situation really warrants, but we soon find out that the bar belongs to his sister Allie and that he is worried by her employing the ex-convict Dillon, anyway, and Dillon’s sister, arriving out of the blue, looks like trouble, albeit very attractive trouble. When Allie appears, she soon takes Jack down a peg. Once we see that he also gets protective of Kelsey, almost against his will, when the first interview between her and Dillon goes very badly, he becomes likable. Jack and Kelsey meet again that night, attraction running high between them, but they don’t do any more than kiss, each thinking they won’t see the other again. A woman is murdered that night, though, and with Dillon the prime suspect, Kelsey decides to stay in Serenity Springs, to stand by him this time around. All of this happens within the first 55 pages; telling any more would enter into spoiler territory.
Now to why I loved this book so much. Both Kelsey and Jack are immensely likable characters. Both are stubborn and vulnerable, each makes mistakes (but not TSTL ones), and I loved to read about how they try to deal with the situation they are stuck in. They are seemingly on different sides and yet obviously aflame for one another. Jack’s position is actually comparatively easier. Some years ago, he lost his wife and moved back to his hometown with his little daughter. Working as a policeman in New York made him distrustful of humankind, but he still struggles to be fair even where he mistrusts.
Kelsey’s life has been highly disadvantaged. Her family background is bad, she never had anyone to rely on except Dillon, and she has made some seriously bad choices. But she feels no self-pity, she struggles to make things better now, and her greatest fault is an absolute lack of trust in herself and her own instincts.
As a policeman, Jack tends to look out for his people; Kelsey on the other hand has had lots of first-hand experience how “looking out for one’s people” can harm outsiders. With this baggage, it’s a miracle these two actually interact at all. They are helped by Kelsey’s impulsiveness, which causes her to take important steps towards Jack several times, and by Jack’s integrity, which works like a magnet on Kelsey. Because they are stuck in a middle of an investigation they can’t afford to compromise, they take comparatively long to act on the attraction they feel, but when they do, the love scenes are beautifully written and serve to illustrate and advance the relationship in a manner only few authors achieve.
Although the mystery works as a catalyst, it definitely takes second place to the romance. All in all the emphasis is not so much on why and by whom the victim was killed, but on how Jack and the rest of the community deal with the situation and in how far they are prepared to use Dillon as a scapegoat. The novel is amazingly (for a series romance) clear-sighted in dealing with the atmosphere of the small town. It is wonderfully protective towards its citizens, but can be harsh towards the newcomers.
There are several delightful minor characters, some of whom may hopefully get their own novels. I am especially keen to find out more about Dillon. Beth Andrews never shows us what is going on inside his head in this novel, making him all the more poignant a character. However, the most memorable secondary characters is easily Jack’s six-year-old daughter Emma who is a force to be reckoned with, delightful without being cutesy and one of the most realistic child characters I have come across in romance.
According to Beth Andrews’ website, the next story to be written in this series in Allie’s. I can’t wait! In the meantime, I can only recommend Not Without Her Family to all of you whole-heartedly. It made me smile and cry; a wonderful comfort read and one I will definitely pick up again.
-- Rike Horstmann
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