Miss Bates is a conservative romance reader, as she is in food choices and ownership of sweater sets, below-the-knee skirts, and Edwardian-style shoes. She’s wary and mistrustful of new-to-her authors; reading a tried and true author, one whose sensibility is in keeping with Miss B’s preference for themes of fidelity, commitment, decency, and a minimum of love scenes, is reassuring. It sits well, goes down easy. There’s a streak of break-out rebellion in Miss B, however, and sometimes, from the comfort of her easy chair, she takes the plunge into a new-to-her romance author. With category romance, the commitment, at least of time, is easier. Because, like all of you, Miss Bates likes to get that lift from discovering a gem. Reading Leah Ashton’s Nine-Month Countdown was such an experience for Miss B. Ashton’s Kiss-line category has a few flaws, but it led Miss B. to that wonderful discovery: a romance writer about whom she can say, “I like how your mind works. I want to follow you to see how you’ll surprise, delight, even disappoint me next.” More than anything, it’s how Ashton plays with some contemporary romance conventions that delighted Miss Bates: the unplanned pregnancy, returning soldier, helpless, “caught” heroine and still retain the “fidelity, commitment, decency, and, though hot, minimum in-keeping-with-the-development-of-the-relationship love scenes.”
There’s nothing particularly complicated plot-wise to Nine-Month Countdown; when writing category, that indicates an author in control of her material … for the most part, in this case. (There be niggles, folks – later.) Ivy Molyneux, poised to take her mother’s position as CEO of Molyneux Mining, monied, beautiful, and devoted to her career, has an unprotected one-night-stand with SAS solidier, Angus Barlow, at her sister’s, April’s, wedding, in Bali. The moon, the stars, the beach, Angus’s flashing-white-toothed smile, muscles and girth, olive-skin and kissing know-how … you get it, a girl is carried away. Weeks later, cowering in her company’s marble washroom in Perth, Ivy watches, horrified, as two little pink stripes appear on her pregnancy test. Ivy is an adult, as is Angus, and one of the many reasons Miss Bates loved this book, is they behave as such. Ivy tells Angus she’s pregnant: neither pretend to mystical joining and feelings they do not have; neither deny the importance of their work and how this pregnancy will disrupt their lives; neither pretend to feelings or commitments they’re not prepared to make. Neither keep secrets either; they’re discreet, don’t spill their guts about their challenges, personal lives, or tragic pasts. They’re happy, fairly well-adjusted people stuck with this baby and each other. All of this pragmatism didn’t take anything away from the sheer romance of the narrative: it was funny, heartfelt, and engaging. It was about two people getting to know each other, like each other, and indulge their attraction. The protagonists are flawed, but sympathetic; there’s no antagonism and the reader doesn’t have to take sides, a convention in romance Miss Bates dislikes, as in saintly heroine and asshole hero, (really, you don’t know much about saints if you think it’s all about the martyrdom).
Ashton creates great characters, real, believable, and congenial. She’s also an adept scene-setter: building interesting original scene set-ups and then letting her characters speak for themselves, out of themselves, and true to themselves. One such scene, among many, occurs when Ivy tells Angus about her pregnancy:
“Um, the thing is, Angus, I have a plan.”
His gaze shot up, linking with hers in almost desperation. “A plan?”
Ivy nodded slowly. And then she seemed to realise what he was thinking. She looked down, studying her untouched champagne glass again.
“No,” she said, so softly he had to lean closer. “Not that.” Her gaze darted back to his, and she looked at him steadfastly now. With that directness, that realness he’d liked so much in Bali. “I’m thirty-one, and I have money and every resource I could wish for at my disposal. In every possible way this is the last thing I want. But a termination isn’t an option for me.” She barely blinked as she studied him. Long, long moments passed.
Angus cleared his throat. “I’m thirty-four with a career I love that takes me away from home for months at a time and could one day kill me. I don’t want this. I don’t want children.” Ivy’s gaze wobbled a little now as Angus swallowed. “But for no reason I can fathom, I’m glad you’ve made that decision.”
Now he glanced away. He didn’t know why he’d said that, or why he felt that way. The logical part of him – which was basically all of him – didn’t understand it. It made no sense. But it was the truth. His truth.
What Miss Bates loved about this initial scene (and Ashton makes a closed-door/beach? of the initial one-night-stand, which Miss Bates thought clever of her, letting the relationship develop before we have the first love scene) was its honesty, directness, and clarity about who these two are. She loved that abortion was considered and then rejected for not-terribly-clear reasons: who’s to say they have to be. We make decisions on more that our cerebrality, Miss Bates hopes. The honesty of the scene lies in how the characters acknowledge their feelings; they may not understand them, but they give them greater credence than circumstance and convention.
Ivy and Angus’s romance develops along two lines: the impending baby (details of parturition are at a minimum, thank goodness) and Ivy and Angus’s very different personalities. Ivy is a woman who wields a lot of power, but so does Angus: she’s a corporate bigwig and he’s in Special Forces (not your ordinary grunt). She’s about pencil skirts and control and he’s about rugged bravery and a laid-back attitude to anything but the mission. She’s about withdrawal and protecting herself and he’s about freedom and pursuit. She wants to box him into legalese and lawyers over custody and parenting and he wants to get to know her and work things out by talking. At the same time, and this is such a great feat of characterization, she’s soft-hearted and loving and he’s decent but believes himself incapable of love. In so many ways, they’re different and alike, complex and interesting. Miss Bates thought Angus’s logical, no-feelings bar makes an abrupt turn to getting-to-know-you, but there was so much to enjoy in this slip of a romance that she forgave readily.
To return to Ashton’s scene-setting, there are quite a few accomplished scenarios. Firstly, there’s an incredible scene of banter, honest getting-to-know-each-other and desire set at a waterfall in the Karijini National Park. Mostly, Miss Bates loved the wake-up scenes: out of dreams and sleep, Ivy and Angus, separately and apart, muse, in the morning-way we all do, about the directions their lives are taking, how their hearts are engaged by each other, how their lives will change, what they feel for each other, how desire comes calling.
Lastly, Miss Bates loved how Ashton played with some pretty standardized romance conventions. The pregnant heroine isn’t helpless, or vulnerable; on occasion, Angus may see her that way, but we know she can do this just as easily on her own. She chooses to make Angus a part of her life and give her baby a father, even if nothing works out between them. The portrayal of the career woman is realistic and nuanced: Ivy loves her job, but isn’t defined only by it. It’s a life-long dream, but it doesn’t mean her baby detour will end it, or sacrifice it. It means it’ll change it. Angus is a refreshing portrait of a soldier who loves what he does: he’s not tormented, or guilt-ridden, or traumatized. He doesn’t diminish the ugly aspects of his job, but he doesn’t magnify them either. Does all this convention-turning-on-its-head make this romance any less romantic? Any less of a magnificent HEA? It’s sexy and romantic and heart-stoppingly beautiful and true. In Leah Ashton’s Nine-Month Countdown, Miss Bates found “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma. (Also, she’s glad Ms Ashton has a bit of a backlist.)
Leah Ashton’s Nine-Month Countdown, published by Harlequin, has been available since November 1st, 2014, in the usual formats at your favourite vendors. Miss Bates gratefully received an e-ARC from Harlequin, via Netgalley.