Falling_For_SheriffTanya Michaels is a new-to-Miss-Bates author, with titles in the TBR, including A Mother’s Homecoming, an interesting riff on romance’s “bad mom” as heroine. Falling For the Sheriff is first in Michaels’ small-town-USA series, Cupid’s Bow, Texas. Miss Bates had her trepidations with a cutesy town-name like that, screaming love-cupid-arrow, all the obvious. But Michaels’ novel proved to be more than cutesy, with its lower-middle-class protagonists, whose lives as single parents, though comfortable, require cheque-book balancing and caution spending. Kate Sullivan, widowed elementary school piano teacher, and Cole Trent, town sheriff, are parenting a thirteen-year-old son, Luke, and five-year-old twin girls, Alyssa and Mandy, respectively.

Kate’s widowhood is two years old and Luke, sadly, is acting out at school out of grief and loss. Leaving Houston and returning to her paternal grandmother’s farm in Cupid’s Bow seems like the best Kate can do for Luke and her harried self. Kate arrives knowing she’ll find warmth, support, and a loving home with her beloved “Gram.” “Gram” throws Kate a big ole party and invites, with the conspiring of her friend Gayle, Cole’s mother, Cole and his twin cutie-pies. Kate and Cole share instant attraction, mitigated by single-parent status and protectiveness towards their children, as well as Kate’s yet sore heart over Damon’s, her husband’s, loss, a policemen killed in the line of duty. Cole’s law enforcement career serves as another deterrent to Kate, who quails at the idea of ever being with another cop. But Kate and Cole, other than sharing an attraction, strike a friendship, share similar dilemmas and questions as single parents, and unite in avoiding their families’ matchmaking efforts. They strike a bargain to feign an interest in each other to evade their families’ machinations. Except a joint-family trip to the pool and a few dates and Kate and Cole’s attraction and growing affection see them consider, approach, and finally admit a relationship.

Falling For the Sheriff engaged Miss Bates, though she found the first half stronger than the second. There was a natural rhythm to the characters, including the children. They felt real, far from the idealized plot moppets of many a romance. Cole and Kate were loving parents, but they made mistakes too. Luke’s portrait is particularly strong, an interesting voice in his POV of a good kid whose confusion leads him to bad choices. What didn’t work in the first half is Cole’s contrived and juvenile idea to pretend-date Kate to avoid their families’ match-making. They’re adults and certainly behave as such in every other way. However, to give Michaels credit, this come-hither-couple device is sloughed off by Cole and Kate’s honesty about their attraction and liking for each other. There’s also significant sequel-bait and a LOT of small-town secondary characters who, thanks to category length and their numbers, remain pretty flat. Despite the cheesiness of the fake-dating, the writing is strong: it’s witty and moving, funny and heartfelt. That’s no small feat and enough to bring Miss Bates back to Michaels’ romances in spite of Falling For the Sheriff‘s flaws.

One strength of Michaels’ romance, however, is Kate’s portrait as a widow. Firstly, there’s no dissing of the deceased to establish the hero’s desirability. That stands quite nicely and sexily on its own. Cole’s a dish, there’s no denying, and a pretty wonderful guy too. Who wouldn’t want him? Kate’s honest about wanting him, but she’s often torn by guilt and the fear of dating another lawman. She’s aware this isn’t rational, but she’s good at articulating what she feels anyway. Sheer liking and attraction take them just far enough, however, to share a first kiss. Their problems aren’t over and Kate’s doubts and fears remain, but Michaels’ lovely prose shows the mixing of memory and desire quite nicely:

It had been years. She was only half certain she remembered how to do this. Yet she knew Cole was the right man to refresh her memory.

She kissed him again, and her confidence amplified. So did the need spiraling through her. “Kate.” His voice was a ragged murmur. He pulled back slightly, studying her face as if looking for the visual confirmation that this was okay.

Two lovely and mature people share a moment of intimacy and understanding; this knowledge and recognition of the other’s vulnerabilities is what puts the romance into romance. Michaels adds a lovely lashing of whipped cream to her confection: humour. Witness Kate and Cole’s exchange after they’re busted smooching by the children: ” ‘I’m not sorry I kissed you,’ Cole said, sounding a touch defensive. She cracked one eye open. ‘Me, neither.’ ‘Really?’ A smile lit his face. ‘Really’ ” A touching moment of honesty and rueful humour. Their relationship evolves in this play of lightness and gravitas, culminating in an aborted love-making scene when Kate must come to terms with Damon’s death, making love with another man as the ultimate expression of accepting his loss. It’s a great great scene and worth reading the novel for it alone. The last third, however, unravels in some ways: it’s hastily resolved and the magician who plays Cole and Kate’s heart-strings to finally accept their love and make a commitment is not believable. As a matter of fact, Kate’s lingering grief makes the HEA less believable, even without the fairy godmother. Truth be told, however, Miss Bates’ romance-reading heart wants her HEA, even when a less palatable HFN would have made the novel’s characterization more consistent with what came before. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says of Tanya Michaels’ Falling For the Sheriff, here is a romance that is “almost pretty,” Northanger Abbey.

Tanya Michaels’ Falling For the Sheriff is published by Harlequin and has been available since August 4th. You may find it at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Harlequin for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.