Miss Bates spent many a happy childhood summer in Boston, visiting family, a few days at the Cape now and then. Shannon Stacey’s new romance series, Boston Fire, of which Heat Exchange is the first, was irresistible, thanks to its Bostonian setting. Like most rom of this ilk and length, however, setting didn’t figure prominently, but there was a definite Bostonian working-class urban feel. Stacey specializes in the family saga romance without ever losing sight of the rom. This series is signature Stacey: a large clan, the Kincaids, with a retired firefighter dad, and firefighter baby brother to two older sisters, one of whom, Ashley, is married to a firefighter, and another, Lydia, divorced a firefighter. The men of the family are several-generation firefighters and the ethos makes for the background and conflict to the romance.
Ashley and husband Danny are estranged: Danny’s the strong, silent type and Ashley’s tired of his close-mouthed love. She wants him to communicate, dammit. With good reason, Danny can’t; Ashley kicks him out and calls sister Lydia to help out by taking over her bar-tending duties at dad’s, Tommy Kincaid’s, pub. After a cheating heartbreaking break-up and divorce, Lydia moved to New Hampshire to work in an upscale restaurant and leave behind the firefighting scene and long-suffering women who care for and agonize over the men who fight fires. But when Ashley calls, sobbing and distraught, family bonds are stronger than any desire to start anew. To Boston Lydia returns, to everything that hurt her, and runs smack up against her brother’s best friend, Aidan Hunt.
From the description above, it’s difficult to tell who the rom’s central couple is. That was Miss Bates initial problem with Stacey’s novel: many characters were introduced, Lydia and Aidan felt like the central couple, but Ashley and Danny and their marriage-in-trouble story were more interesting. We had some sense of Lydia, her failed marriage, her volatile relationship with a loving but difficult father (daughters who marry firefighters and support them wholeheartedly as stay at home wives and moms are his ideal), and her little jibes at Aidan, hot and affectionate as he is, because he’s younger and her baby brother’s best friend. Lydia’s attracted to Aidan, but he’s everything she’d never want again: a firefighter and charmer, way too attached to her male chauvinist dad and apple-of-daddy’s-eye babybro Scotty. Aidan too is attracted to Lydia, but his hero-worship of her dad, Tommy, and adoration of his best friend and partner keep him away – at least initially.
Lydia and Aidan are looking for different things: Lydia’s relationship but not sex-shy; Aidan’s sown his oats, wants a lover, but also someone he can laugh, have dinner with, and who’ll soothe him when nightmares come. Aidan’s desire for commitment and affection make for a nice foiling of his obviously alpha status as firefighter stud. Aidan has a lot of love to give and that makes him pretty irresistible hero material. It’s just too bad that Lydia-and-Aidan interactions are at a minimum for the first third of the romance. Moreover, they are at such a minimum and, when they do occur, consist of furtive groping and kissing in Kincaid’s Pub’s supply closet, that it’s hard to believe in their emotional engagement. The romance’s ethos also feels like a throwback to a mythical 1950s working-class men are men and women are their support.
Something snaps in the narrative around the 40% Kindle mark and Miss Bates … well … she was blown away by it. Things heat up between Lydia and Aidan, yes, in the bedroom, but also in a raw honesty, even a true-to-life, hurtfulness to their interactions. Lydia, in particular, says cutting, diminishing things to Aidan, but they don’t deter him from giving and asking for love. The dishrag housewife-in-the-making quality to the female characters is sloughed off and interesting people emerge, who know their own minds and try to work through to the best decisions for themselves.
Issues come to a head for Lydia/Aidan and Ashley/Danny and they begin to make emotional sense. In particular, Miss Bates enjoyed that the fathers in the narrative, Tommy Kincaid, but Danny’s and Aidan’s too play a part in shaping their sons. Danny and Aidan come from difficult and emotionally stunted families. This explains Danny’s verbal reticence and Aidan’s strong attachment to the Kincaid men. But they’ve also made good choices for themselves, formed families and found affection and support outside their own families’ dysfunctions. Miss Bates liked how family, natural and adopted, both can shape and hinder, support and foil the individual. Lydia and Ashley know their father will never see them as having more value than when they marry and have a family. Danny and Aidan will never be nurtured or loved by their families. In the end, however, Lydia and Ashley, Danny and Aidan, they choose family. They compromise, they give up fear, they expose vulnerabilities for the sake of gaining love and laughter. They build families that are better than what’s in the past.
Lydia and Aidan’s secret fling has its inevitable oops-busted moment. The whole best friend’s sister is a no-no rom routine is overdone and tedious. It needs be said, however, that the banter and fun, serious and hurtful, exposure of the deepest selves in Aidan and Lydia’s growing relationship are sublime, emotional astute and utterly convincing. Danny and Ashley are pretty endearing too, and the resolution to their marriage-in-trouble, wrenching. Miss Bates didn’t embrace this romance for a while; that’s a definite flaw. But once Heat Exchange crystallized into what it wanted to be, it was terrific. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says that Shannon Stacey’s Heat Exchange is evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Shannon Stacey’s Heat Exchange is published by Carina Press. It was released on August 25th and is available in e-format at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Carina Press for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.