Karen Templeton wrote one of Miss Bates’s favourite Christmas romances, Dear Santa. Like that fave, Templeton’s A Soldier’s Promise contains the elements that she does so well: a protagonist emerges from a time of crisis, difficulty, or grief; the other manifests as a helping figure; believable, likable children and animals; and, a plot centering on the creation of a new, or blended family. Oh, and humour. And poignancy. And an everyday casualness to the dialogue that makes her characters feel like they’re our neighbours, or we’d like them to be.
After ten years, Levi Talbot returns permanently to Whispering Pines, New Mexico, from serving in Afghanistan. He is a changed but better man than the wild, adventure-seeking bad boy he was. How to convince Valerie Lopez, née Oswald, the woman who best remembers his recklessness and cause of her deceased husband’s enlistment, Tommy following his best friend into the military? Valerie is a widow with two daughters, young Josie and baby Risa. She blames Levi for Tommy’s decision, even if not his death, and Levi is torn: afraid to open old wounds and resentments, but how not to keep his promise to Tommy to help his family? “Because he’d made a promise. One he fully intended to keep. Whether his best friend’s widow was good with that idea or not.”
Levi and Val’s initial encounters are fraught with Val’s resentment and Levi’s contrite guilt. Life never dealt Val an easy time; her father left her mother and her when she was still in elementary school. Natalie, Val’s mother, was cold, not abusive, but negligent and bitter. Loving, and marrying Tommy gave Val the affection, security, and family she craved. Seeing bad boy Levi adds salt to Val’s wounds. Her response to him is nasty: “At least you got to come home,” she murmured, then lifted her gaze to Levi’s, the hurt in his eyes almost enough to make her feel like a bitch. Almost. Because there were days when her anger was about the only thing keeping her from losing it. That, and love for her daughters … ” Despite Val’s sharp-tongued retorts to his amends, Levi is determined to fulfill his promise to Tommy. Levi decides that Val’s run-down, borrowed home (from Tommy’s family) is how he’ll make good on his word.
One of the strengths of Templeton’s Soldier’s Promise is the slow-developping romance. Levi turns out to be a wonderful man, gentle, funny, good with the girls. He comes to Val’s shabby home and works quietly, making things better, easier, and more beautiful for them. Levi lets Val be when she needs her solitude and is a funny, caring companion when she needs a friend. Val slowly changes her mind about Levi because of what he does and who he is, not because he’s super-lover, which doesn’t take away from his good looks and how they make her come alive in other ways. Val acknowledges she was wrong about Levi: ” … his quiet steadiness and impeccable work ethic, as well as a gentle sense of humor that never targeted another human being, gradually chipped away at her resentment.” This convincing portrayal of their growing friendship – and something more – serves Templeton well, renders her narrative natural and believable.
In telling Val and Levi’s romance, Templeton adroitly combines humour and pathos, a powerful tonal romance duet, difficult to achieve. If Soldier’s Promise and Dear Santa are evidence of Templeton’s writerly chops, she’s a master. Soldier’s Promise also fulfills Miss Bates’s requisite three Cs of romance novel love scene accomplishment. With a singular love scene near narrative’s end, Templeton makes it about culmination, celebration, and commitment. Templeton’s humour is centred on adorable children and animals. Val’s daughters, Josie and baby Risa, are not idealized. Josie is complicated, but not dark. Her loving mom and extended family make up for her daddy’s loss. She’s mourning, but not crushed, or in despair. She’s still a little girl who can laugh, experience joy. Risa is a hoot: all teething glory and funny sounds. Templeton knows her babies and makes Risa’s portrayal come alive for the reader: all of the joy, plenty of the drool. Val’s mutt is dumb as rocks, but totally lovable and the little ball of kitten fluff, Skunk, is adorable.
Where does A Soldier’s Promise fail in Miss Bates’s estimation? In a hero’s phenomenon that Miss Bates has noted in many romances. Templeton is guilty as charged, but in good company. The hero, Levi, is an interesting, nuanced, complex character during the novel’s first third. He genuinely wants to make good his past bad boy shenanigans. He’s guilty he’s attracted to his best friend’s widow, but he’s not going to beat himself up over it. His military experience, something he doesn’t want to talk about, was difficult, but he’s not broken, or traumatized. He has a caring, but sharp sense of humour. His attraction is centred beautifully in his strong, muscled body and green eyes. Something happens to him, however, as he female-fantasies his way into handy-man mode: he loses substance and edge. He transforms into a gentle, warm, caring nonentity. Miss Bates’s doesn’t know what the answer is between asshat hero and ghost of his former alpha self. But this white-washed hero sure does bring on the yawns. Nevertheless, Templeton’s Val and Levi are a couple that the reader can envision down the years. The kids are cute and animals endearing. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says Karen Templeton’s A Soldier’s Promise offers “real comfort,” Emma.
Karen Templeton’s A Soldier’s Promise is published by Harlequin Books. It was released on January 19th and can be found in paper and e-book at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Harlequin for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.