A Family For the Holidays is the third Sherri Shackelford romance Miss Bates has read and she can say with confidence that Shackelford gets better and better. Miss Bates liked the first one, with misgivings; loved the second; and the third is a charm for auto-buy territory. One of the reasons Shackelford’s romances are getting better is because they’re funnier, without losing the pathos and sentiment romance readers enjoy. A Family For the Holidays reminded Miss Bates of her favourite HPs, Lynne Graham’s The Greek’s Chosen Wife and Sarah Morgan’s Playing By the Greek’s Rules. You’ll rightly think, dear reader, what a strange pairing: the contemporary HP with the historical inspie. And yet … like the HPs, Shackelford’s romance has an orphaned, irrepressible, blithely-plunging-into-danger, child-loving heroine and broody, alpha-male hero who turns to putty in the heroine’s small, vulnerable hands, a heroine who grows in bravery and élan and hero who learns how to tap into the pleasures of the heart. Like Graham’s and Morgan’s HPs, Shackelford’s romance is a hoot! The characters aren’t drippy the way inspie characters can be, the plot moppets neither pathetic nor corny. They and Lily beset the hero’s space and heart with their energy and humour until they dissolve his good-bad-and-ugly, cheroot-chewing persona.
Chaperone Lily Winter arrives in 1885 Frozen Oaks, Nebraska, to deliver two orphaned charges, Sam and Pete, to their guardian-grandfather Emil Tyler. What she finds instead is a mystery that plagues the little family till the HEA: Emil has disappeared and something is rotten in the town of Frozen Oaks. The local hotel is owned by rapacious, kitsch-decorating Regina Dawson; the town, dominated by crooked Vik Skaar; and, a long-haired, bearded hired gun intimidatingly stares at Lily and the children. But Lily, Sam, and Pete have bonded on the voyage and the bouncy Lily would do anything to protect her charges. Sam and Pete, in turn, are a hoot: they’re possessed of wide-eyed, fearless wonder, going where angels dare not tread. Shackelford nods to old-fashioned Westerns and innocents nonchalantly making their way in a dangerous world like Tweetie birds amidst lions. One of Miss Bates’s favourite scenes is Lily, Sam, and Pete’s initial encounter with US-marshal-in-disguise-as-hired-gun-outlaw Jake Elder:
Lily cleared her throat. “Excuse me, sir. I need to p-pass.” Hesitating, she opened and closed her mouth a few times like a voiceless marionette. With his head tipped forward, the gunfighter’s hat shaded his eyes. Had he fallen asleep? What if she startled him and he drew his gun on her? The outlaw stirred. She scrambled back and bumped into Peter. With chilling deliberation one boot lowered. Her heart clattered against her ribs. The outlaw’s heel thumped against the boardwalk. As the second boot dropped, Lily muffled a yelp. She couldn’t see his eyes or gauge his intent. When the front two legs of the chair hit the ground, a hollow thud sounded. Her temporary bravado deserted her … The outlaw unfolded from his chair and rose to his full, dizzying height. Holding her ground, Lily swallowed hard. She tipped her head and glimpsed his face. Her breath caught in her throat. There was nothing forgiving about his man. “Wow!” Peter exclaimed. “You’re tall.” “Shush,” Lily ordered. “It’s not polite to comment on someone’s appearance.”
Miss Bates guffawed when she read the scene. It unfolds like a comic gem: Lily bravely quaking; Jake falsely-threatening, and Sam’s ebullient naïveté. Jake and Lily’s body language is a hoot, especially Lily as “voiceless marionette,” Jake’s boot-thumps, and followed by the bathos of Lily’s admonition for good manners when their lives might be at stake.
Of course, their lives are not at stake as Jake’s protectiveness and gentlemanliness cannot hurt, much less abandon Lily or the children. Soon enough, Lily realizes that Emil’s disappearance puts Pete and Sam in danger. She needs more than her measly strength to ensure their safety and, after a hilarious scene where she springs Jake from the town jail, hires him to protect them and travel back to St. Joseph, Missouri. Pete and Sam are overjoyed at the news:
“We’re going to travel with an outlaw. A real, live outlaw. You’re the best chaperone ever, Miss Lily.” “I know this all seems quite unusual.” Lily patted Sam’s head. “I assure you, I know what I’m doing. I’ve hired this man as our escort … There are some mitigating circumstances that make the added safeguard of a hired gun prudent.” “I have no idea what you just said, but I’m not scared,” Sam replied, his voice breathless. “I’m excited. This is better than The Captives of the Frontier.”
Sam’s overactive, penny-dreadful-fueled imagination only adds to Shackelford’s delightful humour. Jake, Lily, Sam, and Pete dodge bad guys, go on a hysterical ride through the forest ahead of the outlaws chasing them, and escape captivity through wit and teamwork. Shackelford’s reins on the humour, wit, and banter never slacken.
Nevertheless, Lily and Jake are moving, heart-stirring protagonists. They carry psychic wounds from childhood losses, making them wary of love. Lily lost mother and brother, and her father subsequently took risks to ensure he died too. Since then, she’s never regained a sense of family or belonging. She sees herself as unworthy of sticking around for. Jake too is wounded by his mother’s loss. Though only a child at the time, he blames himself and has made his law-enforcement duties his raison d’être as expiation, keeping his heart closed off and guarded.
The effect of Jake and Lily’s compatibility and joy at being together, even while they’re escaping bad guys, and their gentle love and care for each other and the children bring them to a marriage-of-convenience. It is a matter of time and an opening to vulnerability that lead to a marriage in truth and love. Shackelford tells her story with humour, love, sensitivity, and an awareness of how adventure, fun, and loving teamwork are a lethal combination to sealing over the wounds of loss and loneliness. Miss Bates loved every hilarious and emotion-filled word of A Family For the Holidays and finds in it evidence that “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Sherri Shackelford’s A Family For the Holidays is published by Harlequin Books. It was released on October 4th and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to the author for an e-ARC.