Miss Bates read Kathy Altman’s Tempting the Sheriff with great joy amidst reader-mourning. Harlequin Books recently announced it would end the Superromance line in June 2018. The line has been a MissB favourite for ages. In its monthly titles, she discovered many of her favourite romance writers, Sarah Mayberry, Janice Kay Johnson, and more recently, Liz Talley. Altman, on the other hand, wasn’t as prolific, but MissB remembers Altman’s first, The Other Soldier, and how she loved it. With Altman’s fourth, Miss Bates can see that, like JKJohnson, Altman had the potential to be another favourite. Sadly, it is not to be. But Tempting the Sheriff is a great romance, nevertheless, in the JKJohnsonian vein. As small-town romances go, it doesn’t paint a halcyon picture of small-town life and its denizens. Castle Creek’s citizens are nosy, eccentric, chaotic (sometimes as lovably as Jodi Thomas’s), and occasionally shiftless, sometimes rowdy; they behave lovingly, but also criminally. Small-town life is close and neighbours do know and help each other, but they also feud like crazy and sometimes, small-town life is, well, boring. Into this Pennsylvania town, Altman introduces her hero and heroine: visiting Erie cop, Vaughn Fulton, in Castle Creek to clear out and sell the house he inherited from a deceased uncle; and, Sheriff Lily Tate, workaholic town protector haunted by personal tragedy. Small-town nosiness and proximity aside, Vaughn and Lily must work together when the mayor hires Vaughn to fill in as Lily’s deputy.
Altman does so much right in Tempting the Sheriff, rejects conventions to pen a satisfying, heart-clenching romance narrative. Her realistic portrayal of small-town life isn’t the only unconventional aspect to her romance. For example, the reader expectation that the eponymous sheriff is male is turned on its head in Sheriff Lily Tate. Moreover, there is a daring and welcome age difference between Vaughn and Lily, eleven years to be exact. Nothing squicky, folks: her 39 to his 28, but unusual for romance. Miss Bates thought it terrific: Lily’s age does add strain to their relationship, as it realistically should, given society’s smirky moues about older women and younger men. Like small-town life, Altman manages to develop and build a compelling give-and-take, care-and-hurt relationship between Vaughn and Lily, showing a deepening of care leading to love, as well as the misunderstandings that come of navigating a new relationship.
Altman is a pithy and succinct writer, contributing to her ability to develop her characters. Despite the work environment and age difference strictures, Altman gives her hero and heroine a healthy dose of physical attraction with panache-y humour: cases in point, “this guy seemed to carry all his smarts in his ass,” says Lily and Vaughn retorts, “he had never been able to resist a woman in uniform.” Altman establishes character and takes a good poke at male/female romance stereotypes. Vaughn is a kittens-and-kids softie, evident when he discovers a cat and her brood in his uncle’s empty house: “he’d hauled his ass out of bed pretty much on the hour to check that everyone was still breathing.” He is, in turn, a by-the-book cop, which is beautifully contrasted to Lily’s recklessness, the identifier of every romance suspense and Western hero-as-sheriff romance. Miss Bates loved Vaughn’s response to Lily’s physical daring-do: ” ‘ … you deliberately stepped in front of a moving vehicle. Why would you take that kind of risk? … We’re supposed to be a team. You know what a team is, right? People who work together?’ ” Lily’s role as the lone-wolf protector and shield of town justice is taken out of the alpha-sheriff book – except in Altman’s case, all those “qualities” are embedded in her female character.
Still in keeping with her character-stereotype reversal, Altman softens, humanizes, and deepens Lily and Vaughn, individually and as a potential couple. Though Lily and Vaughn are attracted to each other, they are cautious about voicing or acting on that attraction, another kudo to Altman for resisting the romance-writer’s insta-lust cop-out. 😉 Lily, in particular, occasionally indulges in vulnerability because of what working with Vaughn has come to mean to her: “A sudden tightness behind her lids had her batting her eyes. Damn it. Why should she miss him? He was arrogant and nosy and bossy as heck. He was also kind, funny and too damn perceptive.” Altman shows us how Lily and Vaughn learn to work as a team and bring out the best in each other before she puts them between the sheets. A wonderful example is when they rescue Miranda, an abandoned girl: ” ‘I need you to stay with Miranda,’ Vaughn said. ‘If I don’t produce a pair of unicorn jammies and a cupcake soon, she’s going to start crying. I don’t like it when they cry.’ ‘Women often cry when you’re near?’ ‘This time it won’t be tears of gratitude.’ Lily made a rude noise.” Altman’s Lily and Vaughn are funny, endearing, and play on our ideas of female as nurturer and male as protector in compelling and memorable ways. (On a further note, a terrific secondary romance also plays with these stereotypes, especially when the secondary rom-hero is so nervous on his first date with the heroine that he vomits!)
On a final note, Altman creates a realistic, romantic relationship (actually two!) and at the core of that is her handling of the betrayal, or dark moment. For the first time, it is marvelous to see how an author doesn’t centre betrayal in the hero, or heroine. Instead, she has both hero and heroine hurt and betray the other in the ordinary ways couples do. It makes the HEA all the more valuable, interesting, and emotionally satisfying. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates finds in Kathy Altman’s Tempting the Sheriff “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma. She encourages you to read this wonderful Superromance because it is that good and because, sadly, most sadly, the line will disappear from romancelandia all too soon.
Kathy Altman’s Tempting the Sheriff is published by Harlequin Books. It was released in December 2016 and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Harlequin, via Netgalley.
As a paean, hit Miss Bates with your favourite Superromances in the comments!