Now Miss Bates has read several Rimmer romances, she can speculate why she enjoys them so much. How are they sufficiently atypical to offer jolts of reader-surprise and predictable enough to be comfort reads? Miss B. has ideas. First, what her latest reading installment is about. Her click-happy finger on Netgalley amassed one too many Christmas roms, but the pleasure of reading one in June is no less. And it’s her favourite kind: the type that opens on Thanksgiving and builds to Christmas Eve and Day. When our romance opens, heroine Ava Malloy, fallen hero’s widow and single mum, “had the medals and the folded flag to prove it,” is contemplating taking a lover: “Ava wanted the shivery thrill of a hot kiss, the glory of a tender touch. To put it bluntly, she would love to get laid.” She’s in a good place: successful, with a great six-year-old daughter, Sylvie, and happy in her friends and family. Enter almost-high-school-flame Darius “Dare” Bravo and his irresistible charm. Moreover, he’s volunteering with a local girls’ Blueberry troop, helping them build dollhouses for underprivileged children. What with Sylvie a part of the troop and Ava having to pick her up and Dare’s persistently compelling flirting, the staid, serious single mum cracks and makes Dare a proposition he cannot resist, especially given he’s carried a torch for Ava since high school: secret lovers from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, no strings, no obligations, not even friendship, all the benefits, commitment – bupkis.
Rimmer’s romance novel plot rests solely on its premise. Dare and Ava let the folly of Ava’s proposal run its course. Rimmer, on her part, does interesting things with her characters: trope reversal with Dare, charming, handsome, big, and rich, the one who’s sure sexual benefits can’t be enjoyed without emotional entanglements. Rimmer adroitly lets us know this from the moment Ava propositions him: “He gaped back at her, his expression pure deer-in-the-headlights.” He’s the well-adjusted one and Ava, well, Ava is an emotional scaredy-cat. Yes, Rimmer trots out the familiar “I loved my husband and lost him and I’m not willing once again to risk my heart” and “I don’t want my daughter to get too attached to you because she’ll be hurt when our affair ends”. But Rimmer also gives Ava a complexity and stubbornness in her resistance to love that rounds out her characterization beyond the usual romance conventions.
Rimmer accomplishes everything Miss Bates describes, moreover, with fine writing: witty and funny in places, banterish in others, and poignantly sweet as Dare and Ava’s emotional stakes intensify. Miss Bates loved Dare and Ava’s first not-date:
… she lost her nerve. She ended up blurting out, “I’m, um, on contraception. The shots.”
“And I can’t believe I forgot to bring a sandwich, but I did remember to bring condoms.”
“Did you, now?” His eyes were a swirling combination of blues, like a whirlpool out in the middle of the ocean that could suck a girl down so very deep she might never find her way up to the surface again.
A wonderful, funny exchange, capturing Ava’s sexual gaucheness with Dare’s calm and wit. MissB. especially liked Dare’s “swirling” eyes, capturing how Ava feels with him – vertiginous.
Then Rimmer did a most clever clever thing: Dare makes Ava wait and wait and wait for their no-strings-affair to be consummated: ” ‘I’ve been giving this thing between us some thought.’ ‘Oh, please don’t,’ she pleaded. ‘No thinking is necessary. It’s doing that called for here.’ He bit her earlobe again. She moaned and punched him in the arm.” At one point, Ava accuses Dare of being a “tease”! MissB. believes Rimmer’s trope-twisting goodness works especially well because she uses a Neel-esque “old skool” category technique: Rimmer keeps the POV, until the last quarter, strictly heroine-centric. Ava’s emotional cowardice and irresistible attraction to Dare is closely followed and we are left to figure out how Dare feels by his actions and words, not thoughts. Dare possesses that Neel-esque mystery and mystique: he’s sexually savvy and yet he holds back. He’s alpha-male good-looking and yet loves working with six-year-olds, allowing them to dress him up in “not alpha” beading and sparkles. He’s a powerful businessman and yet prefers his dog and horses than the boardroom. He can cook and never arrives at Ava’s place without a bag of cookies and boxes of pizza. He’s dangerously seductive and totally domesticated. He falls in love first, admits it first, and is hurt by rejection.
Miss Bates favourite exchange comes with Rimmer’s tongue-in-cheek allusion to a romance obsession, what MissB calls the “man smell” (usually, in histrom, a combination of horse, the outdoors, bay rum, and clean sweat, as opposed to the villain’s rank sweat):
She leaned in and sniffed his neck. “I love the way you smell. Like leather and cedar shavings. Sometimes a little like pine.”
“That would be my cologne.”
“You’re a generous guy.”
“And you’re thoughtful.”
“And so very, very sexy … “
“Keep talking, Ava. I like where this is going.”
“However … “
“Uh-oh. All at once I’m not feelin’ the love.”
“It’s just that I never expected to get ethics lessons from you.” He traced a finger down her cheek.
“Some have called me shallow. Can you believe that?”
“No way. You are integrity personified.”
Smart, witty, honest, Rimmer focuses on Ava’s fears and Dare’s affection and humour to convince us there aren’t two people more suited to each other than these two. When we are given access to Dare’s thoughts and feelings, we find something real and true: “And he was tired of getting nowhere with her. Right now, all his touchy-feely hopes of getting closer to her just embarrassed him. They made him feel like a fool, like a piss-poor excuse for a man. A man shouldn’t be after a woman to open up to him. A man should have sense enough to let a woman run the emotional side of things.” Not an attractive side to Darius, but not far from how some men may think if they find themselves in this position. But Dare, unlike Ava, is emotionally brave. How it all plays out is contained in a wonderful HEA.
So what does MissB think makes Rimmer’s romances likeable? She would say that Rimmer has managed to create small-town romance with all of the cutesy, but none of the cloying. And the reason it isn’t sickly sweet is the reason it’s so good: Rimmer writes earthy small-town romance. Not erotic, or angsty-sexy, but her characters, male and female, have healthy sexual appetites, still realizing that attraction and desire go hand in hand with affection, liking, connection, love and commitment. Rimmer’s romance isn’t perfect: like the previous one Miss Bates read, sometimes Rimmer resorts to what Miss Bates calls “and then” writing, a condition plot-lite romances suffer from. A Bravo For Christmas contains one too many “filler” scenes: with previous-books-characters-crowding scenes, girly talk, and sequel-bait. But its strengths are many and eclipse its weaknesses. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says of A Bravo For Christmas “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Christine Rimmer’s A Bravo For Christmas is published by Harlequin Books. It was released in December 2016 and may be found at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Harlequin, via Netgalley.