Nicole Helm’s Need You Now, first in the “Mile High Romance” series, at first appeared to be run-of-the-mill, contemporary, small-town romance, but proved more complex and interesting. Nevertheless, its opening wasn’t auspicious, with a scene of rugged he-men ribbing each other and indulging in scared-of-deep-communication man-talk. Ugh. Usually, in contemporary romance, these bros are, well, bros, or best friends, or business partners. In Need You Now, they are bearded, handsome “lumbersexuals”. Two are brothers, the hero Brandon, and his twin, Will, and their friend and business partner, Sam. They operate an “outdoor adventure excursion company,” Mile High, in the Colorado mountains, near the fictional town of Gracely. With much manly teasing, the jokester Will informs his austere, a polite way of saying “grumpy”, brother Brandon that they’ve hired a PR consultant to help promote their business, cue one cute heroine, Lilly Preston, freshly arrived from Denver. Lilly shows up, sparks fly, angst follows, much banter, and yet care, affection, and friendship grow, one glorious sexy time follows, then, a terrible sundering of the relationship and, the rest, as we say in the genre, is HEA.
Helm atypically stays away from introducing our heroine first and making her the narrative centre. She’s an equal opportunity writer and we’re introduced to a hero of some complexity, even if this isn’t initially obvious. Brandon is consumed by the need to atone for his father’s sins. As the owner of a local mining company, his father’s business and personal practices were dishonest, illegal, and dishonorable. Brandon put an end to them and, rather than earning the town’s respect and gratitude, is condemned for bringing about its economic demise. Since, his life has been dedicated to addressing “the destruction he’d wrought while trying to do the right thing,” by bringing business opportunities to the town via “Mile High … his baby, his penance, his hope of offering Gracely some healing in the wake of his father’s mess.” Brandon is a moral man, gripped by guilt, and constantly working to atone for his father’s sins. He neither has time nor patience for Lilly’s PR whimsy; her beauty and his attraction to and desire for her are reminders why he can’t have nice things. Brandon grunts and scowls with what seems stereotypical masculinity; he turns out to be a sensitive man who struggles with doing the right thing and comes to reconsider his tendency to ride roughshod over others, even when he’s trying to do right by them.
The novel’s first half is fun and its second half, profound. Brandon and Lilly appear to be classic opposites-attract, but turn out to be alike in their need for control, fear of loving and depending on another, and tendency to martyrdom. First, Helm draws us in because, together Brandon and Lilly, make for funny, snipe-y banter. Brandon gives Lilly a hard time and has to eat humble pie; Lilly isn’t gentle: ” ‘I apologize if I’ve come off …’ ‘Harsh. Douchey. Asshole spectacular.’ ” Miss Bates must say she especially liked that “Asshole spectacular.” Another instance, Brandon’s response to Lilly’s beauty: “Lilly Preston was gorgeous. Brandon hated it. Hated. It.” Helm’s droll ability to show how Brandon is both exasperated and fascinated by Lilly: ” ‘Brandon?’ If he didn’t think she’d hear him, he would have said, ‘For fuck’s sake,’ or roared, or pounded his head against the logs of the woodshed. Instead, he glanced her way. Warily. She made him constantly wary.” Lilly enters Brandon’s ordered, purposeful, solitary life and makes him roil and moil with volatile feelings of attraction and affection: “He looked at her, hovering over his desk like some evil fairy. Beautiful evil fairy.” Helm’s penchant for amusing repetition is a hoot.
Helm makes Brandon a canvas to paint a man with the trappings of toxic masculinity and none of the behaviours, or sentiments. That does not mean she shirks her writerly obligations to Lilly. Lilly is prim, put-together, exemplary at her work, warm, kind, and funny to boot. Brandon, however, brings out the worst in her and that’s fun. He also reminds her, on a more serious note, that she wasn’t made for love and commitment. She’s devoted to caring for a needy sister and nephew, vulnerable after escaping an abusive relationship. Moreover, Lilly’s scarred from her mother’s abandonment and bringing up her sister, though still a child herself, on her own. Other than being needed, Lilly can’t see her way to how she deserves to be loved … and neither does Brandon. Hence, why Miss Bates says that Helm has written a romance about two people who are too much alike.
When Brandon and Lilly are trapped by a storm and do the deed that has been tempting and plaguing them for months, their lives are touched and transformed by this culmination in such a profound way that, being the control and martyr freaks they are, they can’t respond in any other way but to run scared and throw up barriers. What Miss Bates loved most about the romance was how Helm didn’t have Lilly and Brandon continue to desire each other (though they do), but make their yearning to care for the other what needs to be resisted. Their urges are physical, sexual yes, but the scary stuff is about wanting to comfort and be tender.
Given their knee-jerk inclination to uphold quixotic personal codes, for Brandon, to never be like his father and Lilly, to never see herself as more than her ability to give and be needed, watching them fight the tenderness, friendship, and care that are the core of their relationship, is exhilarating and maddening. They are so very likeable, deserving, and honorable, friends-with-benefits isn’t emotionally feasible. They have codes to uphold, causes to sacrifice to. What Miss Bates most liked about them, and there was much to like, they’re emotionally brave and the unfolding of their HEA is believable, possible, and beautiful. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says that Nicole Helm’s Need You Now is “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Nicole Helm’s Need You Now is published by Zebra Books/Kensington Publishing. It was released in May 2017 and may be procured from your preferred vendor. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Zebra/Kensington, via Netgalley.