Nicole Helm’s Cowboy Seal Homecoming gave me exactly what I was looking for: Helm’s brand of emotional honesty, quirky animals, uber-masculine heroes whose mission is to set the world aright, heroines who call them on their bullshit and yet don’t shame them for their vulnerabilities, and a beautifully -rendered rural setting, in this case, rancher-country Montana. Honorably discharged wounded warrior hero Alex Maguire comes home to his deceased father’s ranch. He claims an inheritance he shares with heroine Becca Denton, who found, in Burt Maguire’s ranch, a home and father. Now, she’s invited her stranger stepbrother to share in a joint project, creating a therapeutic ranch for war veterans like Alex and the two buddies (sequel-bait!) he brings along on his and Becca’s venture, Jack Armstrong and Gabe Cortez. As far as the romance’s outer trappings are concerned, originality isn’t what makes them up. But then, what romance’s tropes, trappings, and narrative structure do that? The romance’s attraction lies in all the ways the story can be told of how two alone become one united and fulfilled.
Becca and Alex come from vulnerable psychic places. Becca was a sickly, fragile child, with an overprotective single mom. Alex lost his mother in a car accident when he was eight and the memory of being a passenger in the death-car left him with an unconscious desire to fix things, put them right, save and protect. Though his dad was loving, supportive, and a safe anchor, Alex left home to fix things on his country’s behalf and rarely returned home. But a grenade brought his and his friends’ military careers to an end, and an end to one of his team’s lives. He brings all that home with him and a determination to see through his project to help former soldiers. But Alex finds much that he denies, or doesn’t expect: his attraction to and affection for Becca, grief for his parents, and symptoms of PTSD. Becca too has to contend with much: the realization that her illness and mother’s sheltering left her without life experience, or being-with-people savvy. Becca, however, is in a better place than Alex. She’s at the take-life-by-the-horns stage of recovery and new-found confidence.
Helm does a lot right in Cowboy Seal Homecoming and much of it nice twists on romance conventions. Though it is often women who are plagued by a need to be perfect, Helm makes her heroine sanguine, open, and accepting of life’s vagaries. Alex, on the other hand, is a fixer, a “neat freak,” a man who must bring order out of chaos, a commander who expects much, but gives more than anyone else. As Becca grows in strength, in understanding herself and others, in joining in on the world that Alex & co. bring to the ranch, Alex weakens and ebbs, at the mercy of memories, nightmares, and blackouts. Together, however, Alex and Becca are marvelous: funny, sexy, affectionate, and tender. They’re incredibly decent, caring people and they treat each other and everyone around them with respect, integrity, and love. I hope I haven’t made them sound stuffy because they’re not. One of my favourite scenes is the one and only love scene, when Becca decides Alex will be her first lover: it’s a realistic “loss of virginity” scene (I’ve always hated the term “deflowering”) and yet still sexy and fun.
Helm’s romance splits in two. In the first half, the tone is lighter, with quite a few funny scenes, usually involving Becca’s roof-climbing goat and a cat who throws baleful glances at Alex once he and Becca are lovers. Becca and Alex fall in love. They’re monogamous types and careful with others’ feelings. They obviously have affection for each other. I really like that Helm doesn’t make a big deal of her heroes and heroines denying feelings. I especially liked that Alex makes a point of asking Becca for a date. Too many romances consist of antagonistic banter and sheet-thrashing, but no one woos, or dates. I’m glad they date. The second half of the romance is darker. Alex’s PTSD intensifies and Becca recognizes that, as long as Alex denies it, they cannot fulfill their relationship’s promise. The novel intensifies and maybe Helm’s resolution comes a little too quickly, but the darkness suffices to keep our lovers apart. It’s to Helm’s credit that I was invested in them and suffered their tearing asunder acutely. Alex and Becca’s reconciliation is awesome: Alex orchestrates a beautifully awkward, gently humorous, tender, and moving proposal scene. Also, it takes place in the rain and those are my favourite kind, ever since watching Breakfast At Tiffany’s.
With Miss Austen’s readerly assistance, I would say that Helm’s Cowboy Seal Homecoming offers “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Nicole Helm’s Cowboy Seal Homecoming is published by Sourcebooks Casablanca. It was released on January 2nd and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-ARC from Sourcebooks Casablanca, via Netgalley.