Eons ago, I read Julie Anne Long’s I Kissed An Earl and liked it well enough, but not with the passion of anticipating the next book in the series or eye-balling the newly-arriveds for her author’s name. I was surprised to see her turn to contemporary romance as she seemed quite ensconced in the former. But, hey, what do I know about author inspirations or the changing face of romance publishing? Bupkis. I was curious, however, and since contemporary is my sub-genre of choice, happy to give her a try with book four of the Hellcat Canyon series, The First Time At Firelight Falls, and even happier to eat reader humble-pie when I was *forced* to reassess my initial ho-hum judgement of it. It is seemingly run-of-the-mill contemporary small-town romance: Hellcat’s denizens are eccentric and supportive, there’s a good dose of wholesome humour and a modicum of conventionally-positioned, hot sex between the leads, and, at least initially, a whole lot of not-much-ness.
Gabe Caldera, Hellcat Canyon Elementary’s handsome, ex-SEAL principal, has the hots for single-mom Eden Harwood, mama to adorable, guitar-strumming, word-loving ten-year-old Annalise. Small-town know-it-alls, Eden’s vast family, and her reticence of letting a man into her life, given her total identification with mom-hood, Annalise’s persistence in wanting to know who her dad was, and the complication of being two of the town pillars (Eden is Hellcat Canyon’s resident florist) make having a relationship air-quotes complicated.
Except that’s contemporary romance’s problem more often than not: there really isn’t much reason not to. I understood Eden’s protectiveness over Annalise, but for goodness’s sake, her potential relationship is with the hottest, nicest bachelor around … who also happens to be the height of valour, loyalty, and duty (ex-Navy-SEAL), wisdom, decency, and respectability (school-principal-dom) and hotness (tall-dark-handsome-ness, with hard thighs, and, as Annalise calls’em, “little squares on his stomach). So what the heck? Why wouldn’t she have a relationship with him? Though they’re obviously made for monogamy, commitment, and family, there’s enough creaky-in-the-relationship-saddle and fear and public humiliation potential for Eden and Gabe to embark on a good-citizens-with-benefits, hot-if-somewhat-hurried sex thing … ’cause there are kid pick-ups and outdoor principal duty and the Chamber of Commerce mixers to attend.
The novel, I thought, meandered with two likeable, funny, adult protagonists, having impassioned encounters, and not much at stake. Indeed, I was bored, but Long’s witty writing, as banter, internal monologues, and engaging characterizations kept me reading. I wasn’t all into this baby, but I was engaged sufficiently by the writing.
I thought Eden was a lady who doth protest too much, but Long convinced me that, for Eden, there really was something at stake: “Since Annalise was born, her emotions seemed permanently more tenderized, more porous and pliant. Another human’s feelings were a sacred trust. She did not gamble with them anymore, not hers, not anyone’s.” Eden wasn’t averse to a relationship with Gabe, she was a serious person who took her identity solely from being a mother. She’d had to, as a single mom (though I loved Eden’s supportive, loving family.)
Gabe’s lustful reticence was about his gentlemanliness, but Long made that charming as heck, with referential aplomb: “He thought of her more in terms of how she made him feel, like want and soft and smile and like, the kinds of words Koko the gorilla would sign to indicate her needs.” Long couples Eden’s momminess with a good dose of droll lust: ” … she realized the soft places on his inside might be just as enthralling as the hard places on his outside.” As if “Koko” wasn’t enough, Long swept the feet out from one of my most hated novels (also, a technique used by Annalise and her friend Caitlynn for a school-yard fight, bloody noses and all, nice twist on the boys fighting replaced by two pig-tailed girls … way to go, Long!): ” ‘Gabe, I mean … your standing in the community and mine, if someone finds out we’re – ‘ ‘You’re not Hester Prynne. I’m not Dimmesdale.’ ” Eden may be hesitant, but the community-“mindedness” is more about her fears than any possibility of a letter being embossed on her mommy hoodie.
So, I read on and hoped like heck something more than banter, cute small-town denizen encounters, and loving coupling would take place to pull me out of reader torpor. Bing! At about the 60% mark on my Kindle, things became very very complicated, way more than being caught in the principal’s office, so to speak. What suddenly became interesting and important were Gabe and Eden’s relationship growing-pains, brought about by much insecurity, feeling like there’s no way out of their estrangement, and one of the best non-alpha alpha moves a romance hero ever made. The reader thrall came late, but it came and it was glorious. Miss Austen and I forgive Long her late-blooming ways to declare The First Time At Firelight Falls indicative of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Julie Anne Long’s The First Time At Firelight Falls is published by Avon Books. It was released on May 29th and may be procured from your preferred vendor. I received an e-ARC from Avon Books, via Edelweiss+.