After nearly a month of reading Harari’s 21 Lessons, I sure needed a heavy romance dose. Who better than Nicole Helm to provide an antidote to Harari’s intellectual harshness? Why Helm? There are romance writers who love romance and that comes through in their writing, say Mary Balogh, the romance classicist, or the contemporary Lucy Parker. Then, there are romance writers who believe in romance and one of those is Helm. Another is her sister-in-writing, Maisey Yates. There’s a genuine belief in their stories as being tangible, possible, and attainable outside the pages of a book, no matter how idealized their characters. Though I’d recently read and reviewed a Helm romance, I knew she was going to cleanse the reading palate: Harari was nice, like having an exotic meal once in a while, or eating on vacay what you wouldn’t at home. But I was ready for my usual fare and enjoyed every but five minutes of it (more of that later).
I don’t know that you can really trust my review: maybe it’s too coloured by my relief and happiness at reading a hopeful book? I wanted the whole deal, a romance, yes, and one set during Christmas, with a Christmas “deal” of friends-with-benefits between what have been two antagonists through the first two books in Helm’s Navy SEAL Cowboys series – WOW, bring it on.
Some context for those unfamiliar with the series. Helm’s Navy SEAL Cowboys centres around three physically and soul-wounded SEAL vets, one of whom’s dream is to turn a Montana ranch into a therapeutic centre for hurt vets. Alex McGuire, Jack Armstrong, and Gabe Cortez are respectively the heroes of the trilogy. By book three, it’s Gabe’s turn, the charming rogue, whose devil-may-care smile hides a world of hurt, none of which has to do with his experiences in Afghanistan. Unlike Alex and Jack, Gabe doesn’t suffer from PTSD: his war was fought in the family home and its lingering pain, unfortunately, he carries to Revival Ranch.
His heroine is none other than the ranch’s therapist, widowed, single mother Monica Finlay, who comes to Revival, after ten years with her parents, getting her degree and bringing up her son, Colin. Colin and Gabe, throughout the first two books, share a great relationship. They bond, Colin with some hero worship and Gabe with an opportunity to do manly things (they chop down a Christmas tree in the first chapter, a great scene) and enjoy Colin’s companionship, one of the few relationships he seems to have, outside of his Navy SEAL buddies. Monica and Gabe spend the first two books verbally sparring and needling each other. It’s apropos that Gabe doesn’t suffer from PTSD, otherwise Helm would be in a world of COI when Monica and Gabe resist their attraction – until they don’t.
Helm is good at opening her books with a dose of humour, in this case, Gabe’s shudders over anything Christmas-related (beautifully contrasted with Monica’s Hallmark-Christmas-movie-themed home, down to gingerbread-men sheets): “Gabe Cortez liked to think of Christmas as a ritualized torture simulation that would ultimately prepare him for any horrible war zone he found himself in. If I can survive Christmas, I can survive anything.” This opposites-attract opening serves Helm and her protagonists well: Grinch meet Cindy Lou. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is key to Gabe’s emotional awakening and a lovely running joke between him and Monica. When the novel opens, just as Gabe is being a grump about Christmas as well as Alex and Becca’s wedding, he’s in turn peeved by Monica. Gabe is of the scared of feels and abandonment ilk of hero: “Gabe had learned a long time ago that people didn’t stick … ” Famous last words: Gabe’s attraction to Monica, his affection for Colin and the onslaught of their care, as well as his buddies’ and their wives’, will break him down enough to make him both run from and then run towards love and commitment.
If Gabe is closed-off, then Monica is lifting her head from grief, work, and parenting to look at the mountains, the sky, and herself, and rediscover a desire to be a woman again. Her little boy is ten, her career is exactly where she wants it to be, she has a home and meaningful work. She’s safe and content, but she hasn’t had a lover in ten years. Oh, she has a few emotional weaknesses, like her insecurity about her womanhood and over-protectiveness for Colin. She lost his dad ten years ago and she’s still uneasy about letting him take on too many risks. But Gabe lets him grow up, even while keeping him safe, and she appreciates that. She appreciates Gabe’s shoulders, his smile, and the way he makes her feel: brave, sexy, and daring. When Colin goes to visit his grandparents for a week before Christmas, Monica and Gabe make a deal:
“You’re proposing a Christmas sex deal.” She lifted her chin, [CHIN!!] and though her expression was serious, there was a certain mocking curve to her mouth.
“I am. Are you accepting the Christmas sex deal?”
“On one condition.”
“We stop saying ‘Christmas sex deal.’ “
*chortle*, no? Though there are dark undercurrents, Helm draws you in with humour and banter. It’s all fluff and fun and Christmas lights twinkling – until it isn’t. Until a blizzard strands Monica and Gabe and we get closed-cabin romance, which I love!
The fluff becomes tempest-tossed and Helm uses the bedroom’s intimacy (even with the gingerbread and candy cane sheets) to crack Gabe open. Physical intimacy, posits romance, implicates you in emotional intimacy. Maybe this isn’t necessarily true of “real life,” but it is one of the most basic and important of the genre’s tenets. Helm knows how to do this well: making the love scenes organic to Gabe and Monica’s emotional revelations. Unfortunately, one of those revelations, revealed when Gabe tells Monica about his childhood, was distasteful, a bad writing decision on Helm’s part and it near ruined the romance novel for me. Except Helm got me with: “Love isn’t a thunderstorm. It’s the way a river cuts through rock over time … he’d found love in the failures. Losing a man, losing the SEALs. Admitting things to Monica. In all of those horrible, dark places, all the good in this life had sprouted … Love was the river and love was the rock, and somehow, she had to be both.” I don’t know if I can wholeheartedly tell my readers to read Cowboy SEAL Christmas, but I can say I loved every moment of it (minus the five BAD minutes) and it restored my faith in hope, love, and a happy ending. For that, with Miss Austen, I say it offered “real comfort,” Emma.
Nicole Helm’s Cowboy SEAL Christmas is published by Sourcebooks Casablanca. It was released on September 4th and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-ARC from Sourcebooks via Netgalley.