Caro Carson is a new-to-me romance author and her For This Christmas Only, though flawed, is engaging, well-written, and may have given me that category kick I’ve sought this summer. She reminded me of the gentle, funny, emotionally-savvy Marion Lennox, who also tells about the road to love of two people who are sad when the story opens. In Carson’s case, in For This Christmas Only‘s case, sad are E. L. Taylor (Erasmus Leonardo!) and Mallory Ames; he, a venture capitalist who made millions and recently wrote a bestselling how-to-entrepreneur book, the reading of which gave Mallory the impetus to take a stand against her exploiting family and return to Masterson University, at 29, to finish her business degree. The blurb offers us a few more details
After nearly dying in a plane crash, financial guru Eli Taylor wants to find meaning in his life. A chance encounter at a small town’s Yule log lighting leads to an evening spent as the fake boyfriend of his superfan Mallory Ames. When she finds herself homeless for the holidays, he invites her to stay with him as his fake girlfriend so he can show his siblings what a loving partnership should look like. The arrangement will end when the new year begins…or will it?
Hmmm, that chance encounter is an extended scene that brings us to the 65% point in the e-book. The blurb’s latter half takes place in the last 10%. That extended scene showcased Carson’s romance-writing chops, to my great pleasure, and also bogged the narrative down, to my reading consternation.
For This Christmas Only opens with a truly great “campus harassment” incident, not because I enjoyed reading about assholes chasing a woman ’round a Yule-log-lighting, because Carson captures that annoyed panicky feeling many of us have experienced. Eli’s role isn’t he-man-rescue, which I also enjoyed. Instead, Mallory spots him, beelines, to pretend he’s her boyfriend. He catches on, is annoyed, but goes along. This opens the narrative to a went-on-too-long scene that nevertheless made for great banter and the sure development of two strangers getting to know each other (making their too-hasty sprint to the HEA believable). Carson’s flair for banter is evident from the moment Mallory and Eli meet: ” ‘You want someone to think you have a male protector?’ She blinked. ‘That’s kind of a medieval way to put it, but yes.’ ”
Reluctantly, mistrustfully, Eli goes along, which makes for even further delightful banter and allows Carson to reveal her characters’ personalities, warts, virtues, and vulnerabilities: ” ‘You’ve never had a boyfriend, have you?’ She stuck out her tongue at the top of his head. [In a hilarious moment, to avoid the harassers, Eli lifted Mallory onto a hay bale and then leaned against it.] ‘You’ve never been one, have you? You seem to think sticking me on a pile of hay bales and turning your back on me is a normal thing to do on a date, but let me tell you it’s not.’ He spoke through gritted teeth. ‘There wasn’t time to buy you flowers.’ ” Mallory’s kind normality, learned at the bedside of many a sick relative when she became everyone’s care-giver, contrasts beautifully with Eli’s questioning of his cut-throat life and estrangement from his family. Eli and Mallory are exactly what the other needs: Eli needs to take care of someone and Mallory needs, finally, for someone to care for her.
Things are complicated for Mallory and Eli; they bring baggage and this extended scene allows Carson to reveal it. Eli is a troubled man, a man who suffers from PTSD after a plane crash last year and who can’t move forward to the better man he wants to be, nor return to the driven money-making machine he was. This chance meeting allows him the space to be neither one nor the other. As Mallory draws him out, she too reveals her eight years of servitude to an ungrateful family. She was able to pull herself out with the help of Eli’s book, advocating assertion and ambition. Little does she know she’s fake-dating the very man who now no longer believes in his philosophy. This deception carries us out of this extended scene and into the conflict. I liked Mallory and Eli. They were funny, tender, and elicited my sympathy. I was glad Mallory ended up rejecting Eli’s book’s entrepreneurial drivel and even gladder that Eli does. It was great to read about a couple who became friends before they were lovers.
I loved some of the things Carson did with the narrative. Her allusions to the Cinderella fairy tale, one that Mallory loves, made for great conversation between hero and heroine as they debated the tale’s meaning. I loved how Carson used the Yule-log scene frame to open her hero and heroine’s story and to end in the same place with their HEA. I wish there’d been less internal monologuing and more action. Nevertheless, Miss Austen and I agree, For This Christmas Only offers “real comfort,” Emma.
Caro Carson’s For This Christmas Only is published by Harlequin Books. It was released in December 2020 and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-arc, from Harlequin Books, via Netgalley.