Stick a Bernese Mountain Dog puppy on the cover of the book, and you’ve just successfully suckered me into reading it. Add a kitten and I’ll sit and read it in one sitting!
When assembling their team for Rescuing Christmas, Harlequin picked three authors more than familiar with animals and the role they can play in a romance. You want a four-legged friend to be an actual character and hopefully add comic relief or poignancy to the story, but not be so amazing that they are more compelling than the hero/heroine and steal the show.
Not only should the cover’s cuteness factor be a clue, but the lack of bare male torso or entangled bodies is a definite indication that this collection of three novellas falls on the mild end of the sensuality rating scale. Our heroes and heroines definitely fall into bed with one another, but it’s very tasteful, non-explicit sex which is always referred to as “lovemaking”. This is the kind of romance it’s safe to get your aunt or grandmother who you know reads romances, but you’re not sure if they run to the emotional but vague sex or the “fan yourself while drinking a quart of ice water” sex. There’s a little heat, lots of emotion and enough euphemisms (but not too many) that you could read this out loud at a DAR party if everyone had a couple glasses of wine in them.
If that relative is an animal lover, go buy them this today as the ideal stocking stuffer, maybe with a donation to the local Humane Society in their name to accompany it, because the story arc for this book is all about rescuing animals. All three couples are affected in one form or another by their association with the neighborhood rescue society, populated by good-hearted workers and even sweeter animals. With animals from the shelter as key characters in each story, dogs and cats are used to good effect to highlight the fears or second chances the humans face as well. Take a closer look at each novella.
“Holiday Haven” by Vicki Lewis Thompson
Vicki Lewis Thompson sets the tone for the volume with the first novella. Cameraman Ben Rhodes is riveted to his lens when the beautiful shelter director, Tansy Dexter, steps on the set with two dogs, ready to talk about the shelter foster program for the holidays. He tries to steer clear of adorable animals and women with sparkling blue eyes because both are trouble – it’s easier to keep things light and easy. But he can’t help but volunteer his services to do some promo shots of the shelter for the network’s pro bono fundraising campaign and the more time he spends with Tansy, the less able he is to stay away.
Tansy doesn’t lie to herself that she’s more than a little in lust with this talented hunk of a man who is being so generous with his time and expertise to help her struggling shelter. Her heart and body leap when Ben is around and her shelter friends and co-workers are telling her to take a chance on him. But seeing how he denies his affection for the dogs and cats around them is a warning flag – he can’t find it in his heart to be around animals, obviously hurt from something in his past. Unfortunately, putting the animals’ needs first is part and parcel of her job, and if Ben can’t open his heart to one of them, he’s certainly not going to let her inside.
I liked Tansy a lot and loved her foster dogs, Ewok and Wookie. Thompson made Ben’s difficult past very clear, making it easy to get a read on his emotional scars, but I found his overreaction to her question after they made love to be a little far-fetched. Nevertheless, they bounce back from it and the ending had a nice resolution and did a good job setting the stage for the other two stories.
“Home for Christmas” by Catherine Mann
Long-standing fans of this author, particularly those who have enjoyed her Wingmen Warriors series published in the early 2000s by Silhouette, will find a lot to love about this story. Shelby Conrad (the now grown-up daughter of one of the Wingmen Warrior heroes) is meeting her husband Sergeant Alex Conrad after his latest deployment, despite the fact that this is going to be their last Christmas together. After years of infertility treatments and miscarriages, she found out that Alex had started volunteering for deployment. He said it was for the extra money for her treatments but Shelby knew it was also so he could get away and not face their problems. Since she’s still in love with him, a divorce seems to be the only option rather than watch him driven into danger as he tries to avoid her.
Alex has always known that Shelby was too good for him. He had a crappy childhood while she comes from a real family. After they eloped in college, he figured he could at least give her the family she always wanted, but not even that dream was realized. When Shelby insists that he not be alone this Christmas and asks if he would end their marriage on a positive note by helping her take a trip delivering three shelter dogs to their new forever homes, he agrees to do it. Being with her and not touching her will be agony, but he’s not letting her traipse across country on her own meeting strangers to hand over the dogs.
Catherine Mann has the gift of letting a reader into the innermost psychology of her characters and this excellent story is no exception. I have to let you know that I usually choose not to read stories about second chance lovers or a reuniting husband and wife, just because it’s so painful to see two people overcome damage in their relationship. Yet, Mann makes me love both characters so much that I immediately begin rooting for them. Seeing their happy ever after, along with that of the black labrador puppy, Daisy, made this my favorite story of the anthology.
“A Puppy for Will” by Kathie DeNosky
A well-established Harlequin Desire author, Kathie DeNosky was someone I hadn’t read before. She picks up the rescue thread by introducing Will Parker, grandson of shelter worker Rose Parker who played matchmaker between Tansy and Ben in the first story. The reader sees Will walk into the shelter as Alex and Shelby are loading the dogs up to go on their road trip. Will can’t deny his grandmother anything and finds himself promising to foster a puppy over the holiday, although it’s the last thing this busy programmer wants to do. When the “puppy” turns out to be a 50 pound, Bernese Mountain Dog/Saint Bernard Mix, he wonders if this is more than he bargained for.
Returning home to his floating houseboat, he is surprised to see a beautiful strawberry blond woman at his door, one who is clearly startled by the rambunctious pony/dog he’s fostering. Macie Fairbanks introduces herself as his new neighbor who is throwing a holiday party and inviting everyone in the marina over. Will’s sworn off relationships since his cheating wife left three years ago, but there’s something about Macie that calls to him. When Harley keeps getting loose and dragging Macie to his rescue, Will seizes the chance for something more.
Macie can’t believe she didn’t realize how gorgeous her neighbor is, but she’s still smarting over her lying fiancee dumping her a year ago for his leggy secretary. When she finds out the hunk next door is the Will Parker, the programmer she’s been paid to review under a pseudonym (and some of her reviews have been inflammatory, to say the least), her non-disclosure clause forbids her from saying anything without losing her job. But how can she explore this fragile new feeling between them and not lose his trust?
For some reason, Will and Macie’s falling in love felt a little quick to me. I also struggled with the “programmer” part of Will’s job – he was working on a “graphics program” but he also wrote the shelter database from scratch? That seemed unlikely. Luckily Harley is the best dog EVER and I was ready to drive to their dock and simply adopt him myself so these two people could be left to their love fest.
This anthology is a sweet, light trio of romances for animal lovers looking for stories combining happily ever afters for animals and for people. Here’s hoping your favorite animal group can benefit from the reminder about remembering our four-footed friends during the holiday season!