Carina Press holiday anthologies are always a go-to for me during December – I’ve never read one that contained a saccharine story, and the credit goes to editor Angela James who always manages to find authors who combine great characters, heart-warming settings, and the true spirit of the holiday.
Gifts of Honor is no exception, except authors Stacy Gail and Rebecca Crowley add the twist of two military heroes so damaged by their service that they are unable to give the women they love the relationship she deserves. Or so they think.
I’ve loved Stacy Gail since last December when I devoured her steampunk holiday romance novella Crime Wave in a Corset, followed by her awesome science fiction novella How the Glitch Stole Christmas. Since then, I’ve read a bunch of her paranormal angels books as well as her contemporary Ugly Ducklings Finish First, and I can confidently say this author has chops since she seems to be able to excel in all genres and still keep a fresh voice and utilize truly unique story ideas. Rebecca Crowley is a newer author of contemporary romance, so it was great to sample a holiday story from her to see what she would bring to this theme. She did not disappoint!
Note that while both stories are offered in the duology Gifts of Honor for under $4.00, you can also get each one individually for around $2.50, if one sounds like it appeals and not the other. The individual links under their specific book cover will take you right to that story, if that’s your preference. But considering the quality of both of them, you’d be wasting your money to not by the duology. Just sayin’.
Starting From Scratch by Stacy Gail
Lucy Crabtree is busy at her job baking all the holiday treats for her small town’s Sweet Shoppe and is just managing to hold it together. Her ex-husband, Sullivan Jax, has finally moved home after his lengthy stay in military rehab where he’s been recovering from a head trauma, a trauma that had him waking up with no memory of Lucy or their marriage.
The only thing she’d prayed for was for Sully to come back alive.
She should have been more specific.
Their marriage had been rocky with his last deployment with the Rangers, a deployment he had barely told her about, leaving her with a lot of anger and once again crushing her dream of them finally making a home and family together. Now she had to look forward to the awkwardness and gossip surrounding the fact that they’d undoubtedly be bumping into one another.
Sullivan Jax would be the first to admit that his ex-wife is heart-stoppingly gorgeous but he also knows that a woman that beautiful deserves to have a life free of a man who can’t even remember her. It galls him to no end that he has begun remembering so many of the details of his childhood and time in the military, but this woman is a just a big, painful blank spot.
That he also has developed an insane craving for cookies – cookies that smell just like the scent that clings to Lucy whenever he sees her – must just be a weird side effect of the season. But one taste of Lucy’s mouth and all thought of cookies gets pushed aside. This is what he’s been craving all along. But while he thinks he might be falling in love with his wife all over again, Sullivan also realizes that he might be the one person she never wants to be with, as he’s already torn her heart to pieces.
This story had everything – great characters, mouth-watering food (always part of the holiday romance genre), and a small-town setting perfect for the backdrop of the holiday spirit. Yes, it’s utterly gut-wrenching to place yourself in Lucy’s shoes, but Gail does an outstanding job of outlining the pressures deployed soldiers and their spouses both face, specifically focusing on how this element eroded Lucy and Sullivan’s marriage. I loved it when Lucy’s good friend and mechanic, Coe read her the riot act of how she had always been the one giving and Sullivan the one taking. Lucy’s understanding of what she did and didn’t do in her marriage showed her growth as much as the pieces of his mistakes in his marriage coming back to Sullivan.
Sullivan’s instinctual response was the most fascinating, first from the standpoint of screaming every time he saw her in the hospital to his despair whenever she would run away from him in their town. Gail does not shy away from the heat in this story, and there were times I thought Lucy’s cookies were going to bake on the counter based on how hot it got in the kitchen with this couple! Most sigh-inducing was the final realization that Sullivan had always loved Lucy as much as she did him and that he wasn’t going to give up in winning her once again, which leads me to the quote that had me falling in love with this big former Ranger:
“I’ve learned the hard way that being careless with you, hurting you, is the quickest way into hell,” he grated, and self-condemnation edged the words in bitterness. “But I understand. It’s okay. You’re gun-shy with me now, so I won’t push you into anything you don’t want to do, or feel. And I don’t expect all the pain to magically vanish just because I remember you now. We both went to war, and we both have battle scars that are going to take time to heal.
“But I have so much hope for the future, Lucy,” he added as he pressed her hand to his mouth, and the passion that vibrated in his tone made her throat clench. “A year from now, I hope you’ll have agreed to be my wife and we’ll be trying for our first baby. I hope a month from now you’ll trust me enough to want to live with me so that you can get used to sharing your life with me again. I hope a week from now you’ll believe me when I say I love you, instead of looking like you suspect I’m playing some kind of cruel trick on you. And I hope that by tomorrow, you’ll be able to smile at me without sadness.”
Gail, Stacy; Crowley, Rebecca (2013-11-21). Gifts of Honor: Starting from Scratch\Hero’s Homecoming (Kindle Locations 1788-1796). Carina Press. Kindle Edition.
Starting from Scratch contains the sweetness and spice of the heroine’s Pfeffernusse cookies with enough heat to bake them, proving Stacy Gail is a romance writer who can encapsulate human emotions so well that readers feel like they’ve grown as people when the final page is turned. This is a must-buy!
Hero’s Homecoming by Rebecca Crowley
College professor Beth Tate always thought of herself as a sturdy Midwestern woman until she bumped into Captain Chris Walker when he filled in for an absent archivist at Fort Riley. He was a six foot stud in uniform and she was more than stunned when he looked at her like he wanted to eat her up.
For four days they had a hot affair and while she was willing to let it just be a fling, not wanting to burden him with expectation prior to shipping out to Afghanistan, Chris wanted more. They exchanged long, thoughtful emails and had sweet phone calls for four months and then…nothing. A terse email after a couple weeks of radio silence merely saying that things weren’t going to work out and the most powerful relationship of her life had ended.
Getting a call months later at Christmas from the same Captain who broke her heart, and Beth is literally rendered speechless. With a blizzard blowing in and his parents stuck at their ranch meant Chris needed a ride to a hotel from the airport and could Beth help? Saying yes just to get a good look at the man who would have the gall to behave like this, she’s stunned to see a scarred serviceman with clouded eyes and a cane. Much to the horror of the Christmas crowd at the airport, she promptly cracks him across the face with a slap that should have sent him back overseas.
When Chris realized that the suicide bomber who killed his friends had taken his sight, one of his first thoughts was breaking up with Beth. Not because he didn’t love her but because he knew that she would unflinchingly take on the burden of his disability and she deserved more. He wanted to just disappear from her life so she could find a good man to have a normal life with, but instead he ends up having to call upon her since he has no one to help him with finding a place to stay. Having been worried about her pity, her serious slap quickly dispels that notion. But as they are forced by circumstances to stay at her house, Chris gets a glimpse of what he might still actually be able to have. But his physical scars are nothing compared to the emotional ones he gave Beth, who might not be able to take a chance on him once more.
Wow, was I impressed with this story! Crowley not only gives us two complex characters but imbues both of them with a very understandable emotional evolution. Chris, when confronted with the reality of Beth and her honest reactions, realizes that the grey existence he has mapped out for himself might be completely opposite the one she feels him capable of and that helps him believe more in himself. Beth has to confront the fact that she is just as much in love with Chris as ever, while also trying to understand his physical injuries and PTSD and ponder if she can trust him enough in his state not to throw her to the curb again.
Both situations are so believable but the turning point is Chris’ epiphany about what Beth has gone through, and his acknowledgement offers the final linchpin in her decision to go forward. Hero’s Homecoming is an emotional read that kept me riveted, turning each page to discover if this man and woman could overcome the obstacles and embrace the happiness within their reach, if they are just brave enough to take a chance.
With the quality of both stories in Gifts of Honor, I think you’d be crazy to not buy both books in the duology for $4.00 rather than only one story. Stacy Gail and Rebecca Crowley have both penned contemporary military romances that bring home the idea that the holiday season is about hope and the renewal of life with love at the center.
Have a super holiday season!!