Desert Isle Keeper Review

Leaving Normal

Stef Ann Holm
2005, Contemporary Romance
MIRA, $6.99, 376 pages, Amazon ASIN 077832222X

Grade: A-
Sensuality: Warm

Although I am sure there are a good number of romances featuring firefighters, this is a rather new scenario for me. Therefore, as I became increasingly impressed with the originality of this hero’s character, I recognized that this was due, in part, to his chosen profession. However, it was the absolute genuineness of his personality that most labeled him unique and ultimately captured my heart. Here is a considerate, confident, relationship-oriented, and very sexy man without the huge ego, unbelievable sex drive, and tendency towards casual sex. His character also made me question once again my preference for alpha heroes – it appears I may have overlooked a lot of great beta heroes in my search for the perfect alpha male.

After discovering a passion for floral design a few years earlier, Natalie Goodwin has finally gathered her courage and opened her own flower shop, Hat and Garden. Choosing to take control of her life two years earlier, she ended her 21 year marriage and discovered she was good at taking care of herself as well. Now 43, Natalie relishes her independence, loves living alone, and enjoys life’s challenges. Shortly after her divorce, she eagerly jumped into a disastrous love affair that left her tremendously hurt and very wary of men. Immersed in running her new store, she can’t spare the time to develop a new relationship nor will she allow any man to wield such power in her life again.

Seldom have I read a hero as unassuming and positively attractive in every way as Tony Cruz. A 34-year-old Boise firefighter, Tony loves his career, treasures his friendships with his fellow firefighters, and values the idea of a family. Mr. May on the most recent firefighter calendar, Tony is considered quite the sex symbol by women of all ages, but their offers of companionship stir no interest in him. Tony lives quietly with his wife and stepdaughter and is trying to have that ideal family life he has always wanted.

Taking a do-it-yourself class one day at the local home center, Natalie recognizes the gorgeous May Hunk of the Month walking across the store - his masculine presence effortlessly commanding attention - as none other than her neighbor, Tony. Natalie chides herself for the pure sexual attraction she feels for a man so much younger than herself, especially considering the fact that he is married. But she can’t help thinking that he is the best looking man she has ever seen and once he initiates a conversation with her, speaking of his love for his stepdaughter, she decides he is utterly endearing as well.

Tony and Natalie must each deal with a significant crisis in their life over the following months and gradually develop a true friendship as they support one another through their ordeals. Eventually their mutual attraction begins to show itself – a thought that clearly distresses Natalie since Tony is the type of guy one lusts over and dreams about but not someone one could ever have in real life. Further, Tony has openly stated his desire for children and, since Natalie believes that she is pre-menopausal, she sees no hope for a permanent relationship and refuses any thought of casual sex.

I'm attempting to stay out of spoiler territory, and I know that adultery is a hotspot for some romance readers, but let me assure you that the leads participate in no adulterous activity nor does their mutual attraction bring about Tony’s eventual divorce. That attraction is given no attention until Tony is not only divorced but single for a period of time.

The camaraderie among the firefighters at Tony’s station acts as an entertaining backdrop for the story. It is not the actual firefighting that gets the attention here, but rather the friendships formed among the men during their shifts. Seeing Tony in his work environment throughout the book was pleasurable as he assisted with a medical problem, rescued a kitten (and it’s not sappy either), participated in practical jokes, or spent time simply smoking cigars with his fellow firefighters. This interaction further supported the favorable impression in my mind of this well-rounded hero I had already found so intensely attractive.

The love relationship between Tony and Natalie develops slowly but is all the more believable because of it. Natalie’s extremely likable character is convincing as an obsessive small business owner, an overprotective mother, and a loyal family member. Her tendency to vacillate is at times extremely sensible and at other times a bit maddening.

Natalie’s widowed father and his first girlfriend since his wife’s death provide a very satisfying secondary romance. Other characters play significant roles as well, but this remains primarily a story of friendship turned into romance. No suspense subplot is necessary since the interactions of the leads as well as their growth both individually and as a couple are the challenges presented herein. Yeah, this is how I love my romance served – mature individuals involved in a realistic and eventually loving relationship.

-- Lea Hensley

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