by Leslie Kelly, contemporary (2005)
Harlequin Blaze, $4.75, ISBN 0-373-79226-3
Leslie Kelly's Christmas-themed Harlequin Blaze has plenty of good things to be cheerful about: an adorable look at romantic Stooges dealing with over-the-top Christmas festivities, a hero that is simply too adorable for words, and plenty of nicely written sexual tension to keep the worst chill at bay. It's a Christmas-themed story but the whole Christmas theme isn't beaten into my head with the subtlety of an elephant stampede and there is no "you must adore Christmas season, you must" sentiments to be shoved down the throat of infidels reading this book.
But the heroine is not just the most boring aspect of this story, she is actually falsely advertised by the author and the back blurb as a woman who isn't afraid of taking charge of her sexuality. Sure, Noelle Bradenton knows how to use her mouth, tongue, and fingers to drive Mark Santori crazy if you know I mean (and I'm sure you know what I mean) but she often acts like she has been possessed by the spirit of some naughty ghost when she gets down to business. Once the haze of the moment is over, she reverts to acting like some hysterical too-typical brain-Blazed heroine.
The atmosphere of this book is superb in my opinion. Noelle is a Scrooge. She hailed from Christmas, Illinois, where the people there really take the name of their town very seriously to the point that Christmas is a whole-year business and social opportunity for them. Noelle prefers life outside Christmas where she can have some breathing space without having those darned carolling weirdos popping up at her windows every other week to remind her that Christmas is a wonderful thing ho-ho-ho. It is possible to experience too much of a good thing, after all.
She encounters Mark Santori in a bizarre scenario that may just be weird enough to possibly happen in real life: she overhears the woman in the next cubicle in the store changing room engaging in what seems like sexual congress and somehow manages to fall onto the man from the next cubicle and nearly getting laid by him. I think I've come across that scenario before in an episode of The Red Shoe Diaries, hmm. Later, their paths cross again when Noelle, a social worker, has to call in the cops after a bad Santa ran off with their collection money and Mark happens to be the cop called in to investigate. They somehow end up in Christmas with Mark renting Noelle's own room in the Bradenton house-turned-B&B establishment.
There aren't too many villains in this story so the identity of the bad guy can be pretty obvious after a while if the reader chooses to pause and think about that matter. The story's dependence of coincidences and a rather awkward sexually-charged encounter to set up the story aren't too promising at first but eventually the story settles into a nice pace as Ms Kelly gets our two Scrooges trying to deal with the madcap people of Christmas without being too cutesy in the process. I really enjoy the way Ms Kelly brings Christmas to life according to her own point of view in the same way she used Halloween as a backdrop of her story in a previous book.
But things hit a bump on the road when the heroine's issues become the main reason why our couple can't be together until the last page and her issues are actually the most trivial compared to those of the characters around her. In fact, there are too many times when Noelle comes off as a typical Harlequin Frigid Brighid Gone Wild heroine where, without a sane hero to stop her, there would surely be no happy ending to be had for our heroine here. First Noelle says that she wants hot sex with a stranger. Fine, that's a reasonable wish, especially when in romance novels we have hot hunks falling down from the sky every other day. Really, there is nothing to hold Noelle back from boinking Mark all the way to Thanksgiving. What the author does, therefore, is to introduce a contrivance that has been used in many Harlequin Blaze stories before, one that never fails to make me see red.
Because Mark is too nice to her and he is no longer a stranger, Noelle therefore cannot have a hot one-night stand with him! She must think of her heart, you see, after she has been hurt by some jerk in the past, so really, all she wants is hot sex with a stranger!
I don't know what to say, other than perhaps Noelle should have just headed over to some prison block and offer herself to any random male prisoner for a conjugal visit. That way, she won't be treated nicely and she'll be screwed in many ways by a complete stranger. Isn't that what she wanted? What kind of nincompoop will want to nurse a bad breakup by not sleeping with a hot guy who treats her with respect and more while clearly desiring her?
Mark is a catch. He doesn't play the field, he's a dedicated cop, he's a family man who loves his siblings, he doesn't seem to have financial difficulties, and he can give a woman multiple orgasms with a flick of his finger. What's not to want? Any sensible woman would have grabbed Mark by the... er, collar the moment he walks in through the door and there would be about one hundred pages of spectacularly pornographic passages before a large "THE END" shows up at the last page, lovingly decorated with hearts and chubby angels and all. But no, Noelle decides to literally want to have sex with a stranger or, after she does the deed with Mark anyway (what, you expect her to stick with her principles?), starts whining that Mark will break her heart again by being too nice and really, she can't have that. Noelle is certifiable, I tell you.
Thankfully, Noelle doesn't exactly run wild with her pity-bonkers party for one - she does whine a lot and nonsensically, but there are enough depictions of the wacko people of Christmas (who are actually depicted with fondness by Ms Kelly) and some subplot involving Noelle's pregnant sister and this woman's husband. Therefore, there are often breaks in between Noelle's demonstrations of her birdbrained state to give me chance to go "Aww, that's so sweet!" and for my blood pressure to go back down to a more tolerable level before Noelle recovers from her latest shag scene with Mark, remembers that she's supposed to be birdbrained, opens her mouth, and vexes me all over again. Noelle is especially vexing because her issues are trivial compared to those of the people around her. Mark, for example, has been betrayed by an ex in a really nasty manner that nearly cost him his career and reputation, but he's not bitter and he doesn't demonstrate weird misogynistic complex. Noelle's sister Sue and her husband are dealing with a very real possibility of her miscarrying their child. Therefore, compared to these characters, Noelle comes off as even more of an insipid nitwit!
At the end of the day, Noelle learns what a caring and wonderful man Mark is and decides to trust him with her heart. It is great that she finally awakens from her pity-bonkers party, but one thing has to be said about those who are always the last the know: it is very hard to congratulate Noelle and be happy for her when she finally realizes the obvious and catches up with the reader 200 pages later because chances are, the instinctive reaction is to smack her at the back of the head and tell her with a snort, "Duh, birdbrain."
Don't Open Till Christmas is fun because it has a cheerful and eccentric celebration of Christmas without going overboard and too cartoonish, there is a wonderful hero, and there is great sexual sizzle. But don't open this book without steeling yourself first for the heroine's more birdbrained moments.
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