Donna Alward e-mailed me about reviewing one of her Harlequin Romance titles. I get a lot of review requests and being a one-woman blog I cannot possibly accept all of them. However, loving category romance like I do, and finding new-to-me authors within that universe is always something that flips my switch. What happened after me saying "sure, I'll try it" has developed into me reading many of her books. Many, many, many of her books. While still in the Harlequin stable (although now with the American line), she's signed on with St. Martin's for her first single title series. The House on Blackberry Hill is a small town romance (because, of course it is) and the first in a trilogy (because, of course it is).
Abby Foster finds herself in Jewell Cove, Maine looking for answers. Her mother a "free spirit," her father dead, Abby was raised by her grandmother (also, now dead). She always believed it was just her and Gran. Then she inherits a crumbling mansion in Jewell Cove from a great-aunt she didn't know existed. Her plan is to show up in the small town, sell the albatross as fast as humanly possible, and get on with her life.
Tom Arseneault is a local contractor and his dream has been to restore the Foster mansion to it's former glory. A tall order since nobody has lived in the house for close to a decade. Now the Foster heir is in town and he sees his chance to sell his services. What he didn't expect was Abby Foster to be so pretty and so stubborn. She's not exactly falling to her knees and thanking her lucky stars.
We all know where this is going, right? Abby resists, but ultimately has to hire Tom for the job because 1) the place won't sell until it's in decent shape and 2) there's nobody else who can take on the job at that moment. Given the mystery surrounding Abby's estranged family, plus a mansion in disrepair, there are also light (very light) Gothic tones to the story. Plus, naturally Tom has his own baggage - all of it revolving around his estrangement from his cousin (oh, he might have been in love with the man's now-dead wife - minor detail that).
I'm a sucker for house stories, more than likely the result of reading too many Barbara Michaels and Victoria Holt books as a teen. I also really liked the sub plot of Abby finding out the history of the family she didn't realize she had. What I was less enthralled with was the ghost angle. Yep, Abby finds her answers thanks to ghostly spirits. I have never been a fan of ghosts (and believe me finding Gothics as a kid with no woo-woo in them was a TALL order!). They always feel like short-cuts to me, and that's definitely how it comes off in this story. Instead of having Abby do the snooping on her own, of getting her hands dirty ripping the house apart to solve the "mystery" - poof! There's a friendly ghost to point her in the right direction. Blah. Chalk this one up to Wendy inhaling suspense novels in her pre-romance days. I like mysteries where the "real people" have to do all the work.
This is a small town romance, so naturally we have a lot of secondary characters and cutesy atmosphere as the back-drop. Most of this was pretty standard fare that will make small town fans happy, but probably won't sway the curmudgeons. Tom's baggage is well done, and while being in love with his cousin's wife should have him coming off looking like a douche, Alward avoids that landmine by putting some thought into the love triangle.
What I was left with was a pleasant story. I wasn't madly in love with it, but it was readable and kept me entertained during some recent traveling I did. I'm not sitting on the edge of my seat dying to get the next book in the series, but I know I'll read it all the same. There was enough on the page here to keep me happily chugging along. If you adore small town romances this is a good one to try.
Final Grade = C+