Hannah Russell had her life mapped out, but years ago, she made a promise to her best friend that if anything ever happened to her, she would become her son, Noah's guardian. Hannah never expected to have to keep that promise, but when her friend dies suddenly from pneumonia, she finds herself an instant mother. Unsure if she's up for the challenge and needing time to bond with her new son, she rents a big house on a beautiful lake in Colorado, for an extended vacation that keeps getting longer and longer with each passing day that she gets to know the handsome owner of her rental.
Owen Abrams wasn't supposed to be home during his guests' stay. He's a world-famous photographer whose latest trip to take pictures was canceled at the last minute. He promises to stay out of Hannah and Noah's way, taking up residence in his studio next-door. However, his huge Great Dane, Romeo, has other ideas, quickly befriending Noah, who is a little boy with special needs. Soon they all start getting to know one another and interacting almost like a family unit. But Owen has a tragedy in his past that's scarred him deeply and that makes it all too easy but also complicated to let Noah into his life. And then Noah's biological grandmother starts making legal demands that could break apart the fragile new bonds that are forming amongst this trio of lost souls. Will they be able to overcome all the obstacles in their way to finally become a real family?
The Country Guest House is the fifth installment of Robyn Carr's Sullivan's Crossing series. This one follows Hannah and Owen, two new characters who haven't been introduced before. Hannah and her best friend, Erin, bonded years ago over their respective family troubles that resulted in both of them feeling like they had no one else to turn to. As a result, they made a pact as young women that if anything ever happened to either of them, they would become a guardian for any children they might have. Erin chose single-parenthood and adored her son, Noah, but she passed away suddenly from complications of pneumonia. Hannah doesn't hesitate to step up to the plate to take on mothering Noah, despite worrying that she doesn't know how. In order to bond with her new son, she takes him on a trip to Colorado where they stay in a beautiful country home on a lake in the mountains. Owen, the owner of the home, usually rents it out while he traveling, but his latest trip was delayed, leaving him home after all. Not wanting to spoil his guests plans, he stays in his art studio, which has a small apartment where he often lives anyway. But the moment the lovely Hannah and her adorable boy show up, Owen connects with them, and they end up spending nearly the entire visit together. When it's time for Hannah and Noah to head back home to Minneapolis, Owen convinces Hannah to stay for the entire summer to see if what they're feeling for one another is real, but during that time, some trouble arrives in the form of Noah's biological grandmother who is seeking custody of the boy even though his mother's will was very explicit about who she wanted caring for him. Overall, this book was a very pleasant read, though not a perfect one for me.
The story opens with Hannah staying at Owen's home for a team-building exercise for her job along with several other employees of the company she works for. It's the stuff of her nightmares, so she cuts out and heads home early, only to find her fiancé in bed with another woman when she arrives. Unfortunately it's the second time she's had to cancel a wedding and been left footing the bill for the deposits, but at the same time, she's grateful that she found out the truth before making it to the altar. However, with such bad luck in the relationship department, she feels that marriage might not be in the cards for her. Then Erin passes, leaving Hannah to care for Noah. She may have hated the work trip, but she loved the house on the lake, so she takes family leave from her job and returns there with her new son. The owner of the house turns out to be a kind, handsome man who's great with kids, so Owen and Noah end up being best buds, while he and Hannah spend most evenings talking on the porch after Noah has gone to bed. It's a magical time, but one that she knows must come to an end... or does it? When Owen comes after her asking her to stay, Hannah doesn't hesitate, feeling that this is the kind of man she's been looking for all along and hadn't found. So as the summer progresses, she and Owen deepen their connection and fall into a comfortable family relationship. Hannah is a lovely heroine, who I had to admire for her dedication to Noah. Even though she didn't ever expect to have to honor her pact with Erin, she doesn't hesitate to act in spite of it being a huge adjustment. She and Owen fit together well, and I felt like she'd finally found the right person for her.
Owen is a fairly famous photographer who also writes essays to go along with his pictures, many of which have been published in coffee-table-style books. When he's not traveling the world, he's usually holed up in his studio, writing books and creating artwork from his prints. Owen has a heartbreaking past, and he and his wife ended up divorcing over it, because their methods of coping with their shared tragedy were polar opposite. But they've remained surprisingly close friends despite his ex remarrying. When Hannah and Noah rent his house, Owen is immediately taken with both of them. They seem to kind of fill an empty place in his soul, and they grow close very quickly so that when it's time for them to leave, he knows he can't let them go. Owen is described a shy, quiet man who often prefers to be alone, and while he was perhaps a bit more convincing of an introvert than some of Robyn Carr's other similar characters, he's still a little more comfortable with social interactions than I typically see in most introverts. Owen is a sweet, kind, likable man who's a gentle giant, nearly six and a half feet tall and definitely a beta hero. He's a steady rock and confident enough to let Hannah make her own decisions in her own time, but sometimes, I wanted him to be just a bit more proactive in a relationship sense. While his tragic past did bring a few tears to my eyes, I couldn't help feeling that it didn't play into his characterization as much it should have. He hasn't told any of his friends in Timberlake about it, but when it finally comes out, I felt like it was simply finished and the past finally was in the past. I thought that perhaps it might play out with him being a bit overprotective of Noah, but he really wasn't. However, I did enjoy his supportiveness toward both Hannah and Noah through the stress of the grandmother seeking custody and the aftermath.
There are a number of supporting characters, none more important than Noah. He's a cute five-year-old who has a mild case of cerebral palsy and walks with crutches, but it doesn't keep him down. He's smart as a whip and pretty precocious for his age, but he doesn't really suffer any major issues given that his life was upended by the loss of his mother. He's just a very well-adjusted kid who has few issues, so again, I felt like the characterization could have been a bit deeper. Then there's Owen's Great Dane, Romeo, a huge, gangly canine who becomes Noah's best friend. Victoria, Noah's grandmother contests her daughter's will, but is pretty obviously up to no good from the moment she appears on the page. Helen Culver becomes both a resource for Hannah, since their family situations are similar, and also later uses her sleuthing skills as a mystery writer to meddle in Victoria's affairs in hopes of getting to the bottom of what's really going on. Cal Jones (What We Find) represents Hannah and Noah in the custody dispute. Most of the characters from the previous books also show up to offer support and friendship including Sully, Sierra and Connie (Any Day Now) and their kids, and Rob and Leigh (The Best of Us) and their new baby. It was nice to visit with these past characters, but as has become typical for this series, I have no idea who the next leads might be, because no new characters were introduced to give me a clue.
Overall, The Country Guest House was a good read, but not one that quite made it to my keeper shelf. I liked all the characters, except perhaps Victoria, but then again, I wasn't supposed to like her.:-) In many ways, I felt like this book works better as a family drama/women's fiction, because a lot of the story focuses on Hannah adjusting to life with Noah, then including Owen her life as well, along with their troubles with Victoria. I kind of felt like the romance between Hannah and Owen was a bit shortchanged. They spend a fair bit of time getting to know one another, but things simply fall into place a little too neatly. They don't really even have a great deal of internal angst. Owen just knows that Hannah is the one, and while Hannah has some doubts about what she'll do for work if she stays in Timberlake permanently, it's not a huge deal and a question that wasn't even really answered in the story. Other than Victoria's machinations, there isn't a lot of external conflict either, and even that is more of a case of Helen and others figuring out what's really going on without there ever being any real suspense. All in all, The Country Guest House is one of those easy-going, rainy-day reads that is nice and uncomplicated, but not one in which the stakes are particularly high. I enjoyed it for what it was, but I couldn't help feeling like there could have been a little more meat to the story.
Note: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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