On his fortieth birthday, wealthy and well-respected attorney Tom Flynn realizes that he's reached every goal he's set for himself - a tradition that he started when he was just a kid struggling to survive - except one: Getting married. However, he's anything but well-versed in romance and has no idea where to find a suitable wife that he could see himself living with for the rest of his days. All of his life, he's been a love-'em-and-leave-'em kind of guy who's never stayed with a woman for more than a few weeks and the idea of making such a serious commitment is scary. But when he attends a birthday party thrown by his boss in the small town of Bethlehem and sees lovely innkeeper Holly McBride again, Tom knows she's just the kind of woman he needs. Convincing Holly of that, though, could prove to be the most challenging thing he's ever done.
During his commutes to Bethlehem from the big city, Tom has always stayed at Holly's inn. Every time she sees him she keeps hoping against hope that he'll finally give in to the attraction between them, but thus far, they've remained nothing more than platonic friends. So at his birthday party, she places a wish on his candles that he would wish for her. When he miraculously does give her his attention by proposing marriage, Holly is stunned. After watching her parents' marriage implode, she has no desire to tie herself down to one man for the rest of her life. All she wanted with Tom was a sexy fling, but she didn't count on his single-minded pursuit of her and his refusal to sleep with her until "the time is right." As each of these two lonely souls campaign for the relationship they want, can a little heavenly intervention help them to find middle ground?
First Kiss is the fourth full-length novel in Marilyn Pappano's Bethlehem series. I've enjoyed all the stories in the series so far, but somehow it keeps getting put on the back burner, so that it takes me a long time between books before reading the next one. This one pairs high-powered attorney Tom Flynn with Holly McBride, the owner of the only inn in town. After finding his own HEA, Tom's boss and best friend, Ross, moved the bulk of his business operations to Bethlehem, so Tom splits his time between the little town and his home base in Buffalo. When he's in Bethlehem, he stays at Holly's inn, so they've gotten to know each other fairly well over the year or so he's been commuting back and forth. Holly would like nothing more than to have a steamy fling with the handsome Tom, but even though he has a reputation as a love ‘em and leave ‘em kind of guy, he's been resisting going down that road with her. As Tom hits his fortieth birthday, he realizes that he's achieved all his goals in life except one - getting married. Not having a clue how to romance a woman, he takes a more logical approach to the problem and realizes that Holly is just the kind of independent, business-minded, non-demanding woman for whom he could see himself walking down the aisle. The only problem is Holly has no intention of marrying anyone - ever. So Tom has his work cut out for him convincing her they could make a great team.
Tom grew up in a rough neighborhood with a single mom who never had enough money. He didn't know his dad, and his mom passed on when he was sixteen, leaving him to fend for himself. From that moment, he started making goals for himself, and each year on his birthday, he returns to his list, crossing off the things he's accomplished and sometimes adding new aspirations. He's worked hard to become one of the wealthiest and most well-respected attorneys in the state, and he likes his job working for his best friend's company. But after celebrating his fortieth birthday, he keeps the tradition of revisiting his list and realizes that the only thing he hasn't achieved is getting married, and although he doesn't recall putting it on the list, falling in love. He has no idea how to go about doing either one, but he's determined to give it his best shot. When Holly turns down his first proposal cold, he doesn't let it deter him. He's never backed down from a challenge, and he's not about to start now. But Holly proves even more stubborn than he could have imagined. Tom's initial attempts at getting Holly on board with his plan are pretty cringe-worthy. He's never had a shortage of women in his bed, but he's never had to really try to keep one either. However, with a little angelic intervention, he finally starts to get his act together. From there, I very much enjoyed his pursuit of Holly. I was impressed that he refused to sleep with her even though she was trying her level best to seduce him and he was sorely tempted. Given both their backgrounds in which they pretty much led their relationships with sex, I thought it was a solid plan to take it off the table, at least temporarily. Of course, Tom went into the endeavor treating it in a completely businesslike manner, but by the end, he'd fallen hard for Holly.
Holly grew up in a dysfunctional family. Her father was frequently out of town on business, and she always thought her mother, who was a demanding woman and an alcoholic, was to blame. Her mom also hated small-town life in Bethlehem and resented her husband for moving them away from the city. As a result, Holly never received the love and affection she craved from her parents and started seeking it out from boys at a young age. She lost her virginity at fifteen and was more than willing to have sex with guys in exchange for the illusion of affection, but none of them ever wanted to stick around for long after they got what they wanted. So Holly has gained a reputation around town for being "easy." Ever since Tom started staying at her inn, she's wanted him in her bed, but he's been playing hard to get. Then out of the blue he proposes to her, leaving her stunned. After seeing how unhappy her parents were and watching their marriage crumble, she has no intention of ever marrying anyone. She's content to live out her days as a childless spinster. As Tom steps up his game, though, he begins to tempt her a bit. But when long-held secrets about her father come out, she wants nothing to do with any man. Holly is a very stubborn, independent woman, qualities that have served her well in business but that aren't necessarily good for relationships. Deep down, she's afraid of repeating the past if she gives in to Tom's overtures, and I did understand her fears. However, I couldn't help feeling like she was being a bit hard on the poor guy. Again, with a little help from above, she finally sees the light, but it did take her until the final pages of the book to get there, which was admittedly a little frustrating for me.
As with most small-town romances, First Kiss has supporting players aplenty. All of the heroes and heroines from the previous stories play a part. Emilie (Season for Miracles) is Holly's friend and assistant manager of the inn, while her husband Nathan and all their kids are seen a few times as well. Ross (Some Enchanted Season) is Tom's boss and best friend, and he and his wife Maggie welcome Tom and others into their home on more than one occasion. Town psychiatrist, J. D. (Father to Be), is one of Holly's ex-lovers, who offers up some advice, while his wife Kelsey, Holly's friend, and their kids are seen around town, too. Even Bethlehem's former guardian angel, Noelle ("Gabriel's Angel" from Yours 2 Keep), who has become human, appears in one scene. Then there are the other townspeople, of whom diner owner Harry and his head waitress, Maeve, are stand-outs with a budding romance of their own, as are the elderly sisters, Agatha and Corinna. Agatha discovers you're never too old for love when J. D.'s father comes to town for a visit and begins to charm her. Then there are Holly's mother, Margery, a stuffy, irritating woman who causes Holly no end of grief but who finds some redemption by the end, and Bree, a clumsy, accident-prone, young girl, who shows up in town and who Holly hires to work at the inn. Finally we have Gloria and Sophy, two new angels who are looking out for both Tom and Holly and the other residents of Bethlehem.
Overall, First Kiss was a pretty enjoyable read. It's a bit on the slow-paced side, but I was never bored while reading it. It's a well-written book with good character development. I liked both Tom and Holly. They're mature romance leads who think they know what they want out of life, but when they open their hearts to just a little bit more, they're surprised by what they find. Even though Tom struggles with being romantic at first, he shines up nicely to become a respectable romance hero with a little help from his guardian angel. While Holly's "no-I-won't-marry-you" drumbeat could be a bit tedious at times, I felt like I had a good understanding of where she was coming from, so that I could mostly forgive her. I had a good time visiting with all the townspeople and seeing past characters again. I also enjoyed the touch of the paranormal with the angels looking out for everyone and doing some matchmaking. I was somewhat worried when things royally fell apart near the end with not many pages left to resolve things, but I ended up being pretty pleased with how everything turned out. First Kiss may have been a bit predictable and might not have reached the heights of perfection for me, but it was a respectable entry in the Bethlehem series that was a good read.
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