Laurel Woodall desperately wants a baby, but she has no husband or lover and isn't in the market for one either. Five years earlier, Laurel was brutally raped, beaten and left for dead, and since then has been going through the painful process of recovering both physically and emotionally. In her efforts to have a child, Laurel decided to ask a married friend to donate his sperm for an in-vitro fertilization. Even though the friend's wife agreed to his role in the procedure, she seems rather reluctant. When Caleb Manes, Laurel's best friend of ten years, comes home from an extended business trip, she can't help but share her decision with him as they have never kept anything from each other. Her announcement that she's planning to have a baby though, leaves him stunned. Caleb quickly comes to the rather surprising realization that he can't bear the thought of anyone fathering Laurel's baby but himself, so he spends the evening trying to convince her that they should do this together.
Caleb and Laurel met in college and spent many memorable moments together, but even though there was chemistry between them, the timing just never seemed right for something more to develop. After college, Laurel had headed for law school, while Caleb went into the Peace Corps. It was during this time that Laurel was attacked, and after that, she began pushing all her old friends out of her life. Caleb, however, was too stubborn and too committed to his friendship with Laurel to allow her to set him aside, so they have continued in a comfortable relationship ever since. Even though Laurel had briefly toyed with the idea of asking Caleb to father her baby, the fact that he is single and she has a certain attraction to him, made her feel uncomfortable doing so. Now that Caleb is so charmingly persuading her that they should share this experience, she can't help but feel that nothing could be more right.
Having a baby though, can completely change things in more ways than one. Laurel begins to realize that perhaps she has kept herself locked away from the world for too long, while Caleb begins to ponder whether his rather itinerant lifestyle is really the way he wants to spend the rest of his life. While Laurel begins to rebuild the bonds that she severed years ago, a sweet and tender bond of a different sort starts to develop between her and Caleb as they realize the true depth of their feelings for one another. Yet, Laurel still fears that she can never have a successful physical relationship with any man and can't give Caleb all he wants from her, while Caleb fears that if he pushes to hard, he'll loose the one thing they both cherish above all else..... their friendship.
First Comes Baby is a sweet, gentle love story about the tender, loving feelings that develop between two best friends when they decide to create a baby together in a non-traditional way. In addition to being a romance, this is also the story of a woman who was brutally attacked, how that trauma profoundly affected her life and relationships including friendships, and her struggles to overcome her fears to rebuild a normal life. While Caleb and Laurel's relationship and their choice to have a baby together is the main focus of the story, a fair bit of time is also devoted to Laurel reconnecting with old friends and her continuing emotional healing from being savagely raped. While this aspect of the story adds to the feelings it evokes, it is never played out in graphic detail and is not as intense as many rape plots I've read. Readers who prefer less explicit love scenes should like this book. There is only one at the very end of the story and it is not played out in nearly as explicit terms as most romances I've read.
I really enjoyed the best friends turned to lovers element, as it is one of my favorite themes in romance. I would admit that ten years seems a rather long time for two people to be just friends, especially when both have had a hint that they might feel more for each other, but at least the author gives believable reasons for this extended time frame. In spite of that, I did at times feel myself getting anxious for something more to happen between Caleb and Laurel. They seemed to be doing a dance of two steps forward and one step back that continued until the very end of the story. I did understand their reasons though. Caleb cherished and was deeply committed to their friendship, and was afraid of loosing even that if he pushed Laurel too fast. Because of the rape, Laurel was afraid of never being able to give Caleb more than friendship, and didn't want to hurt him. Unfortunately, they both ended up causing emotional pain for each other anyway, because of their misunderstandings and failure to fully communicate their feelings, though it wasn't nearly as frustrating as some misunderstandings that I've read as plot devices. Somehow they still managed to have some very romantic moments by just savoring simple things like holding hands during a movie and tender stolen kisses in the middle of the night when they were both awakened by their new baby. It was because of things like this that I was able to forgive the rather languid pace of the narrative.
I really liked and felt I could generally relate to both Caleb and Laurel. Caleb was a wonderful beta hero who was kind, gentle and very patient. He was also a great hands-on father to their baby, Lydia, when she was born. I loved that he was an idealistic humanitarian who was actively helping needy people in third world countries to become more self-sufficient. What I appreciated most about Caleb though was his absolute commitment to Laurel no matter what. During the time following Laurel's rape when she was slowly pushing away every familiar person in her life except her family, Caleb was the one and only person who wouldn't allow her to set him aside. He patiently but gently insinuated himself into her life even when she made excuses not to see him. Caleb was just always there for Laurel, denying her nothing, not even his sperm. In my opinion, a man who values and keeps his promises and commitments is definitely a keeper to be cherished. Laurel was a previously confident woman on a path to career success when her life was turned upside down by the brutal attack that nearly killed her. It was nice to see her grow and change throughout the story, regaining her self-assurance, overcoming her fears, and slowly becoming more of the woman she used to be. Since she had already been through five years of recovery when the story begins, it seemed that things could have progressed a bit faster in her relationship with Caleb, but I understood the author's intent was to show how difficult Laurel's life had been during that time and in many ways continued to be. While Laurel's choice to become a single parent is not one I likely would choose, I could, at least to some extent, understand her reasons behind the choice. Admittedly, the pregnancy and baby aspects of the story were merely plot devices to bring the hero and heroine closer together, but I thought that the way it was handled was pretty effective, as well as being a rather different and creative way for a couple to have a baby and ultimately realize their love for one another.
I found First Comes Baby to be a light, easy read that was rather modest and unsophisticated, but full of heart and soul as well as gentle, amiable characters. Even though I have read books with stronger writing, Janice Kay Johnson seems to have a knack for composing a narrative that is infused with some truly romantic moments and more importantly that is able to evoke a sweet, emotional response from the reader in spite of it's simplicity. The story definitely held my interest and was a pleasure to read. This was my first book by Ms. Johnson, but First Comes Baby has without a doubt left me open to trying more of her works in the future.
Note: First Comes Baby is part of the multi-author series 9 Months Later, a theme series by Harlequin in which each story involves a pregnancy. First Comes Baby is #52 in this series, but to my knowledge is a stand-alone novel with no other connection to the series except the theme.
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