Zeke Coulter is caught off guard when he comes home to find a youngster vandalizing his property. His garden is destroyed, his windows broken and his freshly-painted house is covered in smashed tomatoes. As soon as Zeke arrives, the boy runs off, but Zeke follows him to the house next-door across the field. There he finds the sexiest, most beguiling woman he's ever laid eyes on. When he sees how upset Natalie is about her son's misdeeds, Zeke agrees not to call the police, as long as the boy works off his debt by helping him put things to rights. She agrees to his offer, and Zeke is hopeful that he can instill a sense of responsibility in the boy and boost his self-esteem, especially after learning how hard life has been for him. After going toe-to-toe with the feisty Natalie over whether he'll allow her and her daughter to help work off her son's debt faster so the boy can attend summer camp, Zeke finds himself falling head over heels for her. Until the moment he met Natalie, Zeke was enjoying his bachelor life and hadn't really contemplated marriage or kids, but she and her two youngsters are making him rethink his future almost in a heartbeat.
Natalie Patterson is struggling to rebuild her life and make ends meets after a messy and contentious divorce. For years, she put up with her husband's infidelity, and finally couldn't take it anymore. Despite him being wealthy, though, her ex-husband took her to the cleaners in the divorce settlement, and all she has left is her supper club, where she performs almost nightly for her patrons. Aside from her kids and her zany family, singing and writing music are Natalie's only real passions, but if business doesn't pick up soon, she's going to go bankrupt. The last thing she can afford is to pay for the damages her son has done to Zeke's property, so she's appreciative that he's allowing her son to work off the debt. Although she finds Zeke extremely attractive, the last thing Natalie thinks she wants is another man in her life, calling the shots. But soon she comes to realize that Zeke is nothing like her ex, and she's been lonely for so long, it becomes impossible to resist Zeke's charms. He cares for, encourages, and supports her and her kids in ways her ex was never capable of, and soon she finds herself falling for him. But when her ex is found murdered, and Natalie becomes the prime suspect, can she and Zeke prove her innocence before the killer ends her life too?
For the second time in a row, I picked up a book by a somewhat neglected favorite author. I read one of Catherine Anderson's stand-alone novels last year, but it's been four years since I read the previous book in the Kendrick/Coulter/Harrigan Families series. For the second time in a row, I received the gift of a great read. Bright Eyes is filled with tender romance, family drama, and a light mystery that kept me fully engaged throughout. I loved all the characters and how they interacted with one another. As a writer myself, I know it couldn't have been easy to juggle all those characters and still manage to balance each one's contribution to the story and to give each of them their own unique voices and personalities. Catherine Anderson is a talented author and one who I'm going to have to remember to read more frequently, because she almost always gives me a wonderful and emotional read.
Zeke is another of Ms. Anderson's to-die-for heroes. He's a real sweetheart who's much more of a beta hero, although he does possess a touch of alpha protectiveness. Even in those moments, though, I thought he came off as a lot less dictatorial than Natalie perceived him to be, but after her horrible marriage, it was understandable that she would feel that way. Zeke was very understanding to allow Chad to work off his debt rather than calling the police or demanding immediate restitution from Natalie for Chad's misdeeds. Even though he takes a hard line on Chad missing church summer camp if necessary to finish paying him back, Zeke even softened on that point once he understood the full import of it. He's great with little Rosie too. In spite of not really considering the possibility of having kids before Chad and Rosie came into his life, I think he was a natural insta-dad, probably a product of his own father being such a great role model. What I love most about Zeke, though, is how wonderful he is to Natalie. He falls hard and fast, even surprising himself with the intensity of his feelings for her within a very short time. He's the exact opposite of her ex in every way, treating her and her kids like precious jewels. I adore how sweet and reassuring he is with Natalie about the perceived imperfections in her body and how supportive he is of her work and her dreams. Despite owning and running his own business, he finds the time to help her come up with new ideas for her club to increase business and best of all, he does the legwork to try to help her sell her music. I also think it's cute how he sneaks into her second-story bedroom window every night in an attempt to preserve her "reputation" with her family and to not set a bad example for her kids. Zeke is just an all-around amazing guy, who I'd love to have in real life. He's definitely earned a pretty high spot on my favorite romance heroes list.
Natalie isn't quite as broken as some of Catherine Anderson's other heroines, but she's still had a pretty rough life. She got pregnant and married young to a man who was significantly older than her, not realizing at the time that he was a master manipulator and a serial cheater. She put up with his infidelity for eleven years before finally giving him the boot, and even then, he took her to the cleaners in the divorce settlement. Despite already being a wealthy man, he ended up with half of everything, while Natalie was left to move back in with her dad and scrape just to get by. He never pays any attention to his kids either, which is why Natalie's son, Chad, starts acting out by causing mayhem on Zeke's property. Natalie is an amazing mom who does her best to provide for her kids financially as well as emotionally. She's also a great sister, daughter, and granddaughter to the other members of her colorful family. Natalie is an incredibly talented singer who started her club to have a place to live out her dream of performing for an audience. Although Zeke thinks she's good enough to be in Nashville, she's learned to content herself with her club and tries her best to keep it up and running. It's cute how she's always so distracted by the music in her head that she burns dinner and forgets day-to-day things. I can totally relate since I'm the same way except that I have stories crowding my mind instead of music. I think the most touching and relatable thing about Natalie, though, is her self-consciousness and vulnerabilities surrounding her body and her fear of getting involved with another man who might hurt her, especially considering how quickly her feelings for Zeke develop. I was happy that despite having her fears, Natalie didn't push Zeke away, and that she comes to understand that she can trust and rely on him. She was a nicely rounded heroine who has a bit of an independent streak, but who's still sweet and readily accepts Zeke in spite of her painful past.
In addition to a wonderful hero and heroine, Bright Eyes boasts a large and eclectic supporting cast. Natalie's family is a wild bunch. There's her grumpy grandpa who's obsessed with Court TV, her divorced parents who can't be in the same room with one another without fighting like cats and dogs but who obviously still harbor some affection for one another, and her zany sister, Valerie, who's great with the kids but can't find a job. Natalie's kids were stand-outs too. Her son, Chad, begins the story as a troubled boy who's desperate for his father's love, respect, and attention. Zeke easily steps into that role for Chad, helping him to grow from a sullen pre-teen into a more mature young man and to find a new perspective on life. Rosie is precocious and wise far beyond her four years. She has a huge vocabulary and an understanding of things most kids her age don't, but at the same time, she can get excited about Barbies and other little girl things. Chester, a gander who is the family pet, completely cracked me up with his antics, but he's also as good as any guard dog. Zeke's brothers, Jake (Sweet Nothings) and Hank (Blue Skies) are in a couple of scenes, as are his mom and dad. The rest of the Coulter clan are pretty much relegated to the background with Tucker and Isaiah, the final two unattached Coulter siblings and heroes of the next two books, only being mentioned. Natalie's ex-mother-in-law isn't a bad person per se, but she is a stiff, formal lady who seems more concerned with the family wealth than with genuine expressions of love. Monroe, the stubborn police detective who's hell-bent on nailing Natalie with her ex's murder, rounds out the notable secondary players.
Overall, Bright Eyes was an emotional and engaging read that held my attention extremely well. Things were maybe a teensy bit slow to get started in the romance between Zeke and Natalie with a lot of family drama in the opening chapters, but as soon as Zeke decided to jump in with both feet, the story took a very romantic turn. Some of the things Zeke says and does for Natalie made me melt, while the mystery and danger keeps the conflict elevated and the stakes high. Bright Eyes has become my favorite book in the Kendrick/Coulter/Harrigan Families series so far. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it from start to finish and will have to try harder to read more of Catherine Anderson's books sooner in the future.
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