Alex Moorehouse heard the call of the ocean when he was young and has never looked back. As captain of his own ship and with several sailing titles to his name, he thought he was living his dream. There's only one thing he's more passionate about than the sea, and that's Cassandra Cutler, who he's been in love with since the day he met her six years ago. But she was married to another man, a man who was none other than his best friend and sailing partner. Alex has lived in his own personal hell ever since, unable to stop loving her, so instead, he has avoided her. But now her husband is dead, claimed by the roiling seas when their boat was caught in a hurricane. Cassandra may be free to be with whomever she chooses now, but he can't shake the feeling that she's still his friend's wife.
Cassandra's marriage was never the perfect love match, Alex believed it to be. She married her husband out of a sense of friendship and a need for security more than anything else, and she was well aware of her husband's numerous infidelities. She stayed with him, though, for reasons she can longer explain, and she does miss him but doesn't grieve him the way a loving wife would. In fact, if she's honest with herself, she's been attracted to Alex for a very long time, but she's always believed that he hated her because he never seemed to want to have anything to do with her. Now she's the lead architect, working to restore the White Caps Bed & Breakfast that has become the Moorehouse legacy, which means that she sees Alex almost daily.
Alex lives next-door to the B & B in his father's old workroom, where he's still recovering from serious injuries caused by the same sailing accident that claimed his friend's life. With him being in such close proximity to Cassandra, it doesn't take long for the sparks to begin flying, but Alex is a man with secrets that make him feel unworthy of Cassandra's love. Can he find a way to be honest with her, and if so, will she forgive him or walk away, as he fully expects her to do, once she knows the truth?
I've very much enjoyed all of Jessica Bird's (aka J. R. Ward's) contemporary romances, but From the First is now my current favorite of the ones I've read so far. When it was first published by Harlequin, it was the last of the three-book Moorehouse Legacy series that follows the three Moorehouse siblings, two sisters and one brother, as they navigate life and find love. After the death of their parents, the three inherited the White Caps Bed & Breakfast on Saranac Lake in the Adirondack Mountains, the old Victorian home where they also grew up, but it's mostly the two sisters, Frankie and Joy, who've been responsible for it's running and upkeep. Their brother Alex had a taste for adventure and heard the call of the ocean long before their parents passed away, so he's been sailing the world ever since. He captains his own boat, and he and his crew have won the America's Cup several times. Then he experienced tragedy when his ship was caught in a hurricane that took the life of his friend, who was also one of his crew members, and left Alex too injured to continue sailing. He had no choice but to return home, where his sisters welcomed him with open arms while he recuperates, which is a lengthy process. In the previous book of the series, White Caps caught on fire, causing catastrophic damage that is being repaired in this book. There's quite a bit going on in From the First to keep the reader engaged, but it's the angst-filled, tender romance between the hero and heroine that really kept me glued to the pages.
Alex has had a rough time of it throughout the first two books of the series. He's had to have multiple surgeries to repair the damage to his body from the sailing accident that killed his friend, Reese, and nearly took his leg. But it's Reese's death that really has him tied up in knots. Alex has a severe case of survivor's guilt that was brought on by more than just his friend dying. Alex has been in love with Reese's widow, Cassandra, since the day he met her and has spent the last several years trying to avoid her in order to avoid the temptation that she presents. He honestly believes that he somehow subconsciously allowed Reese to die because he wanted the other man's wife so badly. Therefore, even though Cass is now free to be with whomever she chooses, Alex feels it wouldn't be appropriate for him to pursue a relationship with her, but at the same time, he can hardly bear to be without her. His dilemma presents some very angsty moments, and he does spend a large part of the book fighting his feelings for her. This would normally irritate me, and I have to admit that Alex's inability to give voice to his feelings did skate perilously close to making me drop a half-star from the rating. But every time I was getting to that point, something happened to appease me, just enough to keep the story moving instead of stagnating in a quagmire of repressed emotions like some other romances I've read. I also adored Alex for his utter devotion to Cassandra. He loves her so deeply that there was never a question in my mind that they were right for one another or that she was, without a doubt, his one and only for all time. He's also very protective of her, in much the same way that the boys from Ms. Ward's BDB series are toward their mates, which was a plus. Not to mention, I totally understood Alex's introverted nature and dislike of social situations, and I also liked how much he cares for his family and realizes that he hasn't been there for them in the way he should have. He was just an all-around great guy.
Little does Alex know that Cassandra never really loved her husband with an all-consuming, passionate sort of love and their marriage was far from the perfection he imagined. Cass came from nothing and married Reese more out of a sense of friendship and a need for financial security than true love. That's why she turned a blind eye when she discovered her husband's infidelities. Although she's sad that he's now gone, she isn't the grief-stricken widow. She also developed an attraction to Alex a long time ago, when she and Reese took a boat trip with him, but she never would have dreamed of cheating. Not to mention, Alex was spending so much time avoiding her that she believed he hated her, although she never understood why. Cass is a rather unique romance heroine, in that she's an architect and general contractor, who's been hired to restore White Caps. This, of course, places her in close proximity to Alex on almost a daily basis, making the temptation strong. Every time Alex opens the door just a crack, Cass finds herself eagerly stepping through it, but then he confuses her at every turn, leaving her thinking that he's only biding his time with her while really being in love with someone else. Cass is a really sweet heroine who I liked a lot. She's very patient with Alex, but doesn't let him walk all over her when she thinks it's not going to work out. She was also very understanding and had a lot of trust in him when he finally confessed what happened during the hurricane, never believing for a second that he could have allowed her husband to die.
As with the first two books of the series, there are a number of secondary characters who play key roles. It's like Ms. Bird has turned all her contemporaries into a little world of their own, where all the books connect in one way or another. Not surprisingly, Nate and Frankie (Beauty and the Black Sheep aka The Rebel) and Gray and Joy (His Comfort and Joy aka The Player) are present, with Gray and Joy getting married. Then there's Spike, Nate's friend and business partner, who has also become a friend to Alex, working out with him and chauffeuring him around. I love Spike's quirkiness and an unusual physical trait makes me seriously think he's related to a couple of the Brothers of the BDB and probably doesn't know it. Alex's navigator, Madeline, comes for a visit, stirring up Spike's interest. These two become the hero and heroine of A Man in a Million aka The Rogue, which became the honorary final book of the series. Sean O'Banyon, who was introduced in the previous book as Gray's friend, also runs in the same social scene with Cassandra, so he's friends with her as well. He wouldn't mind making it more than friendship, but I have to give the guy credit for recognizing that she belonged with someone else and not interfering. Last but not least, Jack Walker (An Irresistible Bachelor) is mentioned as being in attendance at a party that takes place at Gray's house.
Overall, Ms. Bird's contemporary world has enthralled me almost as much as her BDB world. It's populated with similar character types, alpha heroes with a heart of gold and relatable heroines I'd love to be friends with if they were real. As with her BDB books, her writing seems to keep getting better and better with each one, leaving me wondering if I'll like the final two of her early contemporary stories even more than From the First, which is almost difficult to imagine, since I thoroughly enjoyed it. All I can say is that I'm going to have fun finding out. From the First was originally published as part of the Silhouette Special Edition line, but was recently republished as a stand-alone book that was retitled, The Renegade.
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