A Man to Hold On To (A Tallgrass Novel)
Forever / February 25, 2014 / $8.00 print, $7.99 digital
Therese Matheson doesn't know if she'll ever get over losing her husband in Afghanistan. Surviving Paul's death has been hard, but raising his sullen son and his thirteen-going-on-thirty daughter alone has been even harder. All they need is a fresh start, and Tallgrass, Oklahoma, could be the perfect new beginning . . . especially when Therese meets Sergeant Keegan Logan. The sexy combat medic and single dad soon awakens a desire she'd thought long buried.
Keegan always wanted to be a father . . . someday. So when his ex-girlfriend disappears, leaving her daughter in his care, Keegan's hands are tied. He has to find the girl's father. His search leads him to Tallgrass and to a beautiful brunette widow who has no idea her husband was ever unfaithful. What begins as a friendship soon ignites into something far more and gives him the courage to be the kind of man-and father-he always dreamt he could be. But his secret still stands between them. Can Keegan reveal the truth and convince Therese they share something too special to lose-a love that can bring two families together?
Oklahoma native Marilyn Pappano has written more than eighty books. After her husband retired from the Navy, they left the nomadic military life behind and returned to Oklahoma. Pappano’s experience as a military spouse, as well as the years she was a mother to a son in the Army, informs every page of this book. Small-town series are so ubiquitous it’s hard to find a believable fresh twist on the perennial favorite, but this one does it. A Man to Hold On To is the second of Pappano’s Tallgrass novels and the glue that binds the books together is the pain of widowhood. Therese Matheson is a member of the Tuesday Night Margarita Club, “the most exclusive club in Tallgrass, Oklahoma.”
Its members meet once a week for dinner, drinks and conversation, and they chose to name themselves to avoid the obvious name that other people call them: The Fort Murphy Widows' Club.
These women have all lost their husbands to war. In a town like Tallgrass, which is military to its core, it's hard to forget the loss. Some drown their pain in partying, others in work.
Other than her weekly date with her Margarita Club girlfriends, Therese’s life is long on responsibilities—she’s a teacher, a stepmother, a homeowner, a church goer—and that just scratches the surface. Four years ago, her husband Paul’s ex-wife sent Abby and Jacob to live with their dad. It was a “ready-made family” and Paul and Therese also planned to expand their family with a baby or two, later, thinking time was on their side. Paul’s ex-wife hadn’t wanted to be a single mother and she didn’t step up to regain custody after he died.
Therese is not just coping with widowhood; she’s finding it almost impossible to be a good mother to her step-children. To be a mother of a pre-teen is very challenging, and mothering a 13 year-old girl, that much more difficult. Therese has the extra element of guardianship without a partner, and Paul’s children have to live with the absence of a much-loved father. Is it any wonder that Therese prays, “Lord, I’m not asking for easy again. Just bearable. I can live with bearable.” Therese isn’t exaggerating as we see when she meets her stepchildren at the airport when they return from a six-day visit to their mother. Eleven year-old Jacob looks pretty much the same, slinging his backpack over his shoulder and listening to music, 13-year-old Abby, not so much. Her blond hair is dyed platinum and she has a new edgy cut that obscures her made-up face. But it’s the clothes.
Therese had seen swimsuit bottoms that covered more than Abby’s shorts, and the top looked more like a beach cover-up than a blouse except that it was too short to cover anything adequately. The bright print was semi-transparent and kept sliding off one shoulder or the other, revealing the straps of her new black bra.
Therese edits Abby’s new wardrobe when they return home, which earns her zero mom brownie points. If anything, Abby’s disdain for her step-mother morphs into flat-out hatred after Therese takes away most of the clothes her mother Catherine purchased for her in Los Angeles. Abby doesn’t pull her punches, saying,
“You know, I don’t pray very much…but I do pray for one thing every night. I pray for you to die.”
Things aren’t much better for Sergeant Keegan Logan. He and his “daughter” Mariah live with his mother Ercella. Even though his ex-girlfriend Sabrina had put his name on Mariah’s birth certificate, they all knew he was not her real father. When Sabrina had told Keegan she was pregnant, he was accepting, even though a baby was a surprise. “Good times, good sex, a good commitment. In that moment, he had thought they’d get married.” But then Sabrina tells him he’s not the father. And who might you guess was Mariah’s real father? Go to the head of the line if you guessed Paul, Therese’s husband. A weekend fling with consequences—consequences Sabrina ultimately was unable to handle, as we see when she drives away from Mariah’s daycare one day, leaving Keegan holding the baby, so to speak.
Even though it’s his name on the birth certificate, Keegan decides to find out if Mariah’s father can take responsibility for the daughter he had fathered. Leaving Mariah in his mother’s care, he travels alone to the town of Tallgrass, Oklahoma, where he quickly discovers, after knocking on the door of Paul’s house, that Paul has died.
Therese and Keegan gradually get to know each other, although Keegan doesn’t tell Paul’s widow why he came looking for her husband. They have so much in common, in particular a sense of responsibility that informs their actions and decisions. Before Keegan enlisted, he was a firefighter and a paramedic but when a friend died in action, “I figured…when someone falls, you’ve got to have someone else to take his place, so…I enlisted.” Therese feels at ease with Keegan and she realizes he’s “a handsome, charming, appealing man who could remind her she was a woman with nothing more than a glance.” She decides he would be perfect, “as a practice date, for the time when she eventually—hopefully—met someone not in the Army.”
Therese is brittle and tense because of what life throws at her, waking up every day with her shoulders braced to confront and face down every problem. She hasn’t indulged in spa or shopping therapy for a very long time. It’s not until she’s dressing for her casual date with Keegan that she wonders,
When had she stopped wearing lingerie? When had she decided function was more important than form? When had a thirteen-year-old girl outstripped her in fashion, style, and sheer sex appeal?
It’s a joy to watch Therese and Keegan discover how much fun it can be to hang out, have dinner, flirt a bit and imagine the possibilities of a fling…or perhaps more. But the course of true love never did run smooth and everything changes when a family emergency forces Keegan’s mother Ercella to bring Mariah to Tallgrass. Keegan needs Therese’s help desperately since he has no rapport or experience with Mariah and the little girl screams non-stop for what seems like days to Keegan. Perhaps it takes a princess to recognize another princess in difficulty because sullen, incommunicative Abby knows almost instinctively how to make Mariah feel better. The love that Therese and Keegan show to their children is genuine, even though it’s sometimes awkward and often unappreciated.
It’s a pleasure to see the mother of two step-children and the father of a little girl who is steadily finding a place in his heart find time to explore their attraction to each other. Their playful yet sexually-charged conversations make Therese feel desirable again. While they’re having a picnic with all the children, Keegan tells her that he is still in Tallgrass because of her, and her alone.
Something unidentifiable flashed through his eyes. The sensation curling through her was sweet, warm, pleasurable, and it reminded her of how much she’d loved Paul, how long he’d been gone, and how alive she still was. It made her feel not like a widow, a stepmother, an anxious mass of sorrows and indecision, but like a woman, and she hadn’t felt like a woman in such a long time.
When Keegan gazes at her, looking “over her breasts, her rib cage, her hips, and all the way down her legs to her ridiculously painted toes,” she decides to explore the feelings they have for each other. Unsurprisingly, she no longer thinks of Keegan as a transitional relationship. Keegan also has a revelation, after he kisses her on their way out for dinner.
A kiss is just a kiss, the song, said, but whoever wrote it had obviously never kissed Therese. It was sweet and simple and complicated and hungry and sent a rush of heat through his body like an inexperienced boy getting his first kiss from a homecoming queen. A kiss could be just a kiss, but it could promise so much more…
There are secrets to be discovered, anger to be worked through, and tears to be shed, but Therese and Keegan are soul mates and they each have the courage to embrace what they’ve found in one another. Together they create a new family. Death and infidelity might have led to their meeting but ultimately, neither one of them is defined by their past.
Learn more or order a copy of A Man to Hold On To by Marilyn Pappano, available February 25, 2014:
Janet Webb, Blogger