Janice Kay Johnson is one of my absolute favorite writers of category romance because she doesn’t shy away from giving her characters complicated problems, usually related to family, that never have easy solutions. Her romance plots play out against the background of people facing difficult choices, and the relationships can be interrupted or damaged by the familial issues, just like in real life. That may sound depressing, but it makes her stories anything but boring. When her characters finally do arrive at solutions to their problems, imperfect as those solutions may be, it’s much more emotionally satisfying than an ending they (and you) didn’t have to work towards.
One Frosty Night, her latest release, is one of Johnson’s more melancholy offerings. It opens with a local woman discovering the unidentified body of a young girl, who appears to have frozen to death; her death has far-reaching implications for the entire town. Soon after the girl’s body is found, we meet heroine Olivia Bowen, who gave up her job in the big city to come home and take care of her ailing father and run the hardware store he owns. When the book opens, her father has recently died, and Olivia has discovered her parents were inexplicably estranged from each other shortly before his death. Hero Ben Hovik was Olivia’s high school boyfriend and first lover; he broke up with her and went on to marry someone else. Now he’s also back in their home town, having escaped a disastrous marriage to an addict, and is raising his teenaged stepson.
Ben is still carrying a torch for Olivia, while Olivia is trying to pretend to herself that she’s past their teenaged relationship. But talking to each other, helping each other with problems, leads them to a new, deeper intimacy on their way to romance.
He was pleased when she asked how he’d ended up in administration instead of teaching, and especially how he’d gotten himself hired as principal when he was younger than most of the teachers at the high school. He hoped it meant she was curious and not just scrabbling for a topic to get them through the rest of the meal. He told her about going back for his master’s degree even as he taught high school history and government, then making the decision to return full-time for a doctorate in education. “I always liked to be in charge,” he admitted. He opened his mouth to say, I guess you knew that, but he changed his mind when he saw the way her eyes narrowed. “I wouldn’t have had a chance at a position as principal anywhere but here, not so soon. I gather they weren’t getting many quality applicants, and, well, I was the hometown boy.”
“So that’s why you moved back.”
“Partly,” he said, then shook his head. “Mostly it was for Carson’s sake. You know I have a stepson?”
Her “I’d heard” wasn’t very revealing.
“I thought he needed family.” He shrugged. “This seemed like a good opportunity all around.”
She nodded. He waited for her to ask about Carson—why he was raising a boy who wasn’t his biologically—but she didn’t go there. Either she wasn’t curious, or she didn’t want to admit to being. So he asked what her plans were, and she told him she really didn’t know.
If you'd like a holiday romance that lean a little towards women's fiction or family drama, try Janice Kay Johnson’s One Frosty Night.
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