Aug 10 2012 1:30pm

First Look: Brenda Novak’s When Lightning Strikes (August 28, 2012)

When Lightning Strikes by Brenda NovakBrenda Novak
When Lightning Strikes
MIRA / August 28, 2012 / $7.99 print, $6.79 digital

Gail DeMarco left Whiskey Creek, California, to make a name for herself in Los Angeles. Her PR firm has accumulated a roster of A-list clients, including the biggest box office hit of all—sexy and unpredictable Simon O’Neal. But Simon, who’s just been through a turbulent divorce, is so busy self-destructing he won’t listen to anything she says. She drops him from her list—and he retaliates by taking the rest of her clients with him.

Desperate to save her company, Gail has to humble herself by making a deal with Simon. The one thing he wants is custody of his son, but that’s going to require a whole new image. He needs to marry some squeaky-clean girl who’ll drag him off to some small, obscure place like Whiskey Creek….

Gail’s the only one he can trust. She agrees to become his wife—reluctantly. But she isn’t reluctant because he’s too hard to like. It’s because he’s too hard not to love!

Brenda Novak’s When Lightning Strikes was the first book I’ve read in a long time that literally made my heart pound with excitement. I sped through each chapter, breathless with anticipation, until I finally reached the very satisfying conclusion. As a result, it’s tempting to write a review full of exclamation points that essentially says, “Oh my goodness! It was so wonderful! You have to read it!”

The harder challenge is to explain why, exactly, I loved it so much. But I think the answer boils down to one character—the bad boy hero, Simon O’Neal. Sometimes, bad boy heroes can be unsympathetic—shallow and nasty and downright rude. But Simon was the perfect blend of naughty and nice, salty and sweet. He was also a handsome, wealthy, and successful movie star rather than a ne’er-do-well ex-con.

The story begins with Simon exhibiting all the classic symptoms of a downward shame spiral. He’s engaged in a nasty custody battle with his ex who won’t let him see his son. As a result, he’s been drinking too much, getting into public brawls, treating women like play toys, and ruining his career with all the bad press.

His publicist Gail DeMarco, who’s a good girl from a small town called Whiskey Creek, is his antithesis. She doesn’t drink, she’s only slept with two men in her life, and she could be described as a bossy control freak with a savior complex—but in a good way. She’s spent the past decade making her public relations firm a success to the detriment of her personal life, and now her client from hell, who she’s still really attracted to, is ruining everything for her.

So what’s a girl to do? Marry the scoundrel, of course. Believe it or not, Simon and Gail’s reasons for tying the knot actually mad sense in a convoluted kind of way.

But Simon doesn’t make it easy for Gail to fall in love with him. For one thing, he’s a serious drinker. He goes through withdrawal, struggles with cravings, and almost falls off the wagon more than once.

“It was only day three of Operation Desperation, as he secretly referred to it, and already he was having fantasies about gulping down the rubbing alcohol under his bathroom sink—anything to give him a few moments’ peace from the constant craving. He’d let drinking become such a big part of his life, had used it to create a buffer from all the things he’d rather avoid. When he was too bored, he drank. When he was too frustrated or disillusioned, he drank. Alcohol even helped him sleep, if he consumed enough of it. Now he had to deal with all the emotions he’d purposely dulled, and he’d never felt more exposed to his enemies, more...raw.”

Normally, alcoholism would be a huge turn-off for me, but Simon spends the majority of the book sober, even if it is a struggle for him. He’s willing to fight for his sobriety because he’s highly motivated to regain custody of his son.

“As he glanced around his son’s old bedroom, he suffered a tremendous sense of loss. That was what he’d really been hiding from—his own inadequacies and what they’d cost him...Although he’d promised himself he’d get control of his life many times in the past few months, now he had no choice. He had to hold the line without a single mistake.”

Aside from being an alcoholic, Simon also struggles with depression. Early in the book, he has an accident that seems like a half-hearted suicide attempt and sends Gail reeling.

“The image of Simon sitting on the floor of his woodshop, cradling his hand and staring off into space as if he’d just as soon slip away came to mind. Why didn’t he call someone? He had all kinds of domestic help on the property. The doctor didn’t feel it was an active attempt to take his own life, but he’d intimated that it could have been a passive one, which still gave them plenty to worry about.”

Simon’s near-death experience was a gut-wrenching moment, and it shows that When Lightning Strikes is not just a light-hearted romance novel. It’s gritty. And the way Gail responded to Simon’s cry for help warmed my heart. She became his defender. She pushed away the people who were trying to bring him down—including his old friends and his business manager—and dragged him away to her home town of Whiskey Creek.

“In Whiskey Creek, it would be different. Simon would be normal, just like everyone else, or as ’normal’ as someone so famous could be. She hoped that he’d engage others and develop some mutual trust and respect, self-sacrifice, deep feelings. Those were the things he needed right now.”

Gail’s actions will resonate with anyone who has ever wanted to rescue someone. And Gail is self-aware enough to know that Simon’s vulnerability is part of his appeal. He needs her, and she needs to be needed.

“She was the worst kind of Type A, worse than her father, because she was also a pleaser, which meant she’d work herself to death to meet everyone’s expectations, no matter how unreasonable they might be.”

As serious as the hero’s problems are, his dark side is balanced with his good side. He didn’t actually intend to ruin the heroine’s business. It was his manager’s idea.

“When he’d told Ian Callister, his business manager, that he wished she’d go broke and return to the small town she called home, he hadn’t meant it literally.”

He’s also quite charming. Even in the midst of his downward spiral, he does things that are kind and generous. For example, early in the story, he sends her a pendant with a note attached that says, “I’ll make it up to you.” When she asks him later why he sent it, he says, “You’re worth it.”

In the end, Gail and Simon are both complex characters with good and bad characteristics, and they balance each other nicely. Their relationship felt  genuine, despite the fact that Simon is a movie star who has to deal with the press and paparazzi. When Lightning Strikes was one of the best romances that I’ve read all year.


Brittany is a freelance writer, aspiring novelist and small business owner who hopes that heaven will be like a bookstore with an endless supply of free books, free coffee and super comfy chairs.

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