Take Me Home for Christmas
By Brenda Novak
Publisher: Harlequin MIRA
October 29, 2013
Sophia DeBussi was the meanest girl in Eureka High School fourteen years ago, the one who stole boyfriends, manipulated swains, and looked down on those less powerful and popular. Most of Whiskey Creek held her responsible for the death of a popular athlete in a drunk driving accident, and everyone knew she had broken the heart of Ted Dixon. None of it seemed to touch Sophia. Beautiful, wealthy, and living a life of conspicuous consumption, she seemed to have everything. No one saw the darkness—the physical and emotional abuse from her controlling husband and the drinking that was out of control until she spent thirty days in rehab. No one knew that she felt a secret relief when Skip disappeared while the two of them along with their thirteen-year-old daughter, Alexa, were cruising on Skip’s luxury yacht. But her relief turns to fear when Skip’s body washes up on the Brazilian shore with a hundred thousand dollars in cash strapped to his back, and home in Whiskey Creek the FBI wants him for mail fraud, securities fraud, and other charges. It seems Skip cheated investors, including a significant number of the citizens of Whiskey Creek, out of sixty million dollars. And the feds suspect Sophia may have been involved.
Ted Dixon is a successful novelist who has chosen to settle in Whiskey Creek, the town where he grew up. One of the perks of remaining in his hometown is the opportunity to still enjoy the friendships that have been an important part of his life since grade school. But as much as his friends mean to him and as much as he usually looks forward to their Friday morning coffee at Black Gold, he is not eager to hear all the speculation about the DeBussi scandal, and he is even less eager to have his friends studying him to see how he is reacting to the downfall of the woman who dumped him.
In material terms, Sophia has lost everything. What has not been confiscated by the FBI is heavily mortgaged and in arrears. Sophia doesn’t even have the money to bury her husband. With the life she knew destroyed and with no skills or training to help her survive, she is drowning in depression. Her daughter is the only thing that makes life worth living. Her in-laws have never thought she was good enough for their golden son, and now they view her as an enemy, holding her responsible for Skip’s crimes and threatening to sue for custody of her daughter. Many of the citizens of Whiskey Creek demonize her as the visible scapegoat to punish for their losses. Even those who feel pity for her wonder if she somehow deserves her fate. But to Sophia’s surprise, two former classmates stand by her. Gail DeMarco-O’Neal offers a substantial token of her friendship, and Eve Harmon pushes Sophia to fight back and suggests a job that might work for Sophia.
Once Ted realizes how desperate Sophia’s situation is, he can’t help feeling sorry for her. But he surprises even himself when, after his initial horrified reaction when Eve suggested he do so, he offers Sophia a job as his housekeeper/assistant. Neither he nor Sophia has ever forgotten all they once shared, and now that they are forced into one another’s company, they are both about to discover that the surface never reveals the full story.
Take Me Home for Christmas is the fifth novel in Brenda Novak’s Whiskey Creek series, and it is another story filled with fascinating, imperfect characters who find the strength to deal with all the problems life throws at them, grow through their difficulties, and emerge as winners. Small-town books are typically seen as comfort reads filled with warmth and coziness, but Novak shows readers that small towns can harbor the narrowness, the hypocrisies, and the outright meanness that human nature everywhere can exhibit. The greatest joy in this book is watching the redemption of Sophia, a woman who accepts the responsibility for her mistakes, becomes a stronger, better person than she ever dreamed she could be, and realizes that she can get by with a little help from her friends, her child, and an old love grown new.
Readers familiar with the series will enjoy seeing Ted finally forced to confront his past and deal with the grudge he has nurtured for fourteen long years. He may be the wronged figure in the old love story, but he is far from perfect. Most of the other characters from the earlier books in the series make appearances sufficient in length to please readers who have grown fond of them and brief enough not to overwhelm readers who are being introduced to Whiskey Creek for the first time. Novak provides the dramatis personae at the beginning just in case a reader should feel lost.
My one complaint about the book is that the ending just seemed too abrupt. For readers like me who love to bask in the glow of the HEA, there is little opportunity to do so. But that’s not a flaw large enough to outweigh the clear strengths of this book. If you like your small-town romance a bit darker and edgier than the norm, I recommend Take Me Home for Christmas. It lacks the sweetness and light of more conventional Christmas books, but the truths it hones fit right in with the season.
Novak will return readers to Whiskey Creek in March 2014 when she releases Come Home to Me, a reunion story featuring former bad-girl Presley Christensen, sister of Cheyenne Christensen Amos (When Snow Falls), and the baddest of those wild Amos brothers. Because When Snow Falls is my favorite in the series, I’m especially looking forward to Whiskey Creek #6.
I consider myself a true series addict, but even so in every series I love, there is a book or two that touches me in a special way and becomes a favorite among favorites. Do you have a special favorite story within your favorite series? Is it the one you consider objectively the best, or is it a more personal choice?