I came to this holiday anthology in a non-traditional, non-festive way. During a Twitter conversation with another reviewer, I mentioned ménage scenes rarely raise my pulse. She suggested I read Anne Calhoun, an author I’d never heard of. I searched on NetGalley and this collection, Red Hot Holiday, came up. I downloaded it thinking at best I’d find some multiple partner erotica I enjoyed. Ms. Calhoun’s story, Breath on Embers, is the last one in the collection but it’s the one I read first. And then read again. And then gave to my husband to read. The novella does indeed have a sensual ménage à trois scene. It also tells a story that made me cry and believe in the power of love after loss.
But first, the other two novellas in the collection.
Wish List by K.A. Mitchell
This is a sweet story about a couple who find they are even better suited than they thought. Jonah and Evan have been together for two years and have a strong relationship. Then, one day, as he’s packing their stuff for a visit to Evan’s family for Christmas, Jonah finds a set of wedding bands in Evan’s desk. Jonah’s seriously thrown. Jonah loves Evan but he’s not sure he’s ready to settle down. For starters, there’s so much he hasn’t tried he’ll never get a chance to if he’s married.
It wasn’t only all the hot guys he’d be giving up. It was all the things he’d never get to do or try. How was he supposed to know he didn’t like the whole whips and chains scene? He liked it enough in porn. Always meant to try it out, but somehow, like going down to New York for New Year’s Eve, something had always gotten in the way. Mostly his own inability to figure out what the fuck it was he wanted before the train left the station.
Maybe if he wrote it all down, he could make a better decision. Evan was always telling Jonah making to-do lists would keep him organized, but a Things I’ll Never Get To Do If I Marry Evan list probably wasn’t what Evan had in mind.
So Jonah writes a list which Evan later finds. And now Evan is thrown because it’s clear from the list Jonah’s interested in exploring the darker side of sex and that’s a place Evan knows well. Evan’s a Dom but he walked away from that role several years and has never shared that side of himself with Jonah. When he reads Jonah’s list, he’s beyond turned-on.
Three-some. Moresome. W/E?
Heat flashed under Evan’s skin, tingling, prickling, then pooling in his balls as his dick went from hard to impossible to manage. He kicked the door shut and unzipped his jeans, leaning back as he fought for control, picturing vulnerable skin stretched on a cross. His to mark, to take, to own. Before he could touch it, his cock jerked, precome pearling at the tip. He’d thought he had that part of him locked down, put away. Safe from ever hitting that line again where he wasn’t sure he was playing by the rules and not by his emotions.
I really enjoyed their story. Evan realizes if he wants to keep Jonah–and be true to himself–he’s going to have to ease Jonah into a different kind of sexual relationship than the lusty but mainstream one they currently share. He does so carefully and very very sexily. The love scenes between the two are scorching and work beautifully to show the subtle ways their relationship changes. Jonah and Evan are appealing characters and the chemistry and connection between the two is sweet, funny, and hot.
Wish List is a delightful novella. It’s well written, full of great scenes–I loved their visit to a leather/sex shop in the Village; the sense of place is strong and spot on–, and has a fabulous finale. The only part I found weak was Jonah’s exploration of a BDSM internet/chat site; that story line feels forced and unnecessary. That’s a small quibble, however. Overall, I give Wish List a B.
I Need You for Christmas by Leah Braemel
This was my least favorite of the three stories. I Need You for Christmas is a sex-laden retelling of The Gift of the Magi set in a small bucolic Canadian town.
Megan Sullivan’s dream was to be a Mountie and she’s pursued that career with great success. She’s spent the last few years stationed in Nunavut, a remote, sparsely populated part of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Being a part of the RCMP has kept her apart from her long-time boyfriend, sculptor Ryan Porter. Meg’s come back to Ryan’s home town of Porter Mills for the holidays with a big secret. She’s resigned from the RCMP and signed up with the Ontario Provincial Police. It means a demotion in rank for her but she’s ready to live full-time with Ryan and she’s sure she’ll move up the ranks in her new job.
Ryan is wildly successful and loves his work. Porter Mills is close enough to Toronto, and the USA, for him to be able to easily show and ship his work to his ever-growing list of buyers. He also feels responsible for his younger half-brother and sister who live in Porter Mills and whom he has essentially raised. He’s giving it all up, however, to be with Meg. He hasn’t told her, but he’s bought a ticket to the Arctic and plans to move there in the new year. It will make his professional life more difficult and he worries he’ll feel isolated but he loves Meg deeply and believes being with her is more important than anything else.
The reader–and everyone other than Meg–knows from the beginning of the novella the choice Ryan has made. I found it hard to believe Meg couldn’t pick up on the bazillion of clues the novella drops–cryptic conversations and arguments she overhears, odd responses from the little town’s denizens, etc…. It also seemed unrealistic either would make such a huge decision without discussing it with the other. I grew bored and impatient with the plot.
I also got tired of Meg’s and Ryan’s sex life. The love scenes in this book are plentiful and act as placeholders–set pieces to hold the reader’s attention until the big reveal. Meg’s a bit of a submissive; Ryan’s a bit of a dominant but, especially taken after the smoldering D/S dynamics in Wish List, the passion in I Need You for Christmas seems wan. The many trysts between Meg and Ryan all feel the same and don’t contribute to moving the story forward. The sex is hot and explicit but not especially enticing.
I did find it interesting to learn what a modern Mountie does. Ms. Braemel’s prose is clean and clear and it’s easy to envision the people and places she describes. But her reimagining of O Henry’s Christmas classic falls far short of its inspiration. Meg and Ryan are no Della and Jim. I give I Need You for Christmas a C.
Breath on Embers by Anne Calhoun
As I said, I’m not a big holiday tale fan. If you asked me to pick holiday stories I loved, it would be a short list: Courtney Milan’s This Wicked Gift, Ruthie Knox’s Room at the Inn, and Susan Wojciechowski’s incredible children’s book The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey immediately come to mind. I’d now add Breath on Embers to that list. I plan to put it on my “Best of 2012″ list as well. It’s just that good.
Many novels explore the grief engendered by losing someone we love; many romances tell the story of finding love again after such a loss. I’ve read lots of tales of “a second chance at love” and few of them have felt as powerful as did this novella by Anne Calhoun.
Her heroine, Thea Moretti, lost her husband Jesse two years ago during the Christmas season. When Jesse died, so did much of Thea.
If Thea heard coming to terms with your loss one more time she would go stark raving mad. She didn’t deny Jesse’s death. She made no bargains, felt no pain or guilt. She felt nothing at all. He was two years dead, the victim of an Ohio snowstorm and an arrogant moron in a Tahoe who thought four-wheel drive meant he could speed on ice.
Thea left the Ohio town where she and Jesse and their families lived and moved to Manhattan. There, alone and empty, she works at a big investment firm as a systems architect. Last April, on Saint Patrick’s Day, after her therapist told her she needed to meet someone new, Thea saw firefighter Ronan O’Rourke drinking with his buddies in a bar on Second Avenue. His friend Tim tried to pick her up; Thea said no then asked Ronan to walk her home. He took her to the nearest fire station, dragged her into a bathroom, put on a condom, and the two fucked silently. It was the first time Thea had been with a man since Jesse died. When they finished, Thea would have walked away but Ronan, intrigued, asked her for her number.
Now, nine months later, it’s the Christmas season and Thea is still fucking Ronan. That’s all she wants their relationship to be; all she says she can do. Ronan, however, wants more; he knows there’s more.
…she didn’t feel numb to him. Bodies don’t lie. Her body spoke of a soul-deep pain. Every time he saw her, she used something to drown out the world, until his patient assault on her senses was rewarded with her full, undivided attention.
Thea’s full attention felt like standing on the platform when an express train came screaming by, the noise trapped in the tunnel, reverberating against century-old tile and iron pillars. Ka-thunk-a-thunk-ka-thunk-a-thunk-ka-thunk-a-thunk vibrating against his heart, spiking adrenalin, until she blinked and shut it down.
Ronan’s a god of hero. He’s incredibly hot–I’ve never read a hotter hero–and determined to force Thea back to life. He’s a great guy: funny, smart, compassionate, and wise. He’s so charming, in fact, I’d root for him even if the main reason he wants a feeling Thea is so she will feel something for him. But Ronan, and oh how I love him for this, wants Thea to feel again for her. As he tells Tim,
“There is no fix for this. She has to endure it, and somewhere along the line she has to learn to live again. Surviving isn’t the goal. Living is. This is a battle between me and her grief, and I’m going to be the last man standing.”
Over and over again Ronan challenges Thea and over and over again she shoves him away. It’s painful and beautiful to watch in part because Thea is so sure she can’t care about anyone or anything again. One of the very best scenes in this very good novella takes place in a private dressing room in the most erotic lingerie store ever imagined. There, as Thea models lingerie for Ronan, he makes love to her in a way that forces their connection. As soon as they’re done, she begins pulling on her clothes and pulling back into herself. He tells her he knows they just shared something profound, that this time, she’s got to acknowledge she felt.
“I don’t feel anything,” she said. “Why do you think I walk around with music blasting my eardrums? I can’t feel anything anymore. Something broke when Jesse died. I’m numb.”
He considered her as she wriggled into her pants. “You’re wrong.”
“And you’re such a man, telling me what I feel is wrong,” she retorted.
“I’m not telling you what you feel is wrong,” he said, far more calmly than her husband had handled arguments like this. “You said you don’t feel anything, and that’s a guy’s area of expertise. We’re the unemotional ones. You’re anything but unemotional.”
“It’s a mirage,” she said flatly. “It’s pain from a ghost limb.”
“You are not a mirage. It’s there,” he said, once again ruthlessly contradicting her personal experience. “Know how I know? You fight too hard to push it down. The music, the way you try to cram what’s happening between us into just a fuck. You don’t pour thirty thousand gallons of water into a stone cold building. You pour it into an inferno.”
Impatient, she swept her hair into a twist at the base of her neck. “Why do you keep doing this? Why can’t you just use me?”
Finally, a few days before Christmas, Ronan does something so lovely for Thea she does the only thing she can; she tells him to invite Tim over for a threesome. Thea’s sure sex with Ronan and another man will prove to her and Ronan the extraordinary passion they share isn’t anything more than fabulous fucking. Ronan’s response surprises her.
“I can handle a threesome,” he said, darkly amused. “But this may tell you something you don’t want to know about yourself. About us.”
If all ménages were written like the one in Breath on Embers, I’d read more erotica. If more erotica was written like Breath on Embers, I’d read a lot more erotica. Everything about this novella is stellar. The characters, the depiction of Manhattan, the gorgeous writing, the palpable and incendiary passion, the pain of loss and the power of healing, and the joy to be found in the holiday season are wonderfully rendered. Ms. Calhoun’s novella made me weep. It made me call up my husband and tell him we should go lingerie shopping…immediately. It made me feel damn lucky to be able to watch “The Grinch” (the original, not the awful movie) and get a little choked up when all the Whos sing. I give Breath on Embers an unqualified and grateful A.