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REVIEW: Baby, It’s Cold Outside by HelenKay Dimon

Dear Ms. Dimon,

I’ve enjoyed your Harlequin Intrigue Romantic Suspense books for years, I thought your recent Cosmo Red-Hot Read was great fun, and one of your contemporaries for Carina landed on my Best of 2013 list.  So when I saw your first release in a new series for Samhain I requested it sight unseen. This is always a somewhat dangerous proposition, and here the characteristics I’ve come to depend on were mixed with character traits and story twists that I found quite off-putting. My reading experience was divided between my usual feeling that I was in very good hands and “oh no, they did not just go there.” I’ll pick up the next one, because a HelenKay Dimon contemporary is basically an autobuy for me, but I might be peeking through my fingers as I read, at least in the beginning.

cover4Baby, It’s Cold Outside is the first in the Men At Work series, and the series title is a good indicator of the book’s relatively equal presentation of the hero and the heroine. This is probably a good thing, because the hero does something almost unforgivable to set up the main story and conflict, and if I hadn’t seen things from his POV I would have had a very hard time thinking he deserved the heroine. As it was, it was still touch and go.

No one writing romance today can open a book like Dimon. No one. The story begins when construction company owner Lincoln Campbell and his personal assistant, Thea Marshall throw caution and HR rules to the wind and act on long-suppressed desires when they start a passionate encounter in Linc’s office and end it the next morning in his condo. Both think this might be the beginning of something more, but on returning to the office Linc is confronted with detailed and apparently irrefutable evidence that Thea has been selling company secrets to a competitor who is using the information to undercut them in a bidding competition for a major commercial project. He immediately has her fired for cause and escorted from the building, all without directly telling her the reason. After all, she did it and she’ll probably deny it, so she must know, right?

Thea is devastated in every possible way. She loves her job, she has been attracted to Linc for months, and she’s just building up her life after the loss of her parents in a plane crash. She has support from two work colleagues who have become her friends, Becky the office manager and Tim the computer guy, and that helps, but mostly she’s torn between desolation and anger, the latter quite justifiably aimed at Linc.

For his part, Linc can’t stop thinking about her, even though he has the evidence convicting her sitting on his desk. After trying and failing to move on, he hires a second investigator to look into Thea’s situation more closely (the first investigation was to discover the source of the leak and led to Thea but didn’t start with her). After a few weeks, he decides he has to see Thea again (whether she’s guilty or not) and pursues her to where she’s taken refuge to sort out her future, her family cabin in upstate New York.

Linc’s character has to tread a fine line between acting like a jackass and being an irredeemable jackass, and he more or less stays on the right side, thanks to Dimon’s ability to write believable, sympathetic men. But he was on serious probation for me the entire story and even his honorable behavior in the second half didn’t quite make up for it. The fact that they did have strong feelings for each other, feelings that weren’t just about lust, helped a lot as did the fact that they didn’t move from insta-lust to insta-love. Thea knows how Linc thinks and she uses that to keep from being snowed by his charm:

“Nu-uh.” No way was she falling for the quick drop of a pseudo-apology.

Linc leaned forward. “Excuse me?”

She’d been Linc’s assistant for long enough to figure out he’d assessed her mood and decided a quick admission would work best to pacify her. He was rock stupid when it came to women, but off-the-charts smart when it came to business and strategies. Thanks to the lessons he’d taught her, this time she would be smarter.

“Me, this, is a challenge of some sort for you. Well, you forget how many meetings I sat in on. How many calls I listened to.” He played a good game. He could schmooze and convince expert businessman they believed one thing when they came in believing another. Now he’d turned those tactics on her. She wasn’t buying it.

Unfortunately, while Thea makes Linc take responsibility for what he did to her, the way this unfolds makes Linc the harmed one because of his childhood and family history. It made him more sympathetic, but it also shifted the emphasis to his pain rather than hers. This isn’t an uncommon strategy, but I hate the way it turns the wronged person (usually the woman) into the one doing the comforting.

The second big problem I had with the story was the revelation of the real company mole. It made sense within context, but I hated that it turned out to be who it was. I can’t say more without completely spoiling the book, but it relies on a motivation that I want to go away forever. It made me angry, and sad.

Finally, there is a standard romance-novel twist that many readers don’t like, especially in contemporaries. I thought it worked fine here and it reminded me of one of my favorite older contemporaries, Banish Misfortune by Anne Stuart (both the twist and the confrontation/reunion in small-town New York). No one does anything stupid to get into the situation or to deal with it and no information is withheld. It’s about as realistic as you can make this setup in a contemporary and it gives a richer dimension to Thea and Linc’s conversations when they meet up again. But if you hate this sort of thing on principle the book might not work for you as a result.

Overall, this is a hard book for me to grade. The characters are written well and the various relatinships are well developed, especially given the novella length, which compresses important events and character arcs. I love the way Dimon’s characters talk to each other and most act like adults, even when they start out badly. No one behaves in unbelievable ways and most story elements are well motivated. But I was left with a nagging feeling that Linc needed to grovel a lot more, or preferably undergo serious therapy, before he was deserving of a relationship with Thea, and I really wish the company-sabotage plot had ended differently. Grade: B-

~ Sunita

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Sunita has been reading romances since she ran out of Cherry Ames, Student Nurse and Chalet School books and graduated to Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer. Other old favorites include Mary Burchell, Betty Neels, Elsie Lee, and Edith Layton. Among current writers, she reads and rereads Anne Stuart, Tamara Allen, Sarah Morgan, Marion Lennox, Josh Lanyon, and Susanna Kearsley. She blogs as VacuousMinx and tweets as @sunita_p.

17 Comments

  1. library addict
    Feb 28, 2014 @ 11:58:40

    I hate the way it turns the wronged person (usually the woman) into the one doing the comforting.

    Oh dear. Not a fan of this either. I’ve got this is my TBR pile, but maybe I’ll wait a bit longer to read it.

  2. SonomaLass
    Feb 28, 2014 @ 12:42:49

    Oh, I agree with much of what you’ve said here! I struggled with the fact that Thea being smart, mature and honorable (qualities I love in a heroine) ended up getting Linc off the hook too easily. But I probably would have hated Linc if his POV wasn’t so well written. And yeah, I loathed the resolution of the corporate espionage plot line; it tainted the HEA for me, because I felt like I had been set up for a double HEA and got trope-rage instead.

    I definitely will read more of this series, though. I read everything by this author that isn’t suspense, because that’s just not my genre.

  3. Sunita
    Feb 28, 2014 @ 13:33:59

    @library addict: It’s not a severe case of heroine-doing-the-emotional-work, but it hit me harder because Thea was so wronged. Dimon did a great job of not making Thea someone who could handle adversity and I really appreciated that. And she didn’t sacrifice for Linc. I think I was just especially sensitive to it in this situation.

    @SonomaLass: Yes! You put it perfectly.

    I’m definitely reading more too. This was both a very difficult and very interesting review to write. It was difficult because Dimon is so skilled at making her characters human and relatable that I always have faith she will get them to the HEA/HFN. But this story pushed my buttons in multiple ways, and it was interesting to have to balance my trust in the author and my belief in her abilities with my negative reaction to some of the authorial choices.

  4. Sirius
    Feb 28, 2014 @ 13:44:17

    @Sunita: I would like to try her work, but I highly suspect that it may push my buttons too. Could you spoil me about the resolution of corporate espionage story please? Thanks for the review.

  5. Sunita
    Feb 28, 2014 @ 13:57:33

    @Sirius: Sure. Here you go:

    Buried Comment (Reason: Spoiler)   Show

    The corporate mole turns out to be Becky. She is seduced by someone working for the competition. It bothered me a lot because the explanation was that Becky was older and single and lonely and so she fell for the guy’s pretty face. This is really hard for Thea, and Becky is the only female friend we see her having. So Thea loses Becky to get Linc back. I wished Dimon had found some other person that didn’t require undermining the female friendship, and also the Becky stereotype, while sometimes true, is something I really hate to see reinforced.

  6. Isobel Carr
    Feb 28, 2014 @ 14:19:32

    @Sunita: Sadly, that’s exactly what I guessed. If I’m right about the twist

    Buried Comment: Show

    pregnant

    then this book would hit “not with a ten foot pole” territory for me. Which is too bad, because otherwise it looked good and I’m always looking for contemps.

  7. Isobel Carr
    Feb 28, 2014 @ 14:22:46

    Dang it! My spoiler tag HTML didn’t work. Can someone fix/delete it?

  8. Sirius
    Feb 28, 2014 @ 15:07:45

    @Sunita: Thanks. Oy definitely will push buttons.

  9. Sunita
    Feb 28, 2014 @ 17:22:16

    @Isobel Carr: I thought that part was handled quite well.

    Buried Comment (Reason: Spoiler)   Show

    If you’re absolutely against sex scenes that only use condoms and don’t talk about morning after pills then no, this won’t work for you. But I thought the reasons given were believable (Plan B/morning after weren’t discussed but there were other reasons for her belief she was unlikely to become pregnant). Moreover, the pregnancy was not used to motivate the plot but rather created an opening for character traits and back history to be brought out, which is hard to do quickly in a novella format. I appreciated that it wasn’t a stock plot-changing pregnancy or secret-baby setup, but something more interesting.

  10. Kaetrin
    Feb 28, 2014 @ 22:27:32

    I have this on the TBR. The twist wouldn’t have bothered me

    Buried Comment: Show

    because lots of people use condoms only for birth control and if there’s a believable reason for no planB I could go with that.

    But I think I’d really struggle with the other conflict. Maybe employment laws are vastly different in the US but over here, an employee has the right to have the allegations put to her and be able to reasonably respond. No legal dismissal would occur until after that process is complete (no DECISION to dismiss could be made until after this process) because of the entitlement of the employee to procedural fairness and natural justice. So I don’t think I could have bought the dismissal where Lincoln hasn’t even spoken to her about it. That just seems a stupid move on his part and, at least here, unlawful.

  11. Sunita
    Mar 01, 2014 @ 06:54:15

    @Kaetrin: Employment laws are indeed different, and heavily weighted toward the employer. The default hiring/firing condition is “at-will,” which means that employers do not have to give a reason for termination. There are state-by-state exceptions to this, and of course federal statutes about fair employment override at-will privileges. But even in those cases, the burden of proof is usually on the employee to show unfair treatment.

    In the book the conditions for unfair treatment are potentially present and discussed (and Linc does tell Thea she is being fired “for cause,” which is a specific condition), but it would still require Thea to bring a case against the company and show harm in order to be compensated for the unfairness.

  12. CD
    Mar 01, 2014 @ 10:55:33

    @Sunita:

    I assume “for cause” in the US is similar to “grave misconduct” in the UK. But it seems unbelievably harsh that you can be fired for misconduct and yet not have the right to be formally informed as to exactly WHY you had been fired. If you’re accused of something, then shouldn’t you be informed of what you’re accused of and thereby have the opportunity to defend yourself? And given that the accusations end up being false, does Thea ever consider legal action? It sounds like she’d be well within her rights to do so…

    As for the spoiler, I think that would be a huge hot button for me so I don’t think this book is for me. Unfortunate because I like books where the heroine is one of the few people able to see through the hero’s bullshit.

    Off-topic: is it really the case that you can legally fire someone “at will” in the US? That sounds like something that’s incredibly open to abuse. I do find UK employment law rather too restrictive at times but I’m having some difficulty believing that the US goes that far the other way.

  13. Sunita
    Mar 01, 2014 @ 11:20:20

    @CD: Yes, “for cause” is similar to “grave misconduct.” In the US it makes it more difficult (if not impossible) to qualify for unemployment benefits. I agree that she should have been informed, but I don’t know if it is a legal requirement that an employee be formally told the conditions of a “for cause” firing, and it might vary by state anyway (since employment laws vary at the state level).

    Thea is encouraged to pursue legal action by her friends, as I remember, but she doesn’t do so before Linc comes looking for her. I also don’t know if the specific conditions of the firing would have opened the company to a wrongful termination suit, since they had substantial (apparent) evidence of her guilt; they might have been considered to be acting in good faith. That would be worked out in a hearing or a court.

    As for “at-will” firing, absolutely it is the law in the United States. As I said, there are exceptions to it in various states, and Federal civil rights laws prohibit firing for certain reasons. Here is an overview of the relevant employment law; you can follow the embedded links for more details if you’re interested. It’s worth remembering that fewer and fewer US workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements, which have historically been the main way workers are protected from unexpected termination.

  14. Jane
    Mar 01, 2014 @ 12:13:53

    @CD: In most states, you are an at will employee. It is very very uncommon to have an employment contract for which you can be fired only “for cause.”

    At will means you can be fired for any reason that is not a protected one – race, religion, nationality. You can be fired if you wear a Chicago Bears t shirt at a place of business owned by a Packer fan. You can be fired for being too pretty. (In Iowa, the Supreme Court upheld a firing by a dentist on the grounds the dental assistant was too tempting for him physically). So basically any reason.

    For cause isn’t exactly “grave misconduct.” It can just be misconduct. Missing too much work or being late. Whether they have to tell you is part of the terms of your employment contract and they DEFINITELY do not have to give you an opportunity to defend yourself.

    And employment cases are very difficult to bring and win. There’s a huge administrative process and the costs of employment cases from a plaintiff (employee) point of view are quite large. Now there are many (most) attorneys who will take the case on a contingent basis but there’s always the issue of if you bring a suit then you’re tarnishing yourself as a future employment prospect. The refusal to sue someone based on a wrong done to you isn’t a mark of a weak person.

  15. Kaetrin
    Mar 01, 2014 @ 17:10:55

    Thx Sunita and Jane for that information. Knowing that, I think it would really help me to enjoy the book better when I break it out of TBR jail.

    Wow, you USians have a tough system. Here, the manner of the dismissal is as actionable as the dismissal itself. So a judge can find that you were lawfully terminated but the manner of it was unfair, harsh or unreasonable in the circumstances and award damages (although they are capped to a notice period I believe – don’t quote me on that last, it’s been a while since I’ve been involved in any of that).

    Actions regarding unfair dismissal have to be commenced very quickly – it used to be 7 days but I’m not sure it has to be that now. The idea is that if there is to be any restoration of the employment, it needs to be done quickly. Because one of the things which is a real threat to the employer is that a judge can, if s/he finds the termination harsh, unjust or unreasonable, order re-employment – this is legislatively the preferred option. The net result is that if there is a risk that the worker will win, the employer is usually prepared to throw some money at it so they won’t have to re-employ the person. (If a worker wins and comes back it creates a lot of problems because the worker appears to be ‘untouchable’).

    Consequently, unfair dismissal is really easy and really common – even in cases where you’d think it was a slam dunk for the employer, some of the judges here tend toward the left and will bend over backwards to find for the worker. It’s a rare case that doesn’t settle at conciliation. Workers know that they’re likely to get at least something to add to their termination pay – and very often, there is an agreement to refer to the dismissal as a “resignation” and keep the rest confidential. This may include the employer agreeing to merely confirm the period of service and the worker’s position and voluntary resignation on a reference check to a new potential employer.

    Our industrial relations system is much more in favour of workers here. Employers have loads and loads of hoops to jump through to get up on an unfair dismissal claim.

    I would have imported that into my reading for sure so I’m glad I asked the question here – that way I will be able to adjust my thinking at bit at least on the legal side of things.

  16. CD
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 03:45:49

    @ Sunita/Jane – echoing Kaetrin with thanks here. That’s made not only this book but other aspects of US popular media a lot clearer. Combined with the health insurance issue, that’s made me understand a lot more the attitude to jobs/employment in the US. To be an employee in the US seems to me to be a rather precarious existence!

    From the other side, in the UK it’s extremely difficult to sack someone with a permanent position for just being lousy at their job. In my experience, you generally either have to go through a very lengthy and meticulously documented process of performance reviews and/or formal warnings (and even then, it’s still up for grabs if they choose to take it to tribunal), or restructure the whole department to make their position redundant and give them a very generous redundancy package so that they don’t contest. Or you offer them a huge amount for them to simply resign – which often ends up being cheaper. And as Kaetrin mentions, even if they are legally dismissable for whatever reason (eg theft or corporate espionage), the way the company deals with it is just as important as the legality of the termination itself.

    I’ve been involved in this in a few organisations and it can be a pain. And it definitely ensures that you think a number of times before you create and hire a new position. But the US system sounds a bit too much over-kill in the other direction: being able to dismiss someone for being “too pretty”?! Particularly for those who don’t have many options, I can really see a huge amount of potential for abuse and exploitation here.

    Is this actually an issue in the US or is it just accepted as a fact of life? On the news, I’ve hard about debates surrounding healthcare and the status of illegal migrants – but nothing really on employment rights. From what I remember, the labour/trade union movement was never that strong in the US, so maybe it’s more of a cultural issue.

  17. CD
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 04:13:05

    Just to clarify – restructuring to make a position redundant simply to get rid of an employee is actually illegal in the UK but is often done in practice to avoid the long and difficult process required to dismiss someone due to performance issues. That’s why redundancy packages in these cases are generally large in order to tempt the employee into taking voluntary redundancy and not take the case to court.

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