Carolina Man is the third book in your Dare Island series which, so far has featured the three offspring of Tom and Tess Fletcher. Tom was a Marine for 20 years and after his retirement from the Corps, the family moved back to Dare Island, North Carolina to run the Pirate’s Rest B&B. Matt Fletcher, the oldest child, and teacher, Allison Carter, were featured in the first book, Carolina Home. Meg Fletcher and Sam Grady were paired up in Carolina Girl and the third and youngest child, Luke, finally gets his book in Carolina Man. While each of the romances are separate stories, there is wider story arc in the trilogy involving Luke’s daughter, Taylor. At the start of Carolina Home, Luke takes emergency leave from Afghanistan where he is a deployed Marine, to collect a daughter he never knew he had. His high school girlfriend, Dawn Simpson, dumped him when he enlisted and after she and her family moved off Dare Island, he never heard from her again. Certainly he didn’t know that when she left she was pregnant with his daughter. Dawn dies suddenly from a brain aneurysm and lawyer (and Dawn’s former employer) Kate Dolan contacts Luke to let him know that Dawn had nominated him as Taylor’s guardian in her will. After confirming paternity, Luke takes Taylor to his parents to care for while he completes his deployment in Afghanistan.
*Mild series spoilers follow*
Most of Carolina Man occurs when Luke comes home from his deployment (some 4 months later) and tries to establish a meaningful relationship with and to secure permanent custody of his daughter. Kate Dolan is a family lawyer who, after a difficult childhood – her father was an abusive alcoholic – made it her life’s work to help (usually) women and children escape from difficult home situations. She was also Dawn’s friend and Luke turns to her for help when Dawn’s parents (who want custody of Taylor) make unfounded allegations of maltreatment to Child Services.
While, with the above background, a reader could understand and enjoy Carolina Man as a stand alone, I think the true joy of the book is with the complete background of the previous stories. Taylor features most strongly in the first and third books but her story arc continues over the entirety of the trilogy. We know from the first book that something happened to Taylor when she was briefly in the care of Dawn’s parents after her mother’s death and before Luke arrived to take her to Dare Island, but we don’t know what. We see Taylor begin to form bonds with the Fletchers, especially her Uncle Matt and her 16 year old cousin (Matt’s son) Luke. We know that she longs for a relationship with her dad but she is also scared because she doesn’t know him and hasn’t really had a chance to with their communications pretty much limited to Skype. We’ve also watched the family band together not just to help and welcome Taylor, but also to help Tess when she is seriously injured in a car accident in the first book. I have read all three books and when I was reading the family scenes in this one it was with the rich background of having spend significant time with them. I think that background only enhances the enjoyment of this, my favourite book of the series.
Like Brie at Romance Around the Corner, I think the series is reminiscent of Nora Roberts’ contemporary series (such as the Chesapeake Bay Saga) and I think fans of those books will enjoy the Dare Island books. The style is easy to read and effortlessly engaging and full of the strong bonds of familial love.
I loved the banter between Luke and Kate, as well as the military metaphors Luke so often used and which fit his character so perfectly.
“You just got home. You’re understandably feeling unsettled. This is hardly the right time for you to be . . . for us to be doing . . .” She waggled her fingers in the air between them. “This.”
His grin broadened. “I’m not sure I recognize your hand sign. You mean dinner?”
She rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean. Any sort of personal contact— relationship— between us would be terribly complicated.”
“Only because you’re thinking like a lawyer.”
“I am a lawyer.”
“Right. You’re used to complicating things. Marines keep it simple. Identify your long-term objective, execute the steps to achieve your objective.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Do you honestly expect me to believe your objective is to have dinner with me?”
“No,” he admitted. “Dinner would be more like the short-term strategy.”
“I thought so.”
“Getting to know you would be the objective,” he explained.
I really liked the way Luke saw through Kate’s defence mechanisms and assumed good intent, wisdom, strength and capability. His default was to think the best of her when others may have been put off by her prickliness and her reliance on the rules and legal mores she was more familiar with. He appreciates her doggedness when it comes to her job and her “focus on the mission” which he never mistakes for a lack of care. Kate has never known family the way Luke has and seeing her get slowly assimilated into the Fletcher clan and to learn to be a part of a loving family was a pleasure.
Kate might be relationship-challenged but she’s no pushover either – just as well Luke had a habit of saying just the right thing.
“It’s different for guys. Look around next time you’re at a bar or a restaurant or even at the movies. The men are in jeans and T-shirts. Maybe they’ve shaved. And their dates are all made up and dressed up, like they have to knock themselves out just to be with these guys.” She stabbed her fork into a shrimp. “I have to dress for court. I don’t need to waste my weekends tweezing, waxing, and worrying about my underwear in return for ordinary food and mediocre sex.”
He was looking at her with the warm, slightly unfocused look men got when they were thinking about sex.
Point to me for mentioning the waxing thing, Kate thought smugly.
“You could try doing something about that,” he suggested.
What? Oh. “I suppose I could hold out for better restaurants.”
“Or better sex.” A low note of laughter underscored his voice.
Kate lifted her chin. “I can handle the sex part fine on my own. I don’t need a man to have an orgasm.”
“Then maybe you should try a better man.”
Not that Luke always said and did the right thing – he wasn’t comfortable with Taylor at first and he fumbled enough with Kate that he felt human to me
He was uneasily aware he could have handled things better last night. Not the sex. The sex was amazing. The talking and the dinner before that had been great, too. But the gotta-go-I’ll-call-you bit at the end needed some work. Like the invasion of Iraq, the evening had been strong on shock and awe, weak on exit strategy.
There is also a kind of love story between Taylor and Luke – as they get to know one another, as the parent gene kicks in and he realises that Taylor has a hold on his heart. What happened to Taylor when she was staying with the Simpsons wasn’t quite what I had expected. I liked the way Luke got furiously angry but kept his focus on making sure Taylor was okay. I liked that he was smart and that he demonstrated both to Taylor and to Kate that he could be relied upon but always kept on the right side of the line. I would have liked a little more information on what happened with the other part of the Simpson family afterwards though – particularly because there had been a thread running through the story of Taylor benefiting by having relationships with Dawn’s relatives. We never know exactly why Dawn didn’t tell Luke he was a father but it wasn’t a “secret baby” book in the traditional sense and it wasn’t something I felt I needed to know.
There were a couple of things I wasn’t quite clear on at the end, but they really only occurred to me as I was writing the review. As I was reading I was too caught up in the story. There will be another book in the series – Dare Island police chief Jack Rossi, who is introduced in Carolina Man will feature as the hero in Carolina Blue – so maybe those questions will be answered then. I’m sure the Fletchers will have a supporting role there.
I suppose in many ways it is not so very different to any number of small town contemporary romances. But I think this is a particularly good example of the subgenre and I don’t get tired of familiar tropes when they are done as well as this. I give Carolina Man a B+ and recommend the whole series to lovers of small town contemporaries. (I can also add that I have listened to the first book and the narrator is one of my personal favourites – Sophie Eastlake – so, for those who inclined to listen, I can recommend the audiobooks as well.)