By Shirlee McCoy
Release Date: July 25, 2017
Willow Lamont left her hometown, Benevolence, Washington, nearly fifteen years ago. Yielding to her grandfather’s manipulation, she has reluctantly returned to help in the family chocolate shop while he convalesces. She insists that her visit will be limited to two weeks, at which time she plans to return to Seattle and her job as a prosecuting attorney. Willow is the sister who had the deepest love for Chocolate Haven as a child, and it was she that family members expected to take over the business. But she experienced trauma so severe that just being back in the shop where it occurred is enough to trigger PTSD episodes. Because her attacker threatened her younger sisters, Willow told no one what had happened to her, and because her father died about the same time, family members attributed changes in Willow’s behavior to her loss. They remain unaware of how her return to the shop is affecting Willow.
Jax Gordon, a veteran of ten years on the Los Angeles drug force, returned to Benevolence four years ago when the aunt and uncle who cared for him after his parents’ deaths needed his help. Jax too was traumatized as a child. His parents and siblings were murdered by connections of his law-enforcement father’s corrupt partner. Jax was wounded trying to save his baby sister. The scars he bears on his body testify to his experience; the scars on his soul are deeper and rawer. He has grown accustomed to the slower pace of Benevolence during his years as a deputy with the county sheriff’s office, but his obsession with justice and his need to see the guilty held accountable still burn within him.
When a knock on her apartment door in the wee hours on her sixth morning back in Benevolence terrifies Willow, she calls 911. Jax responds to her call. They investigate a noise they think is an abandoned animal and find a newborn baby left in a fruit crate behind a trash bin. Paramedics, noting the blueness of the infant’s skin, suspect a heart condition, a suspicion that doctors soon confirm. Both Willow and Jax bond with the baby whom the nurses name Miracle, and that bond plus their involvement with the investigation into who abandoned the baby throws them into each other’s company. The time they spend together intensifies the attraction that sparked that first night. Jax recognizes a fellow survivor in Willow. His steadiness comforts her in her most vulnerable moments, and her vulnerability strengthens Jax’s desire to be there for her when she needs someone. But Willow, having just ended an eight-year relationship because she wants the kind of love her sisters have found, is looking for the promise of forever, and Jax is too afraid of more loss to risk that kind of commitment.
In the conclusion to her Home Sweet Home trilogy, McCoy has given readers an emotional story that balances the darkness of real-life evil and its destructive powers with persistent hope and the healing promise of love. The cost exacted by such evil is not minimized. Jax was eleven and Willow was thirteen when they underwent their separate, life-altering traumas. These events shaped the adults they became and still affect them. It doesn’t take a psychologist to understand that their experiences are directly related to their career choices. Their reactions to Miracle and to the teenage mother who abandoned her are also colored by their experiences. Jax says to Willow, “When you go through hell, sometimes the demons follow you out. That’s just the way it is. Every survivor knows it.” Love has the power to strengthen one to fight the demons and to fill the future with hope, but it does not eradicate the past. That McCoy makes this clear is one of the strengths of this novel.
Willow and Jax’s story is told within the contexts of familial ties. Willow’s love for her meddling grandfather and her bond with her sisters are vital, as is Jax’s affection for his uncle and his matchmaking aunt. Willow’s somewhat fraught relationship with her mother improves during the course of the story. The abandoned baby thread is interesting, but I thought the loose ends at the novel’s conclusion made it seem too much mere plot device. In fact, the ending generally felt less than satisfactory to me. It was that which dropped my ranking to four stars. McCoy’s next series features the Bradshaw brothers, who also return to Benevolence. Perhaps some of the loose ends will be tied up yet.
Although Bittersweet is the third book in the series, it works well as a standalone. Discerning readers will certainly be aware that the stories of Willow’s sisters have been told, but that awareness is not enough to detract from this story. If you require steam in your romance reading, this novel is not for you. It is strictly kisses only. But if you appreciate sweet romance in a small-town setting with rich family dynamics and emotional power in the central love story, I recommend this book.