I'm looking at the shifter genre like a swim-starved beachgoer who is pretty sure the ocean is too cold to go in, but dips a toe anyway. I kind of miss the paranormal genre, especially shifters. I don't love the insta-love and the fated pair mating with the twitching cocks, but I've read most paranormal romance from the perspective that it explores our relationship with rage, out of control anger, and fear, especially of the internal and external “other.”
When we – especially women – lose our shit and get angry, it's not ok. Shame and chastisement follow. But if a shifter loses his or her shit, goes cat or wolf or bear or cougar or wombat, well, that's nature. Some of my favorite paranormal shifter romances explore without flinching the idea that there's this insatiable angry beast inside that has to be tamed or controlled or in some way balanced.
Since I was missing the shifter world, I figured a novella would be perfect. And dude, this was the perfect novella for me. Despite feeling burned out on all things paranormal, a small dose of shifter romance and unique writing made for a lovely antidote.
Before I get to the summary and review part, I want to say that I have no idea why a Kirsten Dunst lookalike is on the cover. I pictured the heroine as being much more strong and not quite so young-looking. I have no idea what the hero looked like as a wolf. I presume he was wolfy in all the appropriate wolfy ways.
Tessa Williams is a shifter cat – she doesn't reveal what kind of cat until midway through the story – who has her heart set on opening a B&B and an eco-tourism business in Haines, Alaska (like you do). She's been corresponding with the owner of a property she thinks would be ideal, but it belongs to one Mark Weaver, and he isn't too eager to sell. So she heads up to Alaska (like you do) to go talk to him in person.
Mark is a werewolf, and the owner of the paddle wheel house – a big ol' paddle wheeler drydocked by the water that he's been slowly maintaining.
Note: I was telling Hubby about this book, and he misheard me as saying it took place in a “pedal boat” (right). It's not a pedal boat, as it would be difficult to live in one. It's a paddle wheel boat you'd see on a river.
Anyway, Mark inherited the place and his grandfather, who sometimes gets confused, is a frequently visitor, so he isn't going to sell it. When the story opens, Mark has lost his job. He's a nice guy, he's talented with fixing things and working with his hands, and he's not lazy, but he hasn't had the best string of luck with employment.
The fun starts when Tessa rolls up the driveway and Mark recognizes her as his mate. To quote the cover copy: “she’s a cat…and cats don’t do insta-mates.”
There must be more logical ways to approach this, but his logic meter had gone out of whack at the first sniff. The words blurted from him like homing missiles.
“My wolf says you’re my mate.”
Tessa’s eyes widened. “Oh, really?”
He nodded. “That’s why I kind of attacked you back there. The kiss and all.”
“Okay, I wondered about that.” Tessa glanced him over then shrugged. “Well, that’s interesting. So, do you want to meet regarding my proposal now, or tomorrow?”
Confusion swirled with need, making his brain foggy. “That’s interesting? That’s all you’ve got to say about me telling you we’re mates?”
She raised a brow. “No, your wolf said we’re mates. My cat says you’re kinda cute, but we don’t do mates like you guys. We’re not into the insta-just-add-water thing.”
He was going to fall over. “You’re saying you don’t want to be my mate?”
“Are you saying you love me?” she snapped back. “As in, you know all about me. What my hopes and dreams are. What makes me smile and what makes me cry, and you want to spend the rest of our lives together because I complete you?”
Mark stuttered to a stop. “Well, no. But that will come. It always does, for wolves.”
Tessa stepped closer and laid her hand on his arm. “But I’m not a wolf. I want to be in love before I mate anyone. That’s important to me. We make a choice, our humans and our animal sides. I’m not trying to be cruel, but I’m sorry. We’re not mates. Not yet.”
I liked the fact that Tessa was all, “You're hot, and I totally would love to jump in bed with you, but I don't feel this huge everlasting guarantee that you're the one for me. You say that's true but how do I know?”
And I liked that Mark struggled with the fact that as much as he desired Tessa and as badly as he wanted to be with her, he couldn't get physical in any way with her because he didn't think he could control himself and not mark her – which she hasn't agreed to. It's not that he can't keep his dick in his pants — he is worried he can't keep his teeth in his mouth and not bite her to complete the mate bond.
Mark accepts easily that she's his mate, hold all calls, we have a winner. Tessa struggles with Mark's assurance, even though she loves the paddle wheel house, and the relative ease with which they work together. Mark's solution to his inability to sell is for him to work with her to rehab the paddle wheeler and turn it into a B&B together – and of course there's a werewolf on the zoning board and in the permit office and probably at the local hardware store, so the construction moves along at novella pace. I wish all home improvement projects moved at novella pace. Seriously, can all novella-paced werewolf contractors please report to all of New Jersey, Staten Island and the other Sandy-damaged parts of New York? Because holy hell were there construction accomplishments in a matter of pages that I was COMPLETELY JEALOUS OF OMG.
The construction gives Tessa and Mark a project to work on together, and a way to learn about each other. Tessa doesn't want to accept his word that they are Meant to Be, and wants to get to know Mark first. Mark, being a wolf, thinks they should mate, pair up, do the bitey-bonding thing, and then learn about one another. Tessa thinks that's kind of bonkers.
The fact that Tessa is a cat influences her character's actions in some entertaining ways. She likes to sleep in the sun, take naps, and perch high up on things – which scares the absolute crap out of Mark. She's fast moving when she's focused on something, almost to the point where I worried she was going to be a super manic pixie dreamgirl. She avoids that diagnosis for me, thankfully, though I was kind of hoping another character would pull out a laser pointer to see if Tessa would chase the red spot around the room. Tessa also lands on her feet, literally and figuratively. She's also competent and confident, and isn't afraid of Mark or any of the other wolves in the pack, though she's aware that she has to tread carefully due to pack politics and the fact that she's a cat.
Mark is also influenced by his wolfy side: he's determined, tireless, and eager to play with Tessa and become her friend. He wants to respect her boundaries and learn about her before they do the bitey bondy thing, even though not doing the bitey bondy thing is making him miserable:
He pushed away from the table, opening space between them. “I know I said we could fool around, but I wasn’t aware how much being mates would get to me. Maybe if I were a stronger wolf I could handle it. Maybe if you weren’t right here—but don’t suggest you go anywhere else, because that would only be worse.”
Her mouth had gone dry. “You don’t want me around, but you don’t want me to leave?”
Mark rubbed his forehead. “I’m saying this all wrong, and I’m sorry. I’m trying desperately to give you what you asked for, which is time for us to fall in love. So we’re going to have to find ways to spend time together that doesn’t involve getting hot and heavy.”
Something twisted inside, and it wasn’t just her libido complaining. “Oh. Okay, that makes sense.”
Only having made Mark uncomfortable made her uncomfortable, and a change of mental game plan for the evening, well, sucked.
The ways he pays attention to Tessa and takes care of her and acknowledges her unique strengths is adorable and gave me the warm fuzzies.
I also very much enjoyed how honest they were with each other:
The bright amusement usually present in her face was missing, as was the squirming he’d already grown to expect. “If things work out well, but I didn’t do anything to make it happen, should I feel successful? Dumb luck isn’t something to be admired, Mark.”
Oh hell. “This is why the mating thing feels off to you, right? Why you want me to know about you and care about you before we make it official?”
“Mating’s got to be the purest form of dumb luck there is.” Tessa stroked a finger over his brow, rubbing away the tension. “It’s not wrong, but it’s just not right. It’s so…generic. Why does your wolf want me?”
Because it was right. They belonged together, but simply saying the words wasn’t going to convince her. Besides, she had a point, even though those kind of things usually worked themselves out later with wolves.
“Thank you for sharing. I’m honoured you trusted me.”
She snorted lightly. “Too honest for my own good, at times.”
“I had that on the list I’m making,” Mark said. Her brows went up and he hurried to reassure her. “Not the too-honest bit, but the honest part. I like that you don’t avoid issues, Tessa. It’s a good way to be. Keeps things in the open, makes it easier for me to fix my mistakes when I blow it with you down the road.”
That managed to bring a smile to her face. “You sure you’re going to be the one to screw up? Seems so far I’m the one dropping bombs left, right and center in this relationship.”
“So you admit this is a relationship?”
She poked him in the chest and leaned in closer. “I’m sitting in your lap telling you my deepest, darkest secrets. You’d better believe this is more than casual, buddy. I like dating.”
“Is it dating when it’s with your mate?” He wasn’t going to let her forget where this was headed.
“Hmmm, whatever we want to call it is fine.”
But this is a novella, so with the short span of pages comes some leaping jumps and switchback changes in position. Tessa is holding back because she's unsure, Mark is holding back because any progress toward the horizontal will compromise the control he has over his instinctive desire to claim Tessa, and they're at something of a stalemate, albeit one with lots of frustration-reducing activities included for Mark, like building shit and knocking out walls and splitting half a forest of firewood.
This part is a little spoilery so I'm whiting it out: One of Tessa's friends has a come-to-Jesus with her has all the subtlety of a hammer in shifting Tessa's position. BAM. YOU THINK THIS WAY NOW! Tessa has to change and accept, even though her reasons for resisting Mark made perfect sense to anyone who isn't a werewolf (like, say, the reader). I wish there had been more space for Tessa's change of perspective to develop and deepen, because in the end, it was such a rapid shift I had trouble believing it, even though I wanted to – I loved their attraction and resistance to one another, and the reasons and honorable intentions behind it.
That said, even with the quick shift (hur), I enjoyed the hell out of this novella. It was lighthearted and fun, surprisingly emotional but not super angsty, and a perfect amount of shifter romance to remind me that I kind of miss reading it.