After 28 years in the Army, Sergeant Major Nicholas Nowicki is about a month from forced retirement. Being military police is all he knows and law enforcement is all he has ever wanted to do. But it is time to move on, whether Nick wants to or not, and he has plans to move to Florida after Christmas to work with a friend on his private boat charter business. At least it will get him out of the cold and snow of upstate New York. In the interim, Nick has been drafted to play the role of Santa in the small town near the base. He isn’t thrilled about it, but when he boss asked him to fill in, he reluctantly agreed.
Teddy MacNally has lived in Mineral Springs all his life, and he is related to practically half the town. Teddy went away to college, but couldn’t wait to return to Mineral Springs where he now runs the charitable organization for which Nick is playing Santa. Nick may be gruff and a little surly, but Teddy can’t help but like the guy. When Nick ends up stuck at Teddy’s house when snow hits, Teddy is definitely interested in pursuing a little fun. At first Nick isn’t sure; he has been burned in past relationships, not to mention his time in town is short. Plus Teddy is so young and shiny and cheerful, Nick worries he is not the guy for him, even for a fling. But the chemistry between the men is strong and the hook up is hot — hot enough that they decide to continue having fun together until Nick has to leave.
As the weeks pass, Teddy and Nick find that what was supposed to be just friendship with some sex on the side is turning more serious than either of them expected. Teddy would love to find a way to turn it into more, but Nick is leaving town for his new life in Florida. While Nick has fallen for Teddy as well, he feels a commitment to his friend in Florida. Not to mention he can’t imagine Teddy would really want him for long. Now the guys have to figure out if they are willing to take a chance on love and seize the connection they have built together.
I’ll admit, I have a soft spot for a bit of a curmudgeonly hero and so I was drawn in right away by Nick. It seems particularly appealing in a Christmas story for some reason (despite the fact that I don’t celebrate the holiday), as there is something about watching the wonder of the season — plus a healthy dose of romance — turn someone around to find a happier life. In Better Not Pout, Annabeth Albert pairs the somewhat grumpy Nick with the cheery Teddy to great affect. Teddy just has this enthusiasm and sunny attitude that breaks through all of NIck’s barriers. Nick is wary of getting involved, partly because he is leaving and partly because Teddy just seems too good and shiny for a guy like Nick, but he just can’t resist Teddy’s charm. At the same time, Teddy is not over the top or saccharine sweet, which I also appreciated. He is just someone who is happy with his life and who has love to share.
The story features several other themes I like, including an age gap between the men, a small town romance, and a little bit of time snowbound. Albert combines the feelings of the holiday season, but it also doesn’t totally dominate the book, so there is a nice balance here.
While the story gives us both Nick and Teddy’s perspectives, in some ways this seems more Nick’s journey as Teddy is already pretty happy and settled in life, albeit lonely. But Nick is really at a crossroads. The life he has always wanted is coming to an end. He sees himself as washed up now that the military is forcing retirement due to reduction in personnel. And he isn’t necessarily excited about this new venture in Florida. So here we see Nick come to recognize that he deserves better, that his life isn’t over, and that he is worthy of the love and happiness Teddy can bring. I will say I would have liked a better understanding of just what is holding Nick back from being with Teddy, or why he feels so locked into this job offer. We can see he is kind of making excuses, but not really why, or at least not until late in the book and I would have liked to understand this better as this is the main source of the conflict. Nick also does something that makes me nuts in my romance novels and that is decide for Teddy that they are better off apart and he isn’t good enough for Teddy, without actually paying attention to what Teddy thinks about all that. But these were minor issues with an otherwise very enjoyable story.
So if you are looking for a nice holiday book with lots of warm feelings, some likable heroes, and a bit of a grump who is won over by a sweet, younger man, definitely check out Better Not Pout.