Kiss her Once for Me coverRating: 4.5 stars
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Length: Novel

 

A year ago, Ellie Oliver’s life seemed to be going just according to her 10-year plan. She had moved to Portland for her dream job as an artist for an animation studio. And for one magical day and night, Ellie thought had found the woman of her dreams. After meeting at a bookstore, the women spent a wonderful, snowy day together that left Ellie falling in love. But things feel apart with Jack almost as quickly as they began, leaving Ellie devastated. And it only got worse when she lost her job at her dream company. Now, Ellie is working a job she hates with a boss she loathes. Her heart is still broken and her head is filled with memories of the woman with whom she spent that glorious day and night. And her mother continues to badger Ellie for money, when Ellie is barely making ends meet herself. In fact, Ellie is on the verge of destitution and, with her rent going up, she has no idea how she is going to survive.

Then the gorgeous and wealthy landlord of the coffee shop where Ellie works, Andrew Kim-Prescott, comes to Ellie with a proposition. Andrew’s grandfather died with a stipulation in his will requiring Andrew be married to get the inheritance. With no interest in a relationship and no one on the horizon, Andrew is looking for someone to marry him for the year just so he can get the money. He is willing to offer Ellie $200k if she will help him out and get married, as well as spend Christmas with his family in their mountain cabin. Ellie is anxious about the idea, but (with the help of copious amounts of alcohol) eventually figures she has nothing to lose. She needs the money so desperately and, while she isn’t particularly interested in Andrew romantically (aside from finding him incredibly hot), she also figures maybe there is a chance that feelings will grow. However, when Andrew and Ellie arrive at the family home for the holiday, she is shocked to learn that Andrew’s sister “Jacqueline” is none other than Ellie’s Jack, the woman who broke her heart a year ago and the woman she is definitely not over losing.

Ellie is stunned to see Jack, and Jack is equally shocked to find Ellie engaged to her brother. Ellie knows she can’t tell Andrew she slept with his sister. And Andrew has been very clear that Ellie can’t tell anyone about the fake inheritance scheme, particularly Jack. Plus, Ellie desperately needs the money that will come with fulfilling her end of the bargain. However, last year’s connection between the women never went away and being around each other day after day is incredibly difficult. Even though she has no interest in Andrew, and Andrew has no interest in her (in fact, Ellie is pretty sure Andrew is in love with Dylan, Jack’s best friend), Ellie still made a promise to both marry him and keep his secret. And when she learns more about Andrew’s motives, Ellie is even more determined to keep his confidence. But Ellie still longs for Jack, and it is clear Jack still has feelings for her in return. Things are made even more difficult as Andrew and Jack’s family is just lovely, welcoming Ellie into their lives in a way she has never experienced with her own absentee parents. Now, Ellie must decide if she is going to stick with her bargain and the safety of the deal with Andrew, or if she is willing to take a chance on love and happiness with a future with Jack.

I absolutely loved Allison Cochrun’s The Charm Offensive and it made by Best of 2021 list. So I was excited when I saw the author had a new book out, particularly one with some fun tropes, like marriage of convenience and a sibling love triangle (that ends up a “love trapezoid” as Ellie dubs it). Cochrun does this style so well, and this one has humor and hijinks and is just on the right side of over-the-top in its slightly crazy set up with Ellie finding out that “the one that got away” is actually the sister of her current fake fiance. I found this story just so much fun and really entertaining.

As I said, this one has quite the set up, and you just need to go with it, as this is definitely more rom com than real life. That said, Cochrun gives a weight to the story that takes it above the crazy premise, giving the characters depth and building a foundation that really made it all work for me. Ellie starts out the story in an awful place. She is feeling vulnerable that her mother just wants her for money (which Ellie quite clearly doesn’t have) and has no interest in actually seeing her for Christmas once again. Her boss is awful, she hates her job, and she is about $15 from being out on the street. Not to mention that Ellie’s heart is still quite sore from what happened with Jack last year. Ellie doesn’t typically find an emotional or physical connection with anyone in a day. But there was something about that magical 24 hours with Jack that affected her so profoundly, Ellie believed for a short time that things could into something real between them. That is until it all came crashing down. Cochrun does a nice job really setting the stage here for Ellie’s emotional state and why this absurd offer from Andrew is one she is willing to take (though it still takes a lot of alcohol-fueled bad decisions to get her to agree). Quite frankly, Ellie needs the money badly, and she need some hope for happiness and is willing to see where this opportunity takes her. Of course, she never expects it to bring her back into Jack’s life.

Things build well here in this complicated relationship dynamic, aided by the fact that Andrew and Ellie are never actually interested in one another. They mostly feel like brother and sister, and while the two end up forming a close bond, Andrew quite clearly has no romantic feelings for Ellie. As I said, Andrew is desperately in love with Jack’s best friend, Dylan, and Dylan quite clearly wants Jack in return. So there is no sense of cheating or of Ellie hurting Andrew when things start to move forward with Jack, which I think is important. That said, Jack has no idea about any of this backstory, so in her case, she is quite concerned about the fact that she is pining for her brother’s fiance. So Jack wants to keep her distance because she fears hurting her brother, while Ellie is still hurt over what happened last year. Even once Ellie learns the truth, she feels obligated to keep her promise to Andrew, as well as wanting to help Andrew in his ultimate goal. I will say, there is a lack of communication here on many fronts, among a variety of players. I think it mostly works, as it fits this rom-com style, but I do think a lot pain could have been avoided all around with a little more openness.

I think Cochrun does a nice job making a believable connection between Ellie and Jack, despite just knowing each other a day. We get flashback scenes of their time together interspersed with present events, so I felt brought into their journey in a way that let me feel that past connection. Even as it has been a year, both women are hurt and still missing what they thought could have been a real future with one another, so I could buy that they still have intense feelings for each other. I think this is particularly true of Ellie, who acts so out of character for herself in the way she opened up to this adventure with Jack and let herself just feel it all. So I think that helped really enhance that sense of intensity to her emotions in the present day.

Aside from the romantic relationship, a big part of the story also focuses on Ellie’s lack of connection with her own family contrasted with Kim-Prescott clan. Ellie’s father is basically out of her life and her mother only contacts her to demand money. The Kim-Prescotts have a crazy, loving family and a big holiday celebration (complete with laminated schedule of activities). They welcome Ellie into their home and make her feel a sense of love and acceptance that she doesn’t get from her own family. We get the rom com requisite wacky grandmothers (both boozy and high), but the family is sweet and it is nice to see Ellie feel so accepted and welcome. It gives the story an overall nice holiday warmth that is a nice addition to the romantic entanglements.

A lot of the story deals with Ellie’s general anxiety and her fears that have been holding her back. She has awful parents and she dealt with a lot of that uncertainty growing up by trying to rigidly control her life. She needs plans and structure and is generally risk averse and, over the course of the story, she comes to understand that these attempts at perfection are holding her back. I think it is an overall good message in the sense that it gives Ellie the confidence to reach for what she wants, not always what she thinks she should be doing. But a lot of the blame for various things that go wrong over the course of the book is placed at Ellie’s feet due to her fears, and it doesn’t always seem fair to me. At the end of the book, Ellie feels like the scapegoat for a lot of problems, particularly given that Jack omitted something super major in her own life. So I needed a little more balance here between Ellie finding her way, and Ellie’s fears being blamed for so many issues when others seemed to bear responsibility too.

Overall, I found this one really a lot of fun and just delightful. Cochrun gives us a great romantic comedy, with all the warmth, love, and hijinks that includes. I enjoyed the connection between Jack and Ellie, and I loved the side characters that round out the story. This is a great holiday book, but also just a really engaging story all around. Things end up in a great place for everyone and I love how Ellie ends up with a partner and a family who really values her.

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