Branna learned long ago not to form emotional attachments, so after three years of high school in Lake Howling, she took off for college and never looked back. In the years since, Branna has stayed in touch with only one person, a kindly old neighbor who provided the only real support and stability that Branna ever knew. But now Georgie's passed away, leaving Branna her house and beloved vintage Mustang, and Branna finds herself returning to the town she never intended to see again.
Jake was the boy everyone wanted to be back in high school. Fun, popular, and surrounded by friends, it seemed almost guaranteed that the future was his to take. But war has a way of changing people, and after a traumatic stint in combat, he's ditched his medical license for odd jobs as a mechanic and spends his nights fighting his way out of the battles in his mind. Lake Howling is the town that raised him and believed in him, but the golden boy he once was is long since dead.
But... Why doesn't Branna, supposedly once a college-level English professor, have enough knowledge of the language to school Mikey on the proper use of ain't rather than incorrectly tell him it's not a word? I might not have expected her to know which century saw it change spelling from an't to ain't, but I can't imagine the advanced degree necessary to teach English at that level would have neglected any study of the language's rather recent history. With that limited knowledge, I could have believed she was a third-grade teacher, but I'm not sold on her being a professor of English.
The Verdict: A Promise of Home wasn't exactly what I expected, and that's a very good thing. Unlike most stories in which the central pair are reunited after brief adolescent relationships, pointless feuds, or secret crushes on each other, Branna and Jake have a different connection. Distant and detached in high school, Branna never really responded to Jake's few attempts at friendship, and Jake never really gave it much thought. But now that life has kicked him around a bit as well, he's just as wounded by the past as she is, and their issues are what lead to their better understanding each other.
Their small town plays almost as big of a character in the story as Branna and Jake do, and it's pretty authentic. It does include the requisite town grapevine, inability to remain invisible, and tendency of the locals to get into each other's business. However, it avoids becoming the ridiculous cliche I find in most books set in such a place, and it made each scene less predictable and more interesting. As it turns out, Branna's disconnection from the town is mostly in her own mind, and soon enough she begins to feel that she's not only accepted but welcomed. And as much as Jake wishes he could just fade away into the background, the town cares about him too much to let him destroy himself.
Most interesting, though, is the dynamic between them. While they don't loathe each other, they really have no interest in each other at first. Sure, they each notice how attractive the other is, but they have no intentions of acting upon it. Fortunately, happenstance keeps placing them in each other's way, despite their best efforts to keep their guards up, and both Branna and Jake seem to subconsciously recognize a fellow wounded soul. Watching them begin to accept that something more is growing between them was half the fun!
It's difficult to describe what makes this romance so different from the others I read without giving away some refreshingly surprising turns in the story. It's not the plot or the characters or the dialogue… I think it's just something in Wendy Vella's writing that stands out. The story is serious and emotional without being overly angsty, the characters' interactions are both funny and moving, and the pace is quick without ever feeling rushed. There's an authenticity in their actions and words, not to mention the presence of everyone else in town, that really struck me, and even as I grew frustrated with Branna and Jake's issues putting their pasts behind them, I found myself agreeing that their experiences justified their shared reluctance to take a new risk. A Promise of Home is certainly a pleasant surprise in an otherwise cookie-cutter genre.
***FicCentral received this book from The Romance Reviews for free in exchange for an honest review.