Once and For All by Cheryl Etchison

This RITA® Reader Challenge 2017 review was written by JayneH. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the Best First Book, Mid-Length Contemporary category.

The summary:

The Rangers of the 1st/75th fight hard, train hard and play hard. They are physically strong and mentally tough, disciplined and courageous. But all their military training hasn’t prepared them for falling in love.

Rule #1: Military and matrimony don’t mix.

But if there’s one person Staff Sergeant Danny MacGregor would break all his rules for, it’s Bree—his first friend, first love, first everything. Maybe he likes playing the hero. Maybe he’s trying to ease ten years of guilt. Either way, he’ll do whatever he can to help her.

Wish #1: A little bit of normal.

Bree Dunbar has battled cancer, twice. What she wants most is a fresh start in a place where she can find a new job, and where people aren’t constantly treating her like she’s sick. By some miracle her wish is granted, but it comes with one major string attached— the man who broke her heart ten years before.

The rules for this marriage of convenience are simple: when she’s ready to stand on her own two feet, she’ll walk away and he’ll let her go. Only, as they both know all too well, things don’t always go according to plan…

Here is JayneH’s review:

Cute but frustrating.

Aubrey (Bree) Dunbar and Daniel (Danny) MacGregor were childhood sweethearts. With their parents living across the street from each other, it’s the idyllic hometown romance. After graduating high school they head off to college together, with Danny on a baseball scholarship. At the end of their Freshman year Danny flunks out and loses his scholarship. Danny’s way to solve the “what happens now?” problem is to enlist in the Army; unfortunately he doesn’t tell Bree this and leaves without telling her. She finds out from his roommate and is devastated.

Fast forward 10 years. Bree is back in her South Carolina hometown after getting the all clear from her second round of fighting cancer. She’s living with her parents, back in her old room, without a job, without a boyfriend, and without direction. The only thing she’s feeling, besides lucky, is suffocated by her well-meaning but hovering parents.

Danny is visiting his father on leave for a couple of weeks, along with his brother Michael, who happens to serve in the same Army Ranger division as the unit doctor.

Danny and Bree run into each other at the grocery store for the first time in 10 years. Danny is obviously surprised and perplexed at the version of Bree in front of him, wearing an ugly assed hat, with thinning hair and seeming frail, so unlike the lively, boisterous girl he knew all those years ago. Danny has known nothing about either of Bree’s battles & victories with cancer, because Bree had asked both Michael & his father not mention it to Danny, possibly in retaliation for him running out on her all those years ago.

And here’s where we enter somewhat eye rolling territory: Danny hears the story about how Bree lost her job after her first battle with cancer. We have to extrapolate from the story that she maintains her insurance coverage because she fights her second bout with cancer whilst unemployed.

Now her savings are running low, and when she’s looking for a new job, she’s struggling because, “companies take one look at me and see their insurance rates skyrocketing.”

So what does our hero do when he sees Bree struggling to move forward? Propose!! Lookey: all the lovely medical insurance as a military spouse, freedom from well meaning parents, and a fresh start in Savannah GA. Don’t worry! It’s a marriage of convenience! Get yourself settled, live in Danny’s off-post house, continue getting well and find a new job, then we can get divorced! Everything will be rosy, but it has to be done before Danny goes back to base in a week. Tick Tock.

Now, marriage of convenience is one of my favourite tropes and as a British expat, American Healthcare Conundrums (Death or Bankruptcy) addle my brain. However, I struggled to buy into the necessity of marriage resolving all these things, but what the hell, I’m prepared to roll with this one for now.

Bree looks at the marriage as a form of escape for herself and her parents. After telling her mom about the proposal:

Grabbing up a dish towel from near the stove, her mother wiped down the counter then slumped onto her bar stool. She closed her eyes in exhaustion as if the conversation had physically drained her. For the first time in a long time, Bree saw her. Really saw her. Her mother, who was still young and vibrant, looked so very tired. The dark shadows under her eyes. Her hair in need of a good color. Nails in need of a good manicure. Clothes that were a little worn and out of style. It wasn’t just Bree who’d suffered financially and emotionally all these years. Her parents had taken a hit, as well. She couldn’t remember the last time they took a vacation, something her parents had done regularly until her first diagnosis. What Danny didn’t realize when he proposed marriage was that he’d be helping them as much as her.

What I really truly struggled with was the lack of communication between Bree and Danny throughout the story. They’re both pretty juvenile emotionally. The life lessons and emotional growth you think they would have picked up given their circumstances, fighting war and fighting cancer, just don’t seem to have happened.

Bree doesn’t ask Danny why he left to the point of almost shrugging it off, and Danny doesn’t explain why he left. Danny’s all smirky smiles and “let me solve your problems for you”. He views helping Bree out as a penance for his desertion.

Bree doesn’t talk about her cancer except to say:

Every time I go out I run into someone who wants a full medical history because they want to compare my treatment to their cousin’s next door neighbor’s sister’s treatment. Even worse is when someone’s read some crap on the internet and becomes a self-proclaimed expert and starts telling me I should be eating this or doing that. I swear it won’t be cancer that kills me. It’ll be everything else. I’m ready to move on with my life and here people want to treat me like I’m sick.

Danny takes that as “don’t ask me about it” because it’s not until way, way, way, further in the book he even broaches the subject. Considering his mom died of cancer when he was five, I’d think this hung heavier on his mind than most.

They don’t talk about how they’re gonna play things when they get to Savannah. Except for she gets the bed of course and he’ll take the couch. They don’t talk about THE SECOND BEDROOM THAT NO-ONE THINKS TO GET A BED FOR!!!! Weeks of couch sleeping, except for when Danny’s off training, but no trips to Ashley Furniture!

They don’t discuss how they really don’t know each other after not talking for 10 years. There’s no catching up, no discussion about past relationships, nothing. I made more small talk with strangers in line at RT than these two former sweethearts do.

Most of the second two quarters of the book are Bree and Danny circling each other as they sorta become friends. Danny cycles between being touchy feely in public and standoffish in private, but so does Bree. It’s enough to give you whiplash at times, but probably because they are confused by their own feelings for each other. For the past 10 years Danny’s been a “player” (of course he has. We can’t have our hero being in previous romantic relationships; he has to remain emotionally unavailable until our heroine comes back into his life).

Neither of them pulls the trigger on a “WTF are we doing” conversation. Seems like they are capable of having feelings, just no thoughts about those feeling and definitely no conversations about those feelings.

Instead they end up in bed together because the touchy feely has to have an outlet. From a flashback to when they lost their virginity to each other as teens (aww) we get a sense that they were more emotionally adept as teenagers than they are as adults. But still we remain in a “this is just sex, right?” scenario, with neither of them admitting that there are feelings too and that this has transitioned into something else.

The last quarter of the book is where we have the ‘missed opportunity’ and the payoff. Danny plans a romantic weekend away where he’s going to propose properly and for “real” this time, because HE HAS FEELINGS! Unfortunately he gets called back to base before he can get down on one knee. He can’t tell Bree where he’s going or when he’ll be back, at which point she tells him she’s not sure she’ll be there when he does return.

PUMP THE BRAKES SISTER!! Turns out Bree’s followed the plan all along and been looking for a job with all those lovely healthcare benefits and using her degree. Problem is the job is hours away in Greensboro, North Carolina and if she wants it, she has to be there by the end of the month. Danny saunters off to war with his smirky smirk and a request that she doesn’t do anything about the divorce so that she’ll get survivor benefits.

“Good luck in North Carolina, Dunbar. Kick some ass up there.” And then that trademark smile appeared like a ray of sunshine, the rarely seen dimple creasing his cheek. “Just so you know,” he called to her, “you’ll always be my favorite wife.” With one last wink, he turned and walked away, not bothering to look back.

If you can’t guess what happens next, y’all need to read more romance. After a couple weeks in sandbox hell, Danny gets critically injured and isflown first to Landstuhl, Germany and then stateside to Walter Reed Hospital. He’s now missing a kidney and a part of his small intestine, but overall he’ll be fine. So finally, FINALLY they have a two sentence conversation where they admit they love each other. HAPPY ENDING ensues.

Despite the frustration about the overt lack of communication and the mystery of the second bedroom, this was a sweet romance with low angst. It’s a lightweight read, and a nice start to the series. There are two more books so far: the 2nd book is out and features one of Danny’s teammates, and the 3rd book released May 23rd. I’ve read the second book and preferred it to this one. It’s a standalone , too. I’ve also pre-ordered the third, which is Danny’s brother’s story. Personally, I hated him a little in Danny/Bree’s story, which makes me excited for Michael’s story. Redeem him please!

Once and For All is a finalist for two RITAs: Best First Book and Best Contemporary Romance: Mid Length. It’s a good first book, though I’m not sure I’d rate it as highly for Mid length Contemporary Romance. It’s a solid B-. Maybe if it were longer we could have some of the issues fleshed out more, but it did its job.

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Once and For All by Cheryl Etchison

May 24, 2016

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