The Best Laid Plans (Harlequin Super Romance)

The Best Laid Plans - Sarah Mayberry Sarah Mayberry is a favorite author of mine and I had already planned to buy the book when Tell Harlequin surprised me with a free copy to read for a market research survey. To say it was a pleasant surprise would be an understatement. Melbourne attorney Alexandra Knight is not having a great morning. She has a client appointment first thing, a hole in her stockings and a run-in with her ex-boyfriend - who's wrestling a baby and carriage into a car a mere 18 months after ending their seven-year live-in relationship over a refusal to have children. Now 38 and still single, Alex's anger at being childless soon turns to panicked desperation when her doctor gives her the lowdown on her dwindling chances of conception. Facing the possibility of never having a family of her own, something she's always wanted, finally brings her to break down in tears in front of Ethan Stone, a co-worker she plays racquetball with but otherwise maintains a professional friendship with.Ethan may cultivate a ladies' man appearance and shun marriage after his extremely ugly divorce, but he's moved by Alex's pained confession. As he's comforting her, he admits to himself that he's in a similar situation. Now 42, divorced and bitterly opposed to commitment, he also laments his lost chance at parenthood. Though he dotes on his younger brother's boys and delights in being the best uncle ever, he wishes he could've had what his brother has. When he finds out about Alex's plan to conceive via sperm donor, he sees an opportunity to possibly parent a child without entering into a relationship that would ultimately just fall apart.The book's strength is in its characters. Declining fertility, ticking biological clocks, fear of commitment, fertility ethics - all of these are rather weighty issues that could easily have bogged the book down if the characters were not as strong as they were. Instead, the characters drive the plot with a firm hand. They own the issues, leaving the story to be about them, their insecurities, strengths and struggles, rather than leaving them mere riders on the weighty topic bus.Both characters are deep and nuanced. Alex's desire for the picket fenced fantasy is more than just a ticking clock. It's born out of her difficult childhood and her careful personality as well. Ethan's aversion to commitment and re-marriage is due as much to his divorce as it is to his deeply loyal personality and his work as a divorce and family lawyer. Both struggle deeply with their insecurities and Mayberry lets us see their struggles - even going so far as to show Ethan physically ill and in tears as he wars with himself over Alex. At no point are their problems treated facilely. But neither does the angst and conflict overshadow the romance. Though their HEA and any open acknowledgement of their mutual attraction comes late in the story, Mayberry spends the time early in the story establishing their connection. They tease each other good-naturedly on the racquetball court, laugh easily together over one of Ethan's elaborately cooked meals, and comfort each other through the baby drama. She shows us that they're good friends above all, so it's easy to imagine their taking life's curveballs in stride.Like the other books I've read by this author, this is a book about two fully-fleshed characters navigating their own inner conflicts. The plot serves to highlight their personalities, motivations and actions, not the other way around. I'd recommend this book unreservedly to those who like meatier, character-focused books with a slow-burning romance. It's not a quick, fluffy, escapist sort of read, but I had a hard time putting it down all the same.