This book is good! I don’t know why I’m so surprised since everything Molly O’Keefe writes is magic, but I don’t like westerns, so I didn’t expect to love this one so much or, to be honest, to even read it. But I bought it on release day to support a favorite author, took a look at the first page, and didn’t put it down until I finished it.
Here’s the blurb so I don’t have to describe the plot:
Annie Denoe has fought hard for her independence. She has a new life and new freedom as the assistant to a doctor, and though she risks both propriety and her safety, she is determined to be happy in a life on her own.
Steven Baywood is trying to rebuild his shattered life, even though the ghosts of his harrowing stay in Andersonville prison still haunt him. He craves Annie and her quiet strength, but he can't give her the love she deserves. When a tragedy changes everything for Annie, can Steven find peace with his past in order to give Annie a future?
Annie and Steven are good friends who clearly love and are in love with each other. But Steven has PTSD product of his imprisonment in Andersonville from which he barely escaped alive (BTW, they don’t call it PTSD, in case you were going: wait, what?!). It’s been a few years since it, but, among other things, he can’t bear to be touched, which is an issue because Annie wants to have sex and he both feels and is unable to give her that. So physical intimacy, which in romance is often used to release the tension between the main characters, becomes the source of tension and conflict here.
But while they can’t touch, they are loving and caring friends who know and understand each other. The things they don’t know, they find the courage to talk about, and when one of them assumes too much and fails to communicate, the other cuts them no slack and actually lets them know about the hurt and anger their actions caused. Basically, she can’t touch his dick, but she sure can touch his soul! Just so we’re clear, I made the dick comment because 1. it would be an awesome pull quote, and you know it, and 2. to balance out the cheesiness of the soul part. But it’s true; they have a beautiful connection that they spend the whole book nurturing.
The narrative also acknowledges Steven's privilege and how his wealth makes it easier for him to cope with what he went through. It does this by introducing a minor character, a young man, who is nowhere near as lucky as Steven and most certainly has no happy ending. This was effective but also slightly uncomfortable for me to read, because this character isn’t there for himself but as a commentary about war, to say something about Steven, to say something to Annie, and to help bring those two together. It’s human tragedy as plot device and that’s something I always find dehumanizing regardless of how much I like the author. But Ms. O’Keefe is very talented, and this character always felt more person than plot vehicle, so what should have been manipulative ended up coming across as honest. It’s still problematic, sure, but handled more deftly.
It sounds like the book is all about Steven, but in truth it’s as much, if not more, about Annie. It’s about this woman actively working on her dreams and independence and just going for it. She has a club foot, so there’s the one “don’t look at me, I’m hideous” scene that made me roll my eyes, but other than that, I was completely charmed by her. She’s a bit of a departure from O’Keefe’s usual heroines in that she’s… I guess gentler is the best word I can come up with. She’s as amazing as her other heroines, though.
I’m off to read the first book!