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Forever After by Catherine Anderson
(Avon, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-380-79104-8
****
Contemporary romance fans take gleeful note Catherine Anderson has come over to "our side," at least temporarily. After several well-received recent historicals, this skilful author has used her talent for creating memorable characters to produce a powerful contemporary novel.

Heath Masters, sheriff of a small Oregon town, and his retired police dog Goliath slowly become the protectors of their new neighbors. Meredith Kenyon and her young daughter Sammy are at first terrified, then wary, then reluctantly attached to this unusual pair. Meredith is trying to make a new life for herself after escaping an abusive relationship and she can't afford to trust Heath, despite his offers of assistance. But Heath is so charming and honorable that she lets him get closer and closer, until her situation reaches a crisis, causing Heath to choose between his duty and his emotions.

Heath is one of the strongest heroes I've encountered this year. He's haunted by a youthful tragedy that has left him racked with guilt, but he's no tortured dark hero. He has a sly sense of humor that appears at even the most dramatic moments, and he's willing to open up his past to Meredith and give her time to overcome her own demons. His law enforcement campaign against teen drinking and driving is vitally important to him, but he sacrifices his career to save Meredith and Sammy. A rancher at heart, the thing he angers him the most as he fights off three villains at once is the loss of his Stetson!

Dog lovers will appreciate Goliath, the Rottweiler who has an almost psychic connection to Sammy. This dog has more personality than most heroes and heroines I've encountered lately.

In comparison to Heath and Goliath, Meredith comes off looking a little wispy. While I could admire the actions she had taken to protect her daughter, she never came alive for me the way the male characters did, and I wanted her to take a more active role in dispensing of the bad guys. But, as Heath mentions several times, he is the one who "wears the pants in the family" (he's a bit of a chauvinist but if you like alpha males you can easily forgive him).

Throughout the novel, Anderson writes with a skillful combination of humor and pathos that keeps the reader emotionally involved right through to the fairytale ending. Though the plot is not an original one, Heath and Goliath make the story special. I do have one quibble immediately after Meredith finally tells Heath her painful saga, which includes the most gruesome sexual abuse I have ever heard, she is transformed into an insatiable sex goddess. The switch from horror to arousal in just ten pages is rather abrupt and hard to believe. And for a man who has otherwise been so understanding, it is less than tasteful when Heath cheerfully tells Meredith he's going to "rape your sweet ass" during their otherwise poignant reunion.

Despite these few jarring notes, Forever After is a sweet song of a novel. Thank you, Ms. Anderson, for restoring my faith in contemporary romance.

--Susan Scribner


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