Annie's Song

Baby Love

Cherish

Forever After

Keegan's Lady

Phantom Waltz

Seventh Heaven

Simply Love

 
Sweet Nothings by Catherine Anderson
(Onyx, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-451-41015-7
****
Molly Wells is on the run from her ex-husband, and beside her emotional baggage, she’s also towing a horse trailer with a fractious, frightened stallion in it. The horse has been whipped bloody by her ex, Rodney. Jake Coulter, who is rumored to have a magical touch with horses, may be her only chance to save the animal she’s impulsively stolen.

Molly has a lot of pain to overcome. Her ten-year marriage was full of verbal abuse; years of being called a “fat cow” by Rodney have left their mark and her self-esteem is nearly in negative range. Plus, once she finds Jake, she can’t afford his fees to calm the horse. Jake’s instincts kick into overdrive upon meeting Molly, however, and he finds himself impulsively offering her a position on his ranch as cook and housekeeper. Molly, needing a place to hide, tentatively accepts.

The biggest secret Molly keeps hidden is her former incarceration in a mental institution, thanks to druggings by Rodney and her stepmother, Claudia. Rodney has managed to gain power of attorney over Molly. Molly is sure that Rodney was responsible for the death of her father, but has no proof. Her divorce from Rodney while incarcerated has been her only victory to this point.

Jake Coulter is certain that Molly has stolen the horse, and confronts her early on. He’s drawn to her in ways he doesn’t expect, because petite, plump Molly isn’t his usual type of female companion. All his protective instincts go on high alert. Soon he finds he can’t keep his mind off her, and Molly is just as attracted - and uncertain. Surely this handsome rancher couldn’t possibly be interested in an overweight, dowdy nobody. It will be up to Jake to help convince Molly how beautiful she is.

Catherine Anderson excels at stories of wounded souls, and Molly fits the bill. Her gradual re-creation of the Molly she wants to be is gut-wrenchingly honest, and the story is marked by her small victories as she establishes herself. Molly sheds her past in layers. First the hair goes. Then the clothes. With each step, Rodney’s control over her peels away, and eventually Molly is free to love whom she chooses and defend her new life.

Jake Coulter is a fun hero in that he falls like a ton of bricks, spends a short while in denial, and then admits to all and sundry that he loves this woman. Wholly, completely, and unexpectedly. Now the chase is on.

At times, Molly seemed a hair on the dim side. She feeds the ranch hands minuscule meals full of fat-free this and low-cholesterol that, and to protect her, Jake doesn’t enlighten her that they are going hungry and eating peanut butter sandwiches at four in the morning. This felt unnecessary, almost enabling. A simple, “That was a great meal, next time make twice as much because they loved it” would have avoided what felt like a forced issue. But Jake doesn’t want to hurt Molly’s feeling because her ex has done so much of that, so he stays silent. I guess I wanted her to have the opportunity to find her backbone at that point. Others will feel differently.

But the sexual tension between these two is plenty steamy. Molly sees herself as dowdy and fat. Jake sees her as lush and hot. When their first kiss sends Jake nearly out of control, readers will grin. And when the inevitable happens and Molly retreats into uncertainty, Jake’s refusal to let her will keep the smile in place.

The epilogue felt pat and forced in one respect, and that has to do with the resolution of Molly’s relationship with her stepmother. It came across as false, probably because the role of Claudia was vague. She’s a doctor whose testimony helped land Molly in a mental clinic. But her professed love for Molly and their long relationship contradicts this and it’s not really explained how she could let it happen with no intervention or questioning. Then at the end, everything is neatly wrapped up. Didn’t work for me.

Epilogue aside, the romance at the center of Sweet Nothings is sweet, indeed. Catherine Anderson has penned a delicious follow-up to last year’s Phantom Waltz. Let’s hope she has plans up her sleeve for more of the Coulter brothers.

--Cathy Sova


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