What Matters Most by Winnie Griggs
(Leisure, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-843-94829-9
****
Lucy Ames and her son Toby are on their way to pick berries one day when they spy a man being beaten by the town thugs. Lucy forces them off with a pistol she has handy, and then must decide to do with the injured man. He can barely move, but taking him to her house to rest and heal seems to be the only course open. Little does Lucy realize that her simple act of kindness will change her life.

Reed Wilder has come to the town of Far Enough, Texas, to find the trashy harlot who bore his late brother a son and ran off with a valuable family ring. Reed is determined to recover the ring and take the boy back East to be raised in a proper environment. One thing is for sure. As soon as he finds this Lucy Ames, she'll be sorry she ever tangled with the Wilder family.

Lucy spies her name among some papers in Reed's saddlebags, but has no wish to pry. Eventually he'll tell her why he's looking for her, and in the meantime, she'll help him get back on his feet. This may seem like a simpleminded way of dealing with this new knowledge, but Lucy has her reasons. Reed, for his part, is too weak at first to ask many questions. When he does discover Lucy's identity, he feels so indebted to her that offering to help out with chores and repairs for two weeks seems like it will serve two purposes: he can pay off the debt he feels he owes Lucy, and at the same time, get to know more about her. For Lucy is not at all what Reed expected to find.

Lucy has her share of problems. She's basically alone in the world, except for her adored son, Toby. The townspeople believe Toby is illegitimate. A local storekeeper wants to force her into marriage with him. Now here comes this handsome stranger who appears to be looking for her. Can she trust him with the truth?

Winnie Griggs' debut romance is sweet and emotional, with two lead characters who are more lovable for their flaws. Reed is the perfect example of a man who may be doing all the right things for all the wrong reasons, and Lucy's determination to shield Toby make her shun the possibilities opening up under her nose. As they dance around the truth, readers may feel a bit exasperated that these two don't just sit down and hash things out.

However, the sparks between these two feel plenty hot. Reed's struggle to push himself away from the woman he has come to desire and love is almost poignant, and Lucy's tentative advances have a wistful quality. Her portrayal of a woman who has denied herself any kind of romantic entanglement for so long that she's almost forgotten what it's all about will strike readers as very touching, indeed.

The action shifts from Texas to the East as we find out about Reed's family and his late brother's widow. It soon becomes obvious that things are not on the up-and-up, but readers may be hard-pressed to figure it out. The ending is intriguing in its complexity. Finally all Lucy's actions make sense. This was clever plotting, indeed.

Solidly written, with carefully-drawn characters and a plot twist or two to keep you on your toes, What Matters Most is a charming first novel. Winnie Griggs is off to an excellent start.

--Cathy Sova


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