Unforgiven

 
Unforsaken by Lisa Higdon
(Zebra, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-8217-6660-0
****
She had me at the prologue. Lisa Higdon's latest novel, which takes place in the Reconstructionist South, is not to be missed.

Olivia Chandler rushes to the train station to wait for her beloved fiancÚ Matt to emerge from the passenger car. He has been away fighting in the Civil War and now, at long last, he is scheduled to come home. Olivia has been in love with Matt all of her life and cannot bear to wait even another moment to marry him. Giddy with excitement to be reunited, she rushes toward him the moment she spots him, holding out her hands to welcome him. Matt does not reach back. A moment later, when a very pregnant woman steps off the train and sidles up next to him, Olivia realizes why. Matt is married to someone else. Heartbroken, she runs from the depot, never once looking back...

Matthew Bowen is stunned to see Olivia at the train station. He's always loved her and curses the fates that kept him from receiving the letter she'd sent to him, announcing the death of her father, a wealthy, mean-spirited man who wouldn't let Matt within a foot of his daughter. Thinking he'd never be permitted to have Olivia's hand in marriage, Matt had gone out and done something stupid while at war, seeking solace in another woman's arms for a night. That night had resulted in the conception of his daughter, leaving him no alternative but to do the honorable thing. Still, he knew he'd always love Olivia Chandler...

A few years later, Matt's wife dies and he is faced with the daunting task of raising his young daughter Sarah alone while singlehandedly working his fields. Olivia's aunt Eula sees this as the perfect opportunity to bring the couple back together again, so she offers to take care of Sarah for Matt while he works, then pushes the task onto her less than willing niece. Aunt Eula hopes her plan will work, for it will take nothing short of a miracle to melt the ice around Olivia's cool facade and turn her back into the hopeful young girl she had been before her dreams had been shattered and she had evolved into a bitter, hard-hearted woman...

Lisa Higdon knows how to pen a realistic character. Had most authors written this storyline, Olivia's ice would have immediately melted upon seeing the motherless little girl because romantic heroines tend toward the self-effacing, holier than thou when in situations such as these. Not Olivia Chandler. She is a wealthy, bitter, aging Scrooge that never fails to fascinate. You gotta love her.

In romance novels of every genre, whenever a child is brought into the mix, it is typically the hero that is slowly brought around by the young one until finally his reticence is defeated by love. It is a delight to read about the same scenario, but featuring an embittered heroine for a change. Lisa Higdon progressed Olivia's eventual surrender in a realistic, well-paced way that doesn't leave the reader feeling as though the cracking of the heroine's icy demeanor was either too rushed or too long in coming. In a few words, Ms. Higdon has perfect timing.

The only thing that kept Unforsaken from a five heart rating is the abrupt ending. I found myself craving an epilogue in the worst way, wanting just a bit more reassurance that everything was bliss in romance land. Yes, the hero and the heroine end up together (else it wouldn't be a romance), but another few pages of happily-ever-after would have gone a long way.

Nevertheless, Unforsaken is a solid 4heart read. Lisa Higdon is relatively new as authors go, but an up and coming one well worth keeping an eye on. She knows how to draw you in, but just as crucially, she knows how to keep your attention. The book is worth reading for the protagonists alone...Matthew is a strong, lovable hero and Olivia quickly became one of my favorite heroines ever penned.

--Tina Engler


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