Always and Forever is the second spin-off romance from Beverly Jenkins' 1997 novel, Topaz. (Last year’s The Taming of Jessi Rose is the other.) Always and Forever is the story of Jackson Blake and Grace Atwood. It tells what happens before, during and after Katherine and Dixon Wildhorse joined a wagon train bound for Kansas City in 1884.
Grace Prescott Atwood is a Chicago banker who has been asked by her cousin to assemble a group of nearly three dozen women who would be willing to come to Kansas to marry Black Civil War veterans who have established a colony there. The men are part of the Great Exodus to west Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado. Scores of Blacks fled the South and violence at the hands of white supremacist groups that came after the withdrawal of federal troops in the late 1870s.
Grace’s cousin wrote: ”We’ve built houses, cleared land and put in our first crops . . . many of the unmarried men wish to start families but lack the most necessary element - wives.” She agrees to the daunting task. Although the train would get them to Kansas faster, the realities of traveling Jim Crow would be too much for the women to face. Black railroad passengers were often forced to ride in baggage or livestock cars or put off the train in the middle of the night . . . in the middle of nowhere so the women will travel to Kansas by wagon train.
Grace is not looking for a husband for herself, but the trip comes at an ideal time. She was literally left at the altar an hour before the ceremony by a cad who threw over a banker for a woman with a bigger bankroll. As she leaves to make apologies to the guests, he asks “What about the gifts?” The trip west would give Grace a respite from the gossips in their circle.
When the wagon master she hired is killed in a tavern brawl, Grace must find a replacement quickly. Inquiries around town lead her to Jackson Blake who is staying in a local brothel. Their first meeting is a comic series of misunderstandings and banter. Grace enters his room at night and, assuming he is not there, stops to leave him a note. Jackson mistakes her for one of the working girls, tosses her on his bed and makes her an offer she promptly refuses by hitting him in the head with a purse full of rocks she has gathered for protection.
Jackson, a former Texas lawman, initially refuses her offer to lead the wagon train, but later relents as his head wounds heal and sparks begin to fly between the two of them. The relationship between Jackson and Grace progresses realistically, paced in part by the demands of their work leading the wagon train.
The novel provides an interesting look at preparation of the women who chose to make the journey. The 35 who were selected from a pool of nearly 70 learned to pitch camp, drive and maintain wagons, skin rabbits, and defend themselves before the journey began. Jenkins sketches in the distinct personalities of the women and how they work together as a team without detracting from the main characters’ story.
Always and Forever is classic Beverly Jenkins with the history of the period serving as a secondary character. As in all Jenkins’ work, a bibliography is included. Literature of the period is a welcome addition to Jenkins’ novel. A character reads William Wells Brown’s Clotel or The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, the first known full-length novel written by an African-American. (The 1853 novel is based on rumors about Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings.) There is also mention of Our Nig by Harriet Wilson, the first African-American novel published in the United States. Jackson Blake quotes poetry by George Moses Horton, the first African-American to publish a book in the South.
The Western format allows the author to give free reign to her sense of humor. Always and Forever is no exception. Grace’s maternal aunts Dahlia and Tulip are scene stealers.
Always and Forever is a spin-off of Topaz, but it is not necessary to read the first novel to enjoy this book. There are scenes from Topaz that explain the relationship between the Wildhorses and with Jackson and Grace. However, Topaz is my favorite Beverly Jenkins novel and I can’t miss a chance to recommend it! Always and Forever is a worthy successor to Topaz.