Shades of Honor by Wendy Lindstrom
(St Martin’s, $6.50, PG) ISBN 0-312-9823 -6
****
Newcomer Wendy Lindstrom explores different forms of love in Shades of Honor. Set in Fredonia, New York in 1870, this is a glimpse into the lives of three people struggling to cope with the feelings and events that threaten to tear them apart. The story of this unfortunate love triangle stands out because of the author’s ability to generate sympathy for all of the characters. Lindstrom cleverly makes readers believe it all and care about everyone involved - this is a fine debut novel.

Evelyn Tucker has it rough. Her mother is long dead and her father is injured by war, so Evelyn is left to sweat it out in the family livery on her own. Evelyn feels very inferior to the local womenfolk because she wears men’s clothes and has little time to acquire the more genteel skills. Evelyn, a true innocent, wants some security in her life.

She finds herself engaged to marry Kyle Grayson, her best friend, whose family has been neighbors of the Tuckers for years. His older brother Radford went off to fight in the Civil War, leaving Kyle next in line to run the family lumber mill. Kyle is driven to get ahead, and since his father’s death he focuses exclusively on the mill. Kyle wants Evelyn because both the livery and his best friend seem like good bets for the future.

Veteran Radford Grayson is the prodigal son. His brief affair with a ballet dancer has left him emotionally spent and in charge of a young daughter, Rebecca. Radford is plagued by horrible images of the war, guilt about his family obligations and regret over Rebecca’s mother leaving her. He is returning to Fredonia for Rebecca’s sake, and finally feels ready to take his place as equal partner in the mill. Unfortunately, it’s not going to be easy.

Evelyn’s father, William, served with Radford in the war. They share a close bond and William is glad to have him home, as are Radford’s mother and other brothers, Duke and Boyd. Evelyn feels an attraction for Radford that confuses her and raises questions about her feelings for Kyle. She fixates on Radford right away, noticing everything about his body, voice, smell. She admires and loves Kyle but has never physically desired him, and he hardly seems to notice her as a woman.

Kyle is not happy to have Radford around. He doesn’t trust Radford to stay but also feels threatened by the thought that he will stay, leaving Kyle to play second fiddle. The fact that readers can remain sympathetic to Kyle is a credit to the author. He seems intractable yet vulnerable, a victim of circumstance like everyone else. He’s never placed in the role of villain, which is very refreshing.

Kyle puts Radford to work helping Evelyn with the livery, to keep him away from the mill. Radford and Rebecca even move in with the Tuckers, and soon Evelyn and Rebecca hit it off. Rebecca wants Evelyn to be her mama. Radford wishes Evelyn could be Rebecca’s mama, too. He succumbs to Evelyn’s beauty and strength of character, but he never loses sight of the fact that she is Kyle’s fiancée.

The subtly romantic love scenes are quite effective. In one of these, Radford is deep ‘in his cups’ and begins to describe Evelyn while she listens:

“He leaned his head against the wall and closed his eyes. He spoke slowly and so softly that Evelyn had to move closer to hear him. ‘Her hair is the color of midnight in February. It’s the kind that makes a man want to feel it on his face.’ He cupped his hands as though he was holding something precious and fragile and slowly raised them to his face. He smoothed his palms across his cheeks then sighed in disappointment. ‘ I like her hair,’ he whispered, and Evelyn felt the caress as surely as if he’d touched her.”

Reading passages like that made me fixate a little myself. I could see why Evelyn might want Radford around the house.

The whole ‘love triangle thing’ in plots sometimes drives me crazy. If any one of the characters would just have the sense to leave, it would eliminate the problem and do us all a favor. Somehow this book avoids that pitfall. The emotions and moral obligations of these characters are very clear, and they all had good reasons for staying put.

Something that rankled a bit was that while the youngest brother, Boyd, was at least sketchily developed, the lawman brother, Duke, was strictly a prop in his scenes. Why have him there at all? There is also a ridiculous exchange in which Evelyn explains to Radford that he should be thankful to have pieces of shrapnel imbedded in his skin instead of the pesky moles she sports on hers. What’s she thinking there?

But the little things did not hamper my enjoyment of Shades of Honor. It’s a satisfying read and I would appreciate seeing more of those “wicked handsome” Grayson brothers, too. I’m banking on at least one sequel. Brava for a job well done.

--Deann Carpenter


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