The Doctor’s Homecoming
by Kate Bridges
(Harl. Historical #597, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-373-29197-3
A three-heart romance novel often reminds me of the old cliché about Chinese food - no matter how full you feel at the end of the meal, a couple of hours later you’re hungry again. A three-heart book, however enjoyable it is to consume, ultimately leaves me unsatisfied - I pick it up a couple of days later and spend a few minutes staring at the cover, trying to remember what the heck it was about.

Dr. Emma Sinclair, a newly minted doctor of medicine, is visiting her home in Pine Creek, a small town in the Montana Territory. It’s been sixteen years since she left and since she’s seen Wyatt Barlow, the man who broke her heart. She can’t help wondering if they’ll run into each other before she returns to Philadelphia for more medical training.

Her question is answered when, with the town doctor away, Emma is called to Wyatt’s ranch to attend his daughter who has gone into premature labor. The situation is even further tangled by the fact that the Barlows and Sinclairs have been feuding since Wyatt’s aunt was killed years ago by a runaway horse driven by Emma’s father - and by the fact that the father of young Melissa’s baby is Cole Sinclair, Emma’s younger brother.

Normally, you’d think that discovery of a teenage pregnancy in 1882 would be followed immediately by a shotgun wedding. In fact, the teenaged parents would love to get married, but Wyatt is not willing to give his daughter and grandson into the keeping of Cole Sinclair until he proves he’s mature enough to support them. Wyatt has had sole responsibility for raising his children since his wife died, and he’s not about to hand his beloved daughter over to some irresponsible young hothead.

Emma, though by no means blind to her brother’s faults, believes that the young lovers should be allowed to be together, helped along by the loving support of their families.

In spite of their disagreement on this issue, Emma and Wyatt find their youthful attraction to each other resurfacing. They can’t quite stay away from each other, although Emma is sure it’s a mistake to give her heart back to the man who said he didn’t love her so many years ago, and Wyatt is certain she’s going back to Philadelphia where she belongs.

This is, in fact, a quite well rounded book. If from the above description, it seems as though the romance takes a bit of a back seat to the family saga, I think that’s fair comment, but there are quite a few secondary characters, each of whom is distinctly and clearly rendered by the author. Even if they are not always likable, they jump off the page as real people with believable motivations and vivid conflicts. In fact, sometimes they’re more real than the hero and heroine, who are a fairly conventional romance couple.

The relationship grows nicely enough. Wyatt and Emma find it increasingly difficult to fight their feelings but cannot separate them from the conflicts that seethe around them.

They’re also keeping some pretty big secrets from each other. This is understandable for characters in the situation the author has created, but is still rather less than satisfying for the reader. I also wasn’t sure it was necessary. The family problems seemed to me as though they presented plenty of obstacles to the lovers - I wasn’t sure why we needed a Misunderstanding added to the mix. It didn’t heighten the tension, it just added a cliché.

In fact, while I can honestly say there were many things about the book I enjoyed while I was reading it, I think the reason it didn’t stick to my ribs was its essential lack of originality. Even though the characterizations were good, the characters always did exactly what I expected of them, leaving me with the feeling that I’d heard all this before.

The combination makes this book both difficult to recommend and hard to knock. My hope is that next time Ms. Bridges will put her energetic characters to work in the more original story they deserve. Now, that would be a meal worth eating.

--Judi McKee

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