|Rosa Lee Altman, daughter of one of Clifton Creek's founding families, has bequeathed her house and rose gardens to the small Texas town. Boarded up and empty, the house itself is of little value, but it sits on lucrative oil fields. While making no promise to preserve the house, several companies are bidding for it. History professor Sidney Dickerson believes it has secrets to be told. More for personal reasons than professional ones, she is determined to uncover its story. So although the mayor feels the town can't afford to lose this new economic opportunity, he appoints a committee to determine what to do with it.
The members are a rather mismatched group. Micah Parker, an associate minister at a local church, is a grieving widower and a single parent. Lora Whitman is a twenty-five-year-old former prom queen, now back in town after a broken marriage to work at her father's car dealership and to live with her controlling mother. Billy Hatcher, who remembers Lora from her cheerleading days, is the town delinquent trying to go straight. Two quirky elderly sisters, who sneak around stealing roses and engaging in barroom brawls, add color to the motley crew.
With the exception of Sidney, none of them are really interested in the house. She piques their interest with a picture and an inscription in a book, both of which strongly hint at a love gone wrong. Then, when someone throws something through the window, interrupting their first meeting and sending one of them to hospital, they are convinced that there may be something more to the house after all. They band forces together to find out what it is and, in the process, come to know each other.
The slow unveiling of Rosa Lee's secrets is interwoven into the development of three love stories which confirm the old adage that opposites attracts. Sidney Dickerson, who at forty-something thinks she is too old and too dowdy to attract male interest, is paired with a somewhat playboyish oil company man. Micah finds solace with Randi Howard, the owner of the town saloon. (Fans of Thomas's Widows of Wichita County might be interested in knowing that she is one of several characters to find a minor role here). Lora rejects her matchmaking mother's attempts to pair her off with the son of the one of the local bigwigs and turns to Billy instead.
I found the story of this unlikely friendship that soon becomes something else both the most convincing and the most moving of the many romances. I was much less persuaded by the interaction between Sidney and Sloan McCormick, the oil man. He has non-altruistic motives in striking up a friendship with her, and although he quickly sets them aside, it is never really made clear why he is willing to give up his work for a woman he has only just met. (Yes, yes, I have heard about true love, soul mates and all that, but even we romance readers can only willingly suspend so much disbelief.)
A similar problem plagues the unifying plot. The resolution is somewhat rapid given the rather convoluted secrets Rosa Lee and her house hide, and the violent acts of the beginning of the book are forgiven a bit too quickly. But thanks to the resonant prose and a cast of characters who are distinctive and fully drawn, readers will be completely drawn into the inner conflicts. A story about relationships and friendships that are forged despite social differences, The Secrets of Rosa Lee has most of the ingredients for a strong, satisfying and emotional read.