REVIEW: A Touch of Flame by Jo Goodman
Dr. E. Ridley Woodhouse is like no physician Ben Madison has ever met–she’s a woman. As the newly elected sheriff of Frost Falls, Colorado, Ben is tasked with welcoming Ridley to the community. But while Ben might be tempted by the new doc’s charms, getting the town to accept a big-city, female doctor is no easy feat. To earn their trust she’ll have to prove herself and Ben determines to help her…even if she’s the most stubborn woman he’s ever met.
When the husband of one of Ridley’s patients threatens her, forbidding Ridley from treating his wife or children, all of Ben’s protective instincts kick in. Ridley has come to rely on Ben’s steady presence and the delicious tension that simmers just below the surface of their easy friendship–but as much as she trusts that his warnings to steer clear of Jeremiah Salt are sincere, she’s never been one to back down from a challenge and she refuses to abandon her patient.
But sticking to your guns can earn you trouble in the rough terrain of the Wild West and danger threatens Ridley from unexpected places, forcing Ben to confront his deepest fear in order to save the woman he loves.
Dear Ms. Goodman,
It’s six years after “A Touch of Frost,” and it’s almost the end of the century. Things are changing in the world and the western town of Frost Falls is about to get a taste of things to come. Their long established Doc has left and a new doctor, trained in Boston, is about to arrive. The townspeople are in for – well, you might say a big surprise.
The question she had not wanted to ask directly finally came out in a single burst of sound. “Did he tell you that I was a woman?”
Ben took a moment to study her. He blinked, met her eyes through the glass shield of her spectacles, and pushed all carnal thought to that mysterious part of his brain where he stored information about square roots and conjugating Latin verbs. “No,” he said finally. “Doc didn’t mention it. He probably figured I would be able to work that out on my own.”
“I suppose you think you’re clever,” Ridley said, and the way she said it left no doubt that she held a very different opinion.
“Clever?” he asked. “No. I guess I don’t. Just about anyone seeing you step off the train would have recognized you straightaway as a woman. Maybe Waite Givens would have had a little trouble, but that’s because he has to squint something fierce to see past the end of his own nose.”
Ben Madison has been asked by Doc to meet and greet the new arrival. Who he discovers on the train platform startles Ben as much as anyone else. Still Ben’s no idiot and the fact that the doctor is a woman is immediately obvious. Dr. E. Ridley Woodhouse (her middle name is her mother’s maiden name so it’s not as outlandish as it first might appear) comes off as a bit stiff and formal so once he gets over his initial astonishment, Ben teases her a little as he drives her to her new house. After he discovers what’s tucked into her medical books, Ben can’t resist pouring a little more vexation on E. Ridley about the choice of her light reading material.
He picked up the first book that caught his eye and examined the lurid cover, which featured a young woman wearing a diaphanous night shift and an extravagantly large hat with more feathers than an ostrich. The feathers dipped low because she was artfully poised in a swoon over the manly arm of a gentleman scoundrel. Ben read the title aloud. “Felicity Ravenwood Tames the Beast.” Arching an eyebrow in dramatic fashion, he turned to Ridley. “Medical reference book?”
Ridley has never been out west so everything is new to her but she lands on her feet and, along with Ben’s help with introductions, begins to settle into her new position. Beyond the fact that she’s a woman, she knows it will be an uphill climb to try and replace their beloved doctor. But being a doctor is all Ridley’s ever wanted to be and to make it through medical school and her training, she’s faced tougher odds and treatment from her fellow students and medical staff meant to break her spirit. That, she tells Ben, is what is behind her initial reserve.
After their slightly rocky beginning, Ridley and Ben settle into a comfortable relationship. Ben genuinely tries to help her fit into her new town and make headway with the citizens. Sadly Ridley isn’t surprised that by and large it is her own gender who are the slowest to begin to accept her. Miracle of miracles, Ridley doesn’t get her fur ruffled and insist on charging into situations headlong, without any thought just to try and prove how capable she is. Yes, I’ve endured enough of this type of behavior in (mainly) historical romances that when it’s not shoved down my throat, I’m truly grateful.
The story continuous in a vein I wasn’t expecting. Instead of wild west shoot-outs or cattle rustling or other hijinks, we see Ridley finding her way and slowly winning over the skeptics. There is a thread that runs through the story involving a woman Ben’s known for years and her troubled marriage. WARNING It is one of domestic abuse and it doesn’t shy away from the troubling aspects of these situations. Lily Salt makes decisions that frustrate Ben and challenge Ridley in their attempts to help Lily but which are all to often encountered in such cases.
Ben’s past is brought to the forefront as his sister-in-law Phoebe and brother Remington arrive in town just in time to be a part of a bank robbery which is ended by Ridley’s quick thinking and a beef bone. Yes, you read that correctly. As Ben explains the family relationships and tensions, it serves as a reminder to those of us who read “A Touch of Frost” and a Cliffs Notes introduction for those who haven’t. Ridley has some acerbic advice for Ben which slots into the underlying theme of looking at things a new way as the upcoming century approaches. There are new ways of doing things and resolving conflicts, some of which will be used here for various characters. As in the previous book, one issue will be ended in a way that might not sit well with some readers but which might be the only way that one group of characters can obtain justice and a new start.
I liked the relationship between Ridley and Ben – who spends the whole book attempting to discover what the “E” stands for in Ridley’s name. His guesses shift from the obvious of Elizabeth, Emma, and Eleanor through “Eris” (during a period of tension between them) and on to Eudora and Esmeralda – all to Ridley’s amusement. Neither he nor I got it right (my bet was Ermengard) and her reaction to his reaction tickles the town’s funny bone during the wedding ceremony.
Side by side, they listened to the minister’s words, and when it came time to make their vows, Ben took Ridley’s hand in his and whispered, “You’ll have to tell me now, Emilia.”
“Not Emilia,” she whispered back.
Ridley shook her head.
“Enigma? Because that would make sense.”
He looked so disappointed when this last guess failed, that Ridley did not care that she had not been instructed to kiss him yet; she did it anyway. And when he beamed at her, she did it again.
The two actually communicate well and there are no annoying Big Mis’s or flounces that mar things. Ridley’s plain speaking astonished Ben a time or three but he finds himself appreciating it. I did wonder that no one in the town said anything about the numerous late night/early morning comings and goings between Ridley’s and Ben’s houses.
This is not quite what I expected from a western. There are no rustlers, cattle stampedes or gunfights at noon on the town main street. It’s more about the quiet growth of Ben and Ridley’s relationship and about a small Colorado town facing the future of the dawning new century and readying itself for whatever changes will come. A female doctor? They’ve got one. Women inheriting and running businesses? A law which might protect the weak from the bullies? Who knows what other wonders Ridley, Ben and the rest of Frost Falls will have in store for them next. B