REVIEW: A Touch of Forever by Jo Goodman
Lily Salt has sworn off men. After finally gaining her independence, the last thing she needs is another man telling her what to do. But the handsome railroad engineer from New York isn’t at all what she expected. He’s kind, gentle…and tempting enough to make her wonder what a second chance at love might be worth.
A self-acknowledged black sheep, Roen Shepard knows what it means to feel alone. Recognizing a kindred spirit in the reserved widow whose fascinating blue-green eyes have seen too much, and charmed by the warmth of her ready-made family, the two begin an unlikely friendship.
When a complication from his past follows him to Frost Falls, Roen proposes a mad scheme to protect the new life he’s built and keep close the stubborn woman he’s accidentally fallen for—a marriage of convenience. But Lily has secrets of her own, and the closer he gets to uncovering them, the more he comes to realize that the only truth that matters is the secret to unlocking her heart.
Dear Ms. Goodman,
I wasn’t sure how “A Touch of Flame” would be followed up but I am glad to see Lily Salt and her mischievous brood find happiness in the western turn-of-the-century town of Frost Falls. As in that book, we’re looking at a new west – one without gunfights or cattle stampedes. The railroads are still expanding but this is more a character driven, small town story at the dawn of many new changes.
While it might give more background to have read the second book in the series, the main events of it are gently spread over the course of this one so new readers could start here. Ben (the town sheriff) and his wife Ridley (the doctor) play a large part in this book. Ben is still just as willing to be amused by life and his wife but is still a darn good lawman. Ridley is keeping up with the medical journals from Boston and glad that her main “patient of concern” from earlier is free of an abusive husband.
Lily Salt has been a widow for almost two years. After the death of her alcoholic and abusive husband, she and her four children are living in a new home (which the townspeople helped to build for her) and Lily is supporting them with her skills as a seamstress. Her eldest son Clay (who reminds me of a slightly older version of Finn and Rabbit from “In Want of a Wife.”) is keen to learn and help bring in some extra money. The new man in town, Roen Shepard, notices Clay’s eagerness and intelligence and seeks to hire him for odd jobs. But before that will occur, he has to get Lily’s permission.
“I understand. Then it’s settled? You’re going to work for me?”
Clay sat up a little straighter in his chair and placed his folded hands on the table. “I sure want to, Mr. Shepard, but we have to talk wages. I’d be disappointed in myself if I didn’t mention it.”
Roen senses that Lily isn’t comfortable around him but is intrigued by this slightly older woman (she’s got about five years on Roen). Lily is quiet and contained but does speak up at Roen’s mistaken belief that Clay gets his head for numbers from his father. Promising to teach Clay about engineering and surveying, Roen gains Lily’s consent.
It’s a good thing for Roen that Lily tipped her hand about her love of learning because when a former lover sends word that she’s tracked Roen down and will be arriving soon, Roen has a card to play when he makes a request of Lily. Ridley Madison would probably not be thrilled to know that something she said sparked Roen’s idea. Knowing that Victorine Headley is capable of drastic actions to get her own way, Roen proposes a marriage-of-convenience with Lily. In exchange for the protection of this “marriage” and with the understanding that it will end in divorce, Roen will keep teaching not only Clay but Lily as well.
“So, if your proposal is not about Clay, then what is it about?”
Lily blinked. “Me?”
“Yes. I am proposing an arrangement in which you agree to marry me but never have to.”
She stared at him. “What?”
“I admit it sounded better when I was only thinking it.”
“Not probably. Certainly.”
Roen pushed fingers through his thick hair and left furrows in their wake. “Will you hear me out?”
“I’m not sure I should. I fear you’ll make the ridiculous sound reasonable.”
“No, I’m fairly sure it will still sound ridiculous.”
His easy agreement caught her off guard. She didn’t want him to amuse her. She didn’t want him to make her smile.
When selfish Victorine finally arrives along with the private detective who tracked him down, it’s to find Roen married. That, of course, isn’t going to stop her and soon she’s leaving a trail of disagree-ability behind her. But is she the bigger threat in town? Roen’s been shot at while on the job, he realizes he needs to step carefully around Lily’s past, and despite Frost Falls’ kindness to Lily, the townsfolk aren’t accepting of everyone.
Roen is about the only one who doesn’t know the details about Lily’s first marriage and the way he finds out – slowly and with lots of inferences – makes sense. Lily was grateful to the townspeople for allowing her her dignity while she survived the beatings (TRIGGER WARNING for domestic abuse) and they maintain this around Roen. Even after he begins to suspect (and this is revealed with a slow build up of actions rather than any outright declaration from anyone) and (gently) questions her, Lily holds her past close to her chest. She has the brittle demeanor of a survivor though she doesn’t conceal it quite as well as she thinks she does.
Roen also notices how careful her children are of and for her. They might want her to find happiness and work a little towards that end but any perceived threat to her and they protectively circle around. I enjoyed their family interactions – especially the number of times that Lily demonstrates that mothers do have eyes in the back of their heads. Roen’s history with his volatile, artistic family makes him appreciate the calm and (now) happy Salt family.
The romance is given time to evolve and is not without its missteps. Before he realizes about her past, Roen instigates some interactions with Lily and various of her children but once he senses the truth, he pulls back. Then he sets about proving to her that not all men are like her first husband. Roen also knows he needs to convince Clay, Hannah, Ham and Lizzie of his good intentions. Again, how the children’s fears and worries caused by growing up in the poisonous atmosphere of their father are handled is delicate and understated.
“Listen to me, Lily. For now. For later. For always.”
She blinked. “Oh, my.”
“Indeed,” he said. His mouth twisted wryly. “It seemed the right thing to say when it was only in my head. Now I’m not so sure. How did it sound?”
I was gratified by the inclusion a subplot that I wasn’t expecting. Fedora Chen who works in the town hotel, is the daughter and granddaughter of Chinese immigrants who worked (and died) on the railroads and as such, she isn’t thrilled to be around Roen. Outside of Sharon Cullar’s “Gold Mountain” (which sadly doesn’t appear to be available right now) or Doc: A Novel I don’t remember seeing Chinese characters in western set books (though I have reviewed two movies with them as characters). In a nod to probable reality, Frost Falls isn’t racially inclusive though (by the book’s end) I have the feeling that Fedora will find a HEA. She is also pivotal in some scenes that tie up the fate of Victorine Headley. NOTE – Fedora is referred to as “the China girl” by some characters. I’m not sure if this is period appropriate or not.
This book does take a little while to build up a head of steam but I appreciate the time spent shading in the characters and how their feelings are shown to me through little touches. Past characters remain true to earlier books. My main issue is that the subplot with Victorine Headley dragged and there are unsettling aspects of it. Lily needs and is given time to work through her lingering emotions and fears. It’s only when she is ready that things move forward. There is humor and suspense as well as a slow boil romance and I enjoyed the wrap up (?) of the series. B