by Cindy Holby, historical (2012)
Berkley, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-24841-6
I haven't caught up with Cindy Holby for a while, as she wrote for Leisure and LoveSpell, and... well, there was no happy ending with that publisher. Angel's End is the start of a new Western historical series of the same name for Berkley. From what I can tell from this book and the excerpt of the next book, this series will comprise several standalone books set in Angel's End, a town located at the foot of the Colorado mountains.
The people of Angel's End have been expecting the arrival of the new pastor for several months now, but when Reverend Timothy Key finally shows up, he makes a dramatic entrance indeed: shot and unconscious, half-buried in the snow near our widowed heroine Leah Findley's house.
Since Leah is supposed to offer him lodging for the duration of his stay (no other families have room in their homes), it's natural that the he ends up in a room at her place while he recuperates. But as Timothy recovers, Leah begins to have her doubts about him. He looks more like a dangerous fighter than a pastor, he cusses and swears, and worse, he doesn't pray before gobbling down his food.
Leah's right - she has an impostor in her house. Cade Gentry was on the run from some outlaws when he met the real Reverend Key, who offered him a place by the fire and some comforting words for Cade's battered soul. Unfortunately, the enemy on Cade's trail caught up with them, and in the ensuing mess, the pastor was killed by Cade's enemy. Cade managed to finish off this one villain - there are still others on his trail - and in the end, he decided to assume Timothy's identity in order to stay on the down low.
Maybe it's fate, maybe it's divine intervention, but he eventually ends up in Angel's End, the pastor's destination. As he recovers, he begins to wonder how he is ever going to convince the people of this town that he's a pastor. When he begins to fall for Leah and bonds with her son... oh boy, what a mess.
Angel's End has a beautifully broken hero in Cade, whose past is so horrific that it's actually a marvel that he manages to retain his humanity. He has many reasons to hate the world and the God that created it, but he doesn't behave as if the world owes him an apology. In fact, his actions in this story are first motivated by self-preservation and, later, his feelings for Leah. Ms Holby serves up one fabulous hero here. Cade's broken, and he really doesn't want to be noble, but ultimately, he's willing to fight for a chance to spend his life with Leah.
Leah is Cade's opposite: her past is so normal compared to Cade's, but she has never been the same ever since her husband Nate, the last sheriff of Angel's End, died of a bullet wound as she tried helplessly to save him. While she gets along well with the others in town, she is also very lonely. She wants to move on - Nate died four years ago - but there is no chemistry with Jake Reece, the rancher who has a thing for her. So she exists day by day in some kind of limbo, until the false pastor ends up on her doorstep.
Unlike a typical widow in a romance novel, Leah loves her late husband, and this story does not degrade Nate to elevate Cade in my eyes. She is a bit overprotective of her son, but she has a good reason to be that way. Otherwise, she is marvelously sane and free from weird neurotic insecurities about sex and love.
What really makes Angel's End work like magic is the relationship between Leah and Cade. It's a tender and tentative affair between two very lonely people. The plot of this story is actually quite contrived, as the author tosses in some life-threatening diseases and plenty of bedside melodrama to keep the excitement coming. However, the emotions feel real enough to make up for all this drama. Cade's crisis of faith, for example, is resolved in a really cheesy and sentimental epiphany scene, but his pain is so raw and believable that I am moved by the scene.
Oh yes, there are mentions of Jesus and some scriptures here and there, but this book is not exactly an inspirational romance if you ask me. Cade's faith is part of his character arc, and I never get this feeling that the author is preaching at me. In fact, I actually like how the author doesn't downplay the element of faith in this story, as doing so would make this story unbelievable.
Thing is, I feel that this book would have been a heavenly read if it had been a bit longer. When Cade's past catches up with him - of course it does, don't be silly - I expected a fallout that is a bit more spectacular, given all the build-up leading to that point in this story. Instead, I get a quick and rather rushed sequence of events that conveniently wrap up all the problems standing in the way of the happily ever after. While I am normally indifferent to epilogues, this one ends in such a manner that I wish there is an epilogue here. I feel that the author had forced me to say goodbye to Cade and Leah too soon, with Ms Holby pretty much shutting the door abruptly on me, and I'd like a little bit more closure. I want something that will make up for the abrupt and unsatisfying way this story hurtles to its conclusion.
Angel's End is a heartwarming romance story with a couple that tugs at my heart strings. The payoff is pretty poor, though, and it dampens my enthusiasm for the story considerably. Still, this one does get to me in a good way, and I'm actually glad I read it. When this book is good, it's pure magic.
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