The year is 1763, and the Ohio Valley frontier is seething with the beginnings of the French and Indian War. Newly widowed and heavily pregnant, young Elspeth Stewart is alone on her homestead when a wounded stranger shows up on her doorstep. Nicholas Kenleigh has been through hell and back. Captured and tortured by Indians, he has survived his ordeal but now lives life without a sense of purpose.
This story has three distinct parts. In the first, we have Nicholas and Elspeth, or Bethie, alone in her cabin cautiously trying to figure out if they can trust one another. Nicholas is wounded and although Bethie nurses him back to health, she sees him as a dangerous man who is not to be trusted. They slowly start to rely upon one another. Bethie goes into labor and Nicholas helps her through the delivery. He teaches her how to read and write. Bonds of friendship and something more begin to form. It's obvious from early on that Bethie has been mistreated by the men in her life, and to Nicholas' credit he can sense this and never pushes her too far.
The second act begins when Nicholas and Bethie are forced to flee her home and make their way through the wild woods to the nearest English fort. Here they end up in the middle of a siege as the fort is quickly surrounded by Indians. Nicholas has leadership experience as well as knowledge of Indian fighting tactics, and he becomes integral to the fight. Bethie is assumed to be his wife, and they live together in order to shield her from the possible negative attentions of the soldiers. Although the situation is dire, it is during this period that Nicholas and Bethie truly begin to explore intimacy. Again, Nicholas is exceptionally tender and understanding and has the patience of a saint. He understands better than Bethie the ramifications of her abusive past and works very hard to awaken her to the possibility of pleasure between them. The fort siege comes to a end, and in the aftermath, Nicholas and Bethie make their way back east.
The third portion of the book begins to feel a bit like an ending gone on too long. Bethie returns to the home and the stepfather who terrified her as a child. She faces her fears and moves on with her life. She and Nicholas then go to Philadelphia where she finds out that the man she's fallen in love with is in fact a rich, titled landowner from Virginia. As the daughter of simple farmers (and Scots-Irish to boot), Bethie faces feelings of inferiority and her martyr complex kicks in. We get a few chapters in which she continues to refuse to marry Nicholas because she thinks he deserves better than her. Although I can understand the sentiment, I have very little patience for martyric heroines and this started to get on my nerves. Thankfully, it doesn't go on too long. After facing down yet another crisis situation with violence from warring frontiersmen, Bethie and Nicholas get their HEA.
There were a lot of things to like about this book. First of all, what a nice change to read a story that isn't set in Regency England. It's refreshing to visit another period of history and this time period lends itself well to romance because of the adventurous and uncertain nature of the era. If you've ever watched and loved Last of the Mohicans, you'll probably enjoy this book. I also really liked the characters of both Nicholas and Bethie. Nicholas was everything I want in a hero. He's strong and capable, yet tender and exceedingly nurturing with Bethie and her little baby. As for Bethie, she is strong enough to have survived some pretty awful things and doesn't spend a great deal of time feeling sorry for herself.
What brings the grade down for me is a combination of a few things. First of all, I felt the ending was a bit too drawn out, as I mentioned above. One too many climactic endings. Bethie's continued refusal to marry Nicholas 'for his own good' hit one of my personal hot buttons. Also, it must be said that the descriptions of torture were really quite graphic; much more than you would expect and in the very first chapter. I got the uncomfortable feeling throughout the book that the Native Americans were brutal savages without being given some context for why they might be doing the things they did. Having lived in a variety of cultures, I'm always sensitive to the idea that people have reasons for their rituals even if they aren't pretty. Describing elaborate scenes of ritualized torture without some kind of explanation gives one the impression that it's just senseless violence for the sake of violence, and I am somewhat doubtful that this was the case. So while I can understand the author being "true to history" (and yes, those were some violent times), I would have liked to have been given more background information to help me process what was going on. I did appreciate that the author tried to include some observations about the white settlers' actions which contributed to the situation, but overall I was left with a somewhat one-sided portrayal.
However, I still very much enjoyed reading this book, and I intend to read more by this author. Readers looking for a combination of action, adventure and satisfying romance should definitely give this one a look.