Solon Turner promised his dying wife that he would never love another woman the way he loved her. Three years have gone by, during which he's kept that promise. However, when Solon's teenage son, Jesse, is nearly expelled from school and is sent to a special reform school, Solon meets the woman who will be trying to help Jesse turn his life around. He sees the counselor's good heart and respects her calm demeanor and ability to facilitate healing for both father and son, but a promise is a promise. Can Solon find a way to let go of the past to embrace a new future?
After being left at the altar years ago, Sadie Burke decided to swear off men and devote herself to helping others. As a school counselor, she's been able to put many troubled teenagers back on a more promising path, but she's never quite healed her own past. Then Jesse comes into her office, an angry sullen boy who has never come to grips with his mother's death. Involved with a local gang, he's headed down a dangerous road. Jesse tugs at Sadie's heartstrings, and when she meets the boy's father, she's admittedly smitten. Can she overcome her past heartache to help Solon and Jesse pick up the pieces when the unthinkable happens?
I've been working this year on clearing out a few of these short Heartsong Presents inspirational romances that have been collecting dust on my bookshelves for years ever since I was a member of their subscription service a couple of decades ago. This time I picked up Soft Beats My Heart by Aleesha Carter, which is a pseudonym for the rather prolific Loree Lough, and it appears to be the only book she wrote under this pen name. I was kind of looking forward to it, because I don't often seen African American characters in inspirational romance. This made it a welcome change of pace. However, it ended up being just an OK read. The book would have worked well enough if it had been billed as a family drama, because the vast majority of the story revolves around the hero's troubled teenage son working through his issues over the death of his mother, and the boy gets quite a few of his own POV scenes. There are also a number of family interactions with the heroine's relatives. But as for any actual romance, its virtually non-existent. It all more or less happens off page and is simply told about, rather than the characters engaging in romantic interludes or genuine relationship building. So as a family drama, there were parts that I enjoyed, but as a romance, it left me wanting.
Solon lost his wife to cancer three years earlier, and after making a deathbed promise to never love another woman the way he loved her, he's mostly avoided dating. Generally speaking, he has tamped down his feelings as well, thinking it's better for his son if he puts up a brave front, but he doesn't realize that it's made Jesse believe that Solon never loved his mother and doesn't love him. While he always tries to make time for his son, he's also been putting in more hours at work in an effort to earn a prestigious builder's award for his construction company. As a result of all this, Jesse has been acting out in school, and after nearly getting expelled for threatening a classmate, he's been transferred to a special school that deals with troubled teens. There they meet Jesse's new counselor, Sadie, a kind woman who both father and son come to like.
Unfortunately the character development in this story didn't go particularly deep. What I've outlined here is about as much insight as we get into Solon's character. He's a good father and a moral man with a strong work ethic. However, I was slightly bothered by his handling of events when Jesse was shot by the gang leader. I know he was angry, but I didn't understand why he would attempt to take the law into his own hands, opening the possibility of leaving Jesse without any parents. I also thought that comments he makes at one point about black people just needing to essentially pull themselves up by their bootstraps like he did lacked sensitivity and nuance and sounded more like something a white person would say than a black person. (The author is white BTW.) It didn't really add anything to the story either, and I don't know why the author included it other than as a bit of social commentary. The last thing that bugged me is that I'm pretty sure Solon never told Sadie he loved her. Now, I admit that his actions speak to how much he comes to care about her, but quite a bit was made of how much he still loved his dead wife, so not having him actually say the words to Sadie left me feeling like maybe he didn't love her as much as his first wife. Otherwise, though, Solon was a pretty good hero, just not a particularly memorable one given how little I got to know him.
When she was left at the alter by her ex, Sadie vowed never to allow another man into her life again. Resigned to likely never having children of her own, she's dedicated her life to helping troubled kids as a counselor at the special school where Jesse ends up. She sympathizes with Jesse and wants to help him find his way again. At the same time, she's also taken with the boy's father, who for the first time in years makes her believe that it might be worth taking a risk on a guy again. Sadie is a very kind, gentle and understanding woman, but one who doesn't mince words, which makes her a great counselor. She has strong family ties and is very close to her mother and sister. When she decides to let her interest in Solon be known, she pretty much jumps in with both feet and with little fanfare over her past hurts. I really didn't have any issues with Sadie as a character, but much like with Solon, her characterization doesn't go very deep, so it was hard to become invested in her.
Ultimately the strength of Soft Beats My Heart is in its familial relationships. Whether it was Solon and Jesse or Sadie and her mom and sister, I felt those bonds strongly. However, I couldn't feel the bond between Solon and Sadie nearly as well. There were a couple of moments where it showed through, but the actual romance was largely left on the back burner. I also wasn't necessarily thrilled with the end for the gang leader. While I freely admit that he was a bad dude - after all, drug dealing and attempted murder are crimes not to be trifled with - I still felt like it was too extreme. My first reason is that absolutely no motivation or explanation was given for it. The second is because, while he was a bad guy, it was mentioned that he was still a teenager himself who'd had a very rough life, so in my mind, he possibly could have been reformed. On the upside, the mechanics of the writing itself were sound, although I did pick up on the repetitious character action of tucking in a corner of their mouth. I can't even quite imagine what that looks like and yet the characters were doing it almost constantly. Overall, this was one of those books that was good for a few hours of reading pleasure, but not one that I can say I was particularly excited about by the end.
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