After recently losing the aunt who was the only mother she'd ever known, Emma Wright knows what it's like to be alone in the world. Already caring for her younger sister on her meager nurse's salary, she doesn't hesitate to take in a boy who's lost his entire family. Then slowly her home becomes a haven for more orphans who've lost their parents in the Civil War. Emma loves them all like they're her own, but looking after so many children can be difficult. Then she meets local carpenter, Nate O'Neil and believes that she may have finally found the man who'll be the perfect partner. But Nate has demons of his own from fighting in the Civil War. During that time, he made a fateful choice driven by his need to escape the horrors of war, which ended in fatal consequences for his fellow men-at-arms. Nate adores Emma, but how can he possibly ask a fine lady like her to marry him after what he's done? While Nate and Emma try to figure things out, the children take matter into their own hands after they're hoodwinked by a dangerous con man with dastardly intentions.
Emma's Orphans is another of these short Heartsong Presents inspirational romances that I've been working on clearing off my TBR shelves this year. Coincidentally it's the third I've read by this author, too, and probably my favorite of the bunch so far. It's a sweet story about a young woman, a "too-tall" spinster, who seems to attract orphans. They frequently show up on her doorstep and she never fails to take them in. She's paired with a man who struggles with mental demons from his time as a soldier in the Civil War. The past comes back to haunt him when a fellow soldier shows up in town, conspiring with another ne'er-do-well to make money selling orphan children as slave labor for farmers out west. But our hero and heroine set out to put a stop to it when they find out. I did enjoy the story although it wasn't without its problems, which I'll get to shortly.
Emma recently lost the "aunt" who raised her and is now, in turn, raising her younger sister, Jenni. As the story opens she receives some shocking news about her parentage from a letter that her "aunt" left behind. I appreciated this bit of character development, but unfortunately it doesn't seem to impact Emma in the way one might think it would and has little effect on the trajectory of the story. Emma works for the town doctor as his nurse, and takes in Matt, a young boy whose entire family was killed by runaway horses. As she's contemplating the possibility of legally adopting him, Matt starts bringing home other orphans he's found around town, all of whom were supposed to meet the doctor when they got off the train, but who got scared and ran away instead. Without hesitating, Emma takes them all in, even though it's a strain on her finances and makes it more difficult for her to work to earn the much-needed funds to care for them. Then she meets and gets to know Nate, the man who saved Matt's life the fateful day that the rest of his family was killed, and she's instantly smitten. I adored Emma for having such an open and loving heart and for taking care of all the kids until permanent homes could be found for them. She's equally kind and compassionate with everyone she meets, including Nate, despite his past failings.
Nate is an Irishman, who was a soldier in the Confederate army during the Civil War. With the horrors of the war pressing in on him, he often turned to the bottle to find comfort. On one such night, after drinking whiskey, he fell asleep while on guard duty and awoke to a bloodbath with all of his fellow soldiers either dead or dying. He, alone, ended up being the sole survivor of the incident, or so he thought, and has been wracked with guilt ever since, believing that the deaths of nearly a hundred men were his fault. Now Nate works as a carpenter and lives alone, thinking that he isn't fit to be anyone's husband. Then he meets Emma at the bank after her foster son plays an innocent prank due to boredom, and she invites him to Sunday dinner. He can't seem to resist and quickly finds himself falling for the lovely woman, but he struggles between his feelings for her and the past that he can't seem to let go of. Nate is a real sweetheart, who is kind and caring, which is probably why he carries so much grief and guilt inside him. I really did love him and thought that he was a wonderful man, but the one thing that gave me a bit of pause was his service to the Confederacy, which seemed to be at odds with the rest of his persona. I just couldn't quite buy into the idea that a man who had believed in the cause of the South enough to risk his life for it would not only be OK with a woman who took in an orphaned black boy, but also be someone who treated that boy no different than the other children in her care. Don't get me wrong, I was glad that he did. It just didn't make much sense to me given his background.
Overall, Emma's Orphans was a pretty good read. I liked the characters quite well and the theme of a young woman taking in orphans was appealing. Also the inspirational elements were limited to a few prayers and scripture verses, rather than being preachy, which was a plus. However, perhaps because of its short length, it doesn't reach particularly deep on the character, relationship, and plot development. The character backstories are fairly good for this shorter format, but aside from Nate's guilt, they don't really play into the story as well as they might have in a longer novel. The romance is sweet, but Nate and Emma basically start falling for one another after one dinner together, and by the second meal, they're already in love, even though Nate tries to fight it a bit. Then there was the plot, which was decent but perhaps a tad too ambitious for a short novel like this. The ending felt pretty rushed with confessions being made, forgiveness offered, and the villain being dispatched with little fanfare. We never even find out what happened to the town doctor for his part in the misdeeds, and as an aside, I never quite figured out why the doc wasn't suspicious when all the orphans he was waiting for went missing and suddenly Emma, his employee, starts expanding her little foster family. Despite the weaknesses, though, I did enjoy it, and I think that readers who like this genre and who enjoy a kind, gentle hero and heroine with a few cute kids on the side will find it a worthwhile read, too.
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