On an icy cold Idaho night, Maggie Stanley finally escaped from her stepfather's cruel abuse with her tiny infant son, Jaimie, tightly clutched in her arms. Rather than stick to more well-traveled routes such as hitchhiking, Maggie decides to hop an empty boxcar on a freight train in hopes that she won't be easily found. Rafe Kendrick is a man who experienced a deep personal tragedy when his wife and two children were killed in a horrific car accident two years earlier. Unable to live with the painful memories, he left his home in Oregon and has been riding the rails in a perpetual drunken stupor ever since. One night, he awakens to find more than the usual assortment of scruffy bums sharing his boxcar. A lovely young woman was there as well. She seemed ill-dressed for the wintry weather, yet for some reason was clutching her jacket to her chest instead of wearing it. Deciding that she wasn't his problem, Rafe settled in to get even more drunk until the unmistakable cry of a baby could be heard over the racket of the train. The other men on the train become agitated by the baby's screaming and begin to make threats toward the woman. Rafe is sober enough to realize that the girl is trying to nurse the baby as discretely as possible to quiet him, but without much success. He also can't help noticing the unquestionable intent of the other men toward her, and when they begin to crowd in on her, Rafe knows that in spite of his intentions not to get involved, he couldn't possibly stand by and watch an innocent woman be gang raped. Instead he single-handedly rescues the woman and her baby by knocking the men into oblivion with his whiskey bottle and throwing them off the train. Maggie isn't quite sure what to make of her scruffy cowboy protector. She is scared half out of her wits and is afraid that in spite of his rescue, he may have ill-intentions toward her as well. On a rush of emotion, she can no longer stem her tears, and when this big, solid man gently gathers her into his arms to offer comfort, Maggie is surprised to feel somewhat safe. When she flinches in pain at the lightest touch, Rafe is dismayed to discover severe bruising on her arm through a tear in her blouse. He gives Maggie his coat to keep her and the baby warm, but is darn near freezing himself. When she offers to give it back a while later, he suggests that they instead share it so that they can all stay warm, which she reluctantly agrees to. Eventually, Jaimie needs his diaper changed, and since Maggie lost his diaper bag in her hurried attempt to board the train, she has nothing to use as a diaper except her blouse. She makes Rafe close his eyes while she removes it, but he can't help taking a peek. The sight of her battered body leaves him shattered. As the night wears on, Jaimie becomes hungrier by the minute, as Maggie is unable to nurse him because of the extensive bruising on her breasts. Having nothing to feed her son and no money, Maggie tries to make a desperate bargain with Rafe, her body in exchange for enough money to buy formula. Of course he turns her down, explaining that even if he wanted to, he has no money on him anyway.
Rafe had intended to part ways with Maggie at the next stop, but the sheer desperation in this frightened girl's eyes and the exhausted slump of her body tells him that she urgently needs someone to care for her. When the train arrives in the next town, Rafe decides to do something he had never even considered in all the time he'd been away from home, pawn his wedding ring. With the money he gets for it, Rafe is not only able to see to Jaimie's needs, but also buy food and rent a motel room for Maggie to rest. Of course Maggie thinks that he is going to hold her to her original bargain, but he reassures her that he wants nothing in return. Maggie still does not quite believe him, nor does she wish to be beholden to any man. The past has taught her that there are no free rides in life. Unfortunately, the choice is taken out of her hands when she collapses and has to be rushed to the hospital. Maggie is seriously ill, leaving only Rafe to care for Jaimie, which he is happy to do. By now, he has a pretty good idea of what has happened to her and is already beginning to have feelings for her. He also realizes that for the first time in two years he has a compelling reason to stay sober and to get back in touch with the loving parents and brother he left behind. When Maggie's cruel stepfather shows up at the hospital making dire threats, and Maggie is about to run again in spite of her illness, Rafe will stop at nothing to keep her, Jaimie and the little sister she had to leave at home safe. While Maggie is grateful to her cowboy protector who now seems to be something out of a fairy tale dream, she is still incredibly frightened and wary of his intentions. It will take a great deal of time and patience for Rafe to earn Maggie's complete trust and more importantly her love. Once she does begin to love him, Maggie fears that he will throw her out once he learns the secret of her past, and of course, her loathsome stepfather is still lurking, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike.
Baby Love is a wonderful book that is reminiscent of a grown-up fairy tale, a Cinderella story. As the heroine, it has a young woman who has known the meaning of hard work since she was only fourteen, when her father passed away leaving her with the responsibility of caring for an ailing mother and baby sister. Then an incredibly evil stepfather entered her world bringing nothing but heartache and abuse. When she finally is able to make her escape, she meets up with a scruffy, drunken bum. She briefly entertains a fantasy that he will be her frog that will turn into a handsome Prince Charming. Imagine her surprise, when she discovers that he is really a gorgeous, multi-millionaire rancher who wants nothing more than to give her the happy ending she so richly deserves. Actually this description is a charming underlying element in the narrative, but far too simplistic to express the wealth of complexities and underlying emotions in this beautiful story. It is, at it's heart, a story of two souls, each deeply wounded in their own way, who find hope, love, comfort and healing in each others arms. Catherine Anderson is masterful at creating tight plotting, even with somewhat cliched elements, to bring about a heartwarming story.
Rafe Kendrick is a rather dreamy but tortured hero, just the way I like them. I think nearly every woman wants to believe that men like Rafe actually exist (and of course they do, but seem to be a rare breed). I found it to be an incredibly endearing twist to have Rafe fall hopelessly in love with Maggie at first sight, while it took her a little longer. He has a history of being a romantic, as he fell in love at first sight with his first wife as well. It was also a refreshing change to have the hero be the sort of guy who doesn't sleep around with lots of women before finally finding one who captures his heart. Before Maggie, Rafe had only been with one other woman, his first wife, and he loved her very intensely. He was a man of deep emotions who was a kind, gentle, compassionate caregiver to Maggie in every way, both physical and emotional. I love the way that Rafe held himself back from making love to Maggie, giving her time to heal emotionally and learn to trust him. He helped her to do that by indulging in romantic courting rituals even though they were already married. One of my favorite scenes is when Rafe reassures Maggie that her body is still beautiful in spite of the flaws and imperfections that have been brought about by childbirth. Another favorite scene is when he wraps Maggie in his arms while she is nursing the baby, which I thought was a wonderful family bonding moments. I also love it when the hero finds his pregnant or nursing wife beautiful, because so many women are self-conscious about their bodies during that time. I think the thing that endeared me to Rafe the most though was his acceptance, without reservation, of Maggie's past and most especially her son, not hesitating to give Jaimie his name and be a father to him in every way that counts.
Maggie was a wonderful heroine who was not unlike many women who find themselves in abusive situations. The fact that she endured and survived such horrifying abuse and eventually found a way to escape showed a great strength of character in my opinion. She was also never whiny or clingy, always stubbornly insisting on doing for herself as much as possible even to her detriment. She also insisted on paying her own way, nearly driving Rafe to distraction when all he wanted to do was help her, never expecting anything in return. I think that Maggie's devotion to her infant son, Jaimie, who was conceived and born out of incredibly difficult circumstances was nothing short of amazing. Also her love and sense of responsibility for her young sister, Heidi, and her mentally childlike mother was very heartfelt. Yet her conflicted feelings about her own lost childhood because of that responsibility were very realistic and relateable. I love the way that Maggie grew and changed throughout the story, in the end finding strength she never knew she possessed and using her wits to help save herself and her baby from a very dangerous situation.
In Baby Love, Ms. Anderson has woven a wonderful cast of characters from the hero and heroine right down to the supporting characters who are believable and well-written. The Kendricks especially create an amazingly warm and loving family that anyone would be proud to call their own. As heartwarming as the story is though, it is still very heart wrenching as well. As a warning to sensitive readers, I would say that this story is primarily driven by the emotional conflicts of the death of family members, including young children, and the aftermath of horrific abuse. While neither subject, in my opinion, is given a graphic treatment, there is enough descriptive detail to make the reader's heart break for both characters. Sometimes though, heartbreak can make for a wonderfully inspirational story, and Baby Love definitely fits the bill, while also being extremely well-written. One example of this great writing was that early on, Rafe's care and concern began to border on control, leaving Maggie feeling palpably fearful and me a tad uncomfortable as well. True to form though, Ms. Anderson explains his behavior believably, and also gives him a wake-up call and increased self-insight, which was another thing that I loved about his character. There were a couple of minor things that I might have changed though. The description of Rafe's courting of Maggie immediately following their marriage was too brief to suit me, and I thought would have been even more romantic if some of the things they did together had been explored in more detail. There was also one scene in which Rafe lost his temper and said some rather ugly things which were difficult to read, but that I understand were probably necessary to propel the conflict to another level. I have seen other reviewer complaints about having to suspend disbelief in order to read this story, which to some degree is true, but for any reader who is an imaginative and hopeless romantic like I am, this book should be just the thing.
Baby Love is the first book in Ms. Anderson's Kendrick/Coulter/Harrigan series. In it readers are given a strong introduction to Rafe's brother, Ryan, who is just as sweet as Rafe and becomes the hero of the second book, Phantom Waltz. The remaining books in the series up to this point are: Sweet Nothings, Blue Skies, Bright Eyes, My Sunshine, Sun Kissed, and Morning Light, with Star Bright due out in January. Ms. Anderson also has a historical series tied to members of the Coulter family. I have to admit that historical romances are my real reading passion and I don't tend to read a lot of contemporaries, but if they are well-written, I am open minded to trying almost anything. Ms. Anderson is one of those rare authors who is so good at her craft that I can't seem to get enough of her stories no matter which genre they fall into. Baby Love is a story that was simply so good that at times I could barely put it down. I would highly recommend it to all romance readers no matter what their usual genre preference is. It has certainly earned a place on my keeper shelf, and I am eagerly off to read Ryan's story now.
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