Austin Leigh spent five years in prison for a crime he didn't commit in order to protect the reputation of the woman he loved. Thoughts of her and his belief that she would be waiting for him when he was released kept him going through those difficult times. When Austin finally returned home to find his first love married to his best friend, he felt like they had committed the worst kind of betrayal. In his heart though, Austin knew that the person who murdered the man he was convicted of shooting was really the one at fault, so he set out for the city of Austin in search of the killer to clear his name. Along the way, Austin's horse went lame. He happened upon a shabby house in the middle of nowhere and asked the boy who was chopping wood outside for some food and shelter in exchange for his help. When "he" re-emerged from the house with a bowl of stew, Austin realized this was no boy, but a pretty young woman who made his heart do flip-flops.
Loree Grant had lived alone in the house she grew up in, since her family was brutally murdered five year ago. Loree doesn't feel worthy of happiness because of actions the murderer drove her take, and so has chosen a lonely self-imposed exile to punish herself. When Austin shows up on her doorstep, he brings a ray of light and hope to Loree's solitary existence, making her dream once again about things she thinks she can't have. A shared night of passion brings some small amount of comfort to both of them, but knowing that Austin will be moving on soon in search of justice, Loree harbors no illusions about a relationship. Unfortunately, the real killer doesn't seem to be cooperating, and with little to do but wait for someone to show up with information, Austin just can't seem to get Loree off his mind or resist going back to visit her as a friend several times in the coming months. As Austin comes to the realization that the murderer may never be caught, an unexpected event makes him insist on making Loree his wife and taking her back to his home in West Texas. Back in the loving arms of his family, Austin and Loree's love begins to grow deeper, but Austin struggles with his unfulfilled dreams of being a musician, while Loree's dark secret threatens to destroy the love and harmony they've worked so hard to achieve.
Rarely have I found an author who is able to write a complete series with every book in the series being consistently good enough to earn keeper status from me, but Lorraine Heath's Texas Trilogy did exactly that. It is also equally rare for an author to tug at my heartstrings in quite the way that Lorraine Heath does, but somehow her stories always manage to make me teary-eyed more than once along the way. Texas Splendor was no exception. It is an emotionally complex tale about how things don't always turn out the way we might expect, but something better may be waiting about the bend; about how even our greatest pain and biggest mistakes can turn into something good; about how people's destinies can be intertwined in truly unexpected ways; about dreams lost and found again; and about forgiveness of something that a first glance may seem unforgivable. As with the other books in the series, Lorraine Heath delves deeply into her characters feelings and motivations, making them very relatable and sympathetic. She also has a way with building an emotional connection and exquisite sexual tension between the hero and heroine. For once, I didn't mind this couple making love right after meeting, because the author made it all about them offering mutual comfort during an extremely vulnerable and lonely time for both of them, and didn't have them declaring their love for one another immediately afterward. Although they were both deeply affected by the experience, they were also quite realistic in their expectations and were mature enough to understand that love had nothing to do with it at that moment. In fact, Austin made a stupid mistake in the heat of passion, which caused friction between them that lasted even for a while after they're married. Also, the whole experience brought them closer together when they otherwise probably would have parted ways. I really appreciate Ms. Heath's ability to backtrack after a moment of passion like Austin and Loree shared and then slowly build a real, lasting, and believable love relationship between them.
After seeing Austin as a major secondary character in his brothers' stories, I knew that he was going to be a gentle beta hero like Houston, but still with his own personality and set of talents. Spending five years in prison for a crime he didn't commit hardened Austin, but not enough to make him mean or hateful. That just wasn't in his nature. Even though he was a changed man, I was still able to see glimmers of the boy/young man I came to love so much in the previous books. Austin has always craved a female presence in his life ever since his mother died when he was a little boy, and I think this side of him became a protector to all the women who became a part of his life. In fact, it was his desire to protect the reputation of the woman he loved which landed him in prison in the first place, and when Loree finally divulges her secret, Austin was prepared to once again take the blame in order to protect her too. Although his brother, Dallas, had a hard time seeing Austin as anything but an irresponsible kid, I think that Austin proved his deep sense of responsibility many times over. He is also incredibly sweet to Loree. I loved how he always called her Sugar, and the way he often took her shoes and stockings off to rub her feet and make her more comfortable could be both cute and sexy at the same time. Austin was definitely the type of guy who could make a woman feel pampered and cherished. While he wasn't quite a virgin when he met Loree, he was very much a sexual novice, which just added to his appeal for me. I think the best thing about Austin though, was his amazing musical talent. The horrors of prison had quieted the music within his soul, and the moment he rediscovered it again was so incredibly beautiful, it brought tears to my eyes.
Loree is a strong heroine who was the sole survivor of a brutal, murderous attack which left the rest of her family dead. This event drove her do something she is not proud of, and she harbors this dark secret throughout most of the book. I have to admit that I correctly guessed what it was early on, but this knowledge did not diminish my enjoyment of the story, mainly because it was not so much about the mystery as about how Loree's secret affects her marriage to Austin both before and after it comes out. Because of what she did, Loree also doesn't feel like she deserves Austin's love or to realize any of her dreams. When Austin finds her, she is basically punishing herself, but her self-recrimination isn't overdone. Loree still longs for her dreams very much, and does reach out to grasp some happiness when the opportunity presents itself. Her experiences also make her accepting of Austin and his past in a way that others are not, and eventually, she very bravely admitted her secret and faced the consequences. In her heart, Loree was a kind and gentle person who was driven to do something uncharacteristic because of extraordinary circumstances which was something I found to be very thought provoking.
I love the family saga feel of the Texas Trilogy. All three of the Leigh brothers as well as their wives and families play substantial roles that are interlaced throughout each of the books. It was wonderful to visit with all of them again and see them so involved in each others' lives. Houston and Amelia still have a slight edge as my favorite couple, and it was so much fun to meet their kids and see how their lives have changed. Dallas is still as stubborn as ever, sometimes irritating, yet sometimes making me laugh. It was rather funny when Austin punched him for the exact same thing Houston did in the first book, which goes to show that he apparently didn't learn his lesson, although he was big enough to admit that he'd made a mistake. Dee has come a long way from the timid woman she was in the beginning of book #2, and has expanded Dallas's vision of the town of Leighton to the point that it has almost become a character unto itself. Rawley and the other kids are growing like weeds and really developing their personalities. Becky and Cameron, Austin's first love and best friend respectively, played a big role too. They are definitely at odds with Austin when he returns from prison, because he feels that they betrayed him in the worst possible way. The beauty in the author's portrayal of these characters was that I understood how all three of them felt, Austin being angry because Becky didn't wait for him like she promised, and Becky and Cameron loving each other but feeling guilty for it. In spite of all that had happened between them, I couldn't help but want them to still be friends, and when the reconciliation happens, it was yet another beautiful moment. I also have to say that I loved the nice long epilogue that brought everyone back together a decade in the future, letting me see that this family is still strong and the next generation will definitely carry on the legacy started by the three Leigh brothers.
Overall, I think Texas Splendor may have been the most emotionally charged book of the trilogy, and that's saying quite a lot since the other two were very emotional as well, especially Texas Destiny. I think this may be owing to Austin being so much more demonstrative in his feelings than the other two brothers were. Also, both Austin and Loree are two very tortured souls who must find healing for their battered hearts, and they are quite observant, sensitive and intuitive of the others' needs and understanding of things that happened in their pasts, which only added to the intensity of the romance. My one and only minor complaint is that I've noticed the author has a tendency to repeat certain words and phrases, but although noticeable, it didn't really detract from my overall enjoyment of the book. Ms. Heath is extremely talented at bringing to life complex character-driven plots which really make me think in a deep and profound way and thoroughly satisfies me on an emotional level, and in doing so she also creates flawed but extremely likable characters who I find myself wishing existed in real life. Texas Splendor is book #3 in the Texas Trilogy, preceded by Texas Destiny and Texas Glory. As I predicted in my review of Texas Glory, I'm happy to know how things turned out for this family, but equally sad to let them go. These three books have certainly earned a permanent spot on my keeper shelf, and I hope to revisit them at some point in the future. In the meantime, I look forward to continuing my exploration of Lorraine Heath's back-list.
The Hope Chest Reviews on Facebook