Boston-born Jemma O'Hurley is an independent young woman who lost her mother at an early age and was basically raised in a convent school. Jemma's maternal grandfather lived with her and her father for a short time before his death. She fondly remembers him as a consummate dreamer who told wondrous stories of his adventures. She wants nothing more than to follow his lead and have an adventure of her own or perhaps follow her father into business. Her father, with whom she has a poor relationship, has other ideas though. He has brokered a marriage contract for her with a wealthy Creole family in New Orleans where he intends to move his business soon. The marriage will help get his business established there, but he needs to attend to other matters in London first. He sends Jemma to New Orleans alone with the promise that she will follow through with the marriage when she arrives. Jemma spends the entire voyage praying that she will be able to get out of the match without breaking her word. Upon her arrival, she discovers that her betrothed has been killed in a duel, and even though the family wants to substitute another groom, she feels that her obligation has been fulfilled. She goes to a church under the guise of wanting to pray, but instead switches cloaks with another young woman she meets there and runs off into the night. Not really knowing where she is going, she chances to run across a frontiersman on the street. She is impressed with the way he handles himself, and decides to pray upon his mercy to help her out.
Hunter Boone is a self-proclaimed loner who knows his way around the wilderness. He was seriously wronged by the last woman he allowed into his life, and the last thing he's looking for is to get involved with another one. When Jemma approaches him on the streets of New Orleans with an outlandish story about needing his help, his first inclination is to get away from her as fast as he can. Hunter is a soft-heart though who can't seem to say “no” whenever anyone is in need. He comes to a quick realization that she won't last five minutes on the mean streets alone, so he offers to get her shelter for the night with the intention of leaving once she's settled in. After getting her a grubby back room in a saloon in a bad area of town, Jemma tells him another tale of going to meet her father and brother in Canada, and offers him the only gold coin she has left to take her as far as he is going. Against his better judgment Hunter agrees to take her up the Trace as far as his settlement of Sandy Shoals in Kentucky, where she can catch transportation elsewhere.
Jemma gets her longed for adventure, but with sore feet, aching muscles, Indians, and a treacherous river crossing she decides that adventure isn't all it's cracked up to be. Along the trail, she and Hunter find themselves dangerously attracted to one another. One night, after a near-death experience, Jemma decides that she is tired of men making all the decisions in her life, and that she should be able to make her own choice of a man to give her virginity to. She brazenly offers herself to Hunter without giving much thought to the consequences, and soon discovers that she can't engage in such an intimate act without it involving her heart. Jemma and Hunter eventually arrive safely in Sandy Shoals, but the two are uncomfortably separated by their respective unfulfilled dreams. Hunter wants to pursue the adventures he feels he has never had due to circumstances, while Jemma finds everything she's ever wanted right in Sandy Shoals, leaving her longing for a reconciliation with her father. The two must come to the realization that the desires of the head and the desires of the heart are not always one and the same and reconcile the two into their own happy ending.
Just Once is a pleasant, light and easy read. It lacked some of the depth in both characterizations and story that I usually prefer in my romance novels, but I still found it to be pretty enjoyable. The first part of the book had a fair bit of action, but at the same time it seemed rather sluggish. I think this was because of the lack of depth to the hero and heroine during this part of the story. Usually an author will build characters by utilizing dialog or secondary characters, or letting the reader into a character's thoughts. Very little of any of these things were occurring during the early chapters, except for the first chapter giving some insight into Jemma's relationship with her father. Dialog was almost exclusively limited to only necessary exchanges due to the hero's self-proclaimed loner status, readers are given only minimal insight into Hunter or Jemma's thoughts, and the only secondary characters are a small band of Indians who didn't really help to deepen the characterizations very much. I didn't really feel like the author gave the reader sufficient reason for Jemma choosing Hunter to help her other than her sheer impulsive nature. Also, aside from being alone together on the trail for weeks, it was a little difficult to understand why Hunter and Jemma even starting falling in love considering how little they knew about each other.
About one third of the way into the book, it started to pick up a bit though, just as Hunter and Jemma reached his settlement of Sandy Shoals. At this point, I was able to forget some of the weaknesses of the first part of the story and just settle in and enjoy it. I think this was due to the addition of some fun and colorful secondary characters for the hero and heroine to play off of. They really helped to increase the reader's awareness of exactly who these two characters are and what makes them tick, as well as enliven the story itself. I really enjoyed the setting of Sandy Shoals. I've always liked stories about the frontier and settlements where everyone helps each other out like one happy extended family. This middle third of the book just seemed like a lazy summer afternoon, a leisurely treat for the senses. The final third of the book is where the story really picks up, as Hunter and Jemma begin to face the things that separate them and come to terms with what they think they want versus the reality of their heart's desire and circumstances.
As with Day Dreamer, it's predecessor in the Louisiana series, Just Once gets off to a rather uncertain start, but I must give Jill Marie Landis credit for knowing how to write a satisfying romantic ending. It wasn't quite as good as the ending to Day Dreamer, but it was still very nice. I also enjoy Ms. Landis' characters. Hunter and Jemma were both very likable, although Jemma was a bit too impulsive for my taste, and all of the secondary characters in Sandy Shoals were wonderfully written too. Hunter reminded me a lot of George Bailey from the movie, It's a Wonderful Life, always wanting to go somewhere and always being held back by circumstances, only to find out he has everything he needs right at home. Just Once introduces us to Noah LeCroix, the shy, half-breed recluse who becomes the hero of book #3 in the series, Blue Moon. It also tells of the riverboat accident that leaves Noah scarred for life. In spite of Just Once being part of a series with some cross-over characters, it does stand well on it's own. Jemma and her father, Thomas O'Hurley, who only played a minor role, were the only characters from Just Once to appear in Day Dreamer. The only character from Day Dreamer who even makes an appearance in Just Once is Celine and she isn't even named. Day Dreamer's cloak swapping scene in the church is replayed in Just Once from Jemma's point of view. I think both of these books could be read and enjoyed on their own without necessarily reading them in order. Just Once may be sweetly predictable and formulaic, but it was a gentle, breezy, heartwarming tale that makes the reader feel like they've curled up in a warm blanket on a rainy day.
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