Rick Sudder entered the Marines thinking it would help him get his head on straight after getting his girlfriend, Liz, pregnant when they were just teens and the baby being stillborn. He completed his training with flying colors and was immediately sent to Iraq, where he bore witness to the horrors of war every day. Then everything changed for him after being severely wounded in a grenade attack. Rick returns to Virgin River physically and emotionally broken and believing that the only way to protect his loved ones from his streak of bad luck is to shut them out of his life.
Even though they were only teenagers when they fell in love, Liz has stood by Rick's side through thick and thin. Since he shipped out to Iraq, she has been faithfully waiting for his return. The moment she hears Rick is wounded, she rushes to his bedside, only to be brushed off by him in brusque manner. His injuries don't change how she feels about him one bit, but her repeated overtures of love and support are constantly turned aside. When Liz finally sees Rick in person again after his rehab, he almost immediately breaks off their relationship, leaving her hurt and angry.
While Rick figures out how to deal with everything that's happened to him and whether he and Liz can ever be together again, other Virgin River couples weather through their own romantic turmoil. Cameron must convince Abby that she can trust him and that working together is the best way to care for their coming twins. Walt and Muriel decide exactly what kind of relationship they have and what they mean to each other. And Dan Brady comes to town as an outcast because of his former illegal activities, but soon finds friends among the residents of Virgin River, as well as a little romance with Cheryl Creighton, a woman who has her own share of demons.
Every return visit I've made to Virgin River so far has been a pleasant and enjoyable one, and Paradise Valley was no exception. I only had a few small complaints (hence the half star deduction). The first is that the back cover blurb made it sound like this book was going to be Rick and Liz's story, and after all this young couple has been through, I was really looking forward to them having a book that was virtually all their own. However, this wasn't quite the case. I suppose there was a bit more focus given to their romance, but really this book contained an ensemble of couples. In addition to Rick and Liz weathering through another trial, there is also major relationship progression for Cameron and Abby and Walt and Muriel, as well as a brand new romance for two secondary characters who have been a part of Virgin River since the first book of the series. I can't complain too much though, because I really liked all four couples. Another little issue I had is that there was very little romance for the first half of the book, so it takes a while for things to really get going. The three established couples spend most of this time in conflict, but about halfway through the reader is finally treated to some really deep emotion and more of the tender, heart-stopping romance I've come to expect from the Virgin River series. Lastly, I was a tad disappointed that Rick and Liz didn't get a reunion love scene after they finally worked everything out, especially since they were ostensibly the "main" couple. Overall though, all of my little criticisms were far outweighed by the sheer joy of revisiting these characters, so it was still a great story.
Rick has definitely grown up, but it hasn't been an easy road for him in the least. He's now a wounded warrior both in body and spirit and spends a little time indulging in some self-pity. He's been through so much in his short life that now he thinks he's bad luck for everyone and that they're better off without him. He ends up pushing away nearly everyone he's ever cared about, including Liz and Jack, even though all they want to do is love and support him. The back and forth struggle that Rick goes through, one minute longing to have any small connection he can to Liz, like listening to her phone messages over and over, and the next, ruthlessly tamping down his feelings for her, was very realistic and well-done. He never stopped loving her but believed he wasn't good for her and she could do better. Rick ends up treating Jack like dirt too, but eventually he comes to his senses in a dramatic, heart-wrenching moment.
For her part, Liz has been completely committed and faithful to Rick through his Marine training and tour of Iraq. She didn't hesitate to go to Germany the minute she got word of him being wounded and didn't even flinch at the sight of his severe injury. She's a strong young woman who has weathered through all the bad times with Rick and is determined to not give up on him even when he won't answer his phone or speak to her. She never stops trying until he breaks her heart face-to-face, but even then, deep down, she couldn't stop loving him. That kind of loyalty is very rare in one so young, which in my book makes her a great heroine. It was also why it was difficult to handle the way Rick treated her, but in spite of that, I still understood his pain too.
Cameron and Abby are a pair of sweethearts, who I instantly liked when they hooked up in the last book. Their story picks up exactly where it left off, with Abby still running scared. She's afraid of what her cheating, no-good ex might do if he finds out she's pregnant and violated their prenup just a week before their divorce was final. She's also having a little trouble trusting a man whom she barely knows. These issues, combined with pregnancy hormones, make Abby a little prickly in the beginning, but Cameron is nothing if not patient and persistent. At first, there seems to be a lot of distance between this couple, as Cameron works to try to find a way to just be parenting partners. He doesn't want to completely scare Abby off, but he is insistent, and rightfully so, on being a father to his children. Many men wouldn't do nearly that much, especially if the mother was fighting him on it the way Abby sometimes did. I love the way he was so focused on taking care of Abby throughout the remainder of her pregnancy. He's a very selfless man who always tries to put her needs first and was willing to go anywhere or do anything to stay close to her and the babies, and eventually his gentleness and patience paid off, giving him everything he's ever dreamed of.
Walt and Muriel are proof that love and romance isn't just for the young, but also the young at heart. They enjoy as healthy of a sex life as some of their younger counterparts, and surprisingly, they got the first love scene of the book and were the only one of the four couples to get a full love scene that didn't involve dreams, rough, angry sex, or convolutions to get around a pregnancy. Muriel is still off filming her movie that she hopes will finally win her the Oscar, while Walt pines away in loneliness back in Virgin River. He doesn't think that he can fit into her world full of glitz and glamor, but eventually, he decides to take a chance on this headstrong, independent woman who turns out to have a surprisingly vulnerable side. Whenever this couple gets together around Muriel's' work schedule, they act like a couple of teenagers falling in love for the first time.
Last but not least, we have Dan (aka Shady Brady) who has been there since the beginning. At first, I thought maybe he was an undercover cop or something, but apparently not. He returns to Virgin River after a short stint in prison for illegally growing pot. Understandably, Jack and the others are a little wary of him at first, but they haven't forgotten how he saved Paige's life and helped them in other ways too. Paul was a stand-up guy to take a chance on hiring Dan, and Jack comes around pretty fast as well. I thought Robyn Carr did a great job of redeeming this character into an appealing hero. It seems that deep down he's always had a conscience and good reasons for what he did. Now he's trying to turn over a new leaf. He has a lot in common with the other men of Virgin River and feels especially connected to Rick. Dan also connects with another long-time resident of Virgin River who has felt like just as much of an outcast, the former town drunk, Cheryl. Cheryl is doing really well, post-rehab, but is pretty wary of getting involved with any guy. These two are a couple of emotionally wounded souls on the road to recovery. They develop a deep friendship, taking things really slow while simply enjoying each other's company and getting to know one another.
Paradise Valley wouldn't be a Virgin River book without appearances by all the favorite characters readers have come to love. Jack and Mel, Preacher and Paige, Mike and Brie, Paul and Vanni are all here, supporting their friends and families. We get a lot of the story from Jack's POV as he struggles with figuring out how to help Rick and Liz. Luke and Shelby put in an appearance, announcing plans for a wedding and starting a family. Dotty, old Hope McCray buys the abandoned church to resell on eBay, which I'm sure is a set up for the next full-length novel in the series, Forbidden Falls, in which a new minister comes to town as the hero. As always, these characters have become like a second family in my mind, and I can't wait for my next visit with them when I continue the series.
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