Rachel Hollister's entire family was murdered before her eyes when she was only seventeen, and she alone was the sole survivor of the massacre. The horrible crime was never solved and for the five years since, she has not been able to set foot outside her door without panicking and loosing consciousness. Instead Rachel has walled herself off from the rest of the world, living a solitary life barricaded inside the kitchen of her family home. The only person with whom she ever has contact is her elderly ranch foreman, Darby, who takes care of everything outside and makes sure that Rachel has the supplies she needs to take care of herself inside. When Darby is shot while riding the range to check on the cows, he believes it may be the same person who killed Rachel's family, and that they may try to harm her again too. Darby rides to the home of their neighbor, Joseph Paxton, asking him to protect Rachel.
Joseph is a simple, plain-spoken rancher, but a good and trustworthy man. Darby comes riding into his front yard with a bullet in his back, but at first, Joseph thinks he's talking crazy when Darby says that Rachel is in danger too. Nevertheless, Joseph promises Darby that he will take care of her, and after tending to the injured man, rides over to Rachel's house. The presence of a stranger on her property scares Rachel half to death, and she flatly refuses to let him in. It is too cold for Joseph to sleep outside, but when he can find no other way into her house except by breaking a window, Rachel nearly kills him with a blast from her shotgun. Not to be deterred, Joseph insists on staying, as he always keeps his promises. Rachel is not happy and still doesn't trust him, but as the night turns into days and the days into weeks, she comes to have faith in Joseph's goodness and rely on him for all the needs that Darby had previously filled. For his part, Joseph had expected to find a crazy lady, but instead discovered a beautiful, intelligent and vibrant young woman whose vulnerabilities tug at his heart. As the two begin to fall in love, Joseph finds himself wanting to do everything he can to brighten Rachel's lonely world. However, her phobia presents a challenge that he has never faced before, and the person who wants Rachel dead is still out there, just waiting to make a move.
Summer Breeze was a pleasant read, but the first 2/3 of the book was rather slow and at times, mundane. In my opinion, this was due in part to story limitations because of Rachel's agoraphobia. She interacted with few characters other than Joseph, and all those interactions were limited to her safe, barricaded room. Hence, most of this part of the story felt like little more than an average frontier couple going through their daily routine. Around the time that Joseph and Rachel got married, things picked up a bit, but I have to say that the sensuality was extremely mild throughout the entire book with nothing even resembling passion occurring until about 2/3 of the way in. This would not have bothered me except that I wasn't feeling a strong connection between the two protagonists already. One might think that having a couple spend the majority of their time together day and night would lead to some really deep and expressive emotions, but for me, it did not. I think part of this was the previously cited limited scope of their interactions and part was Joseph stubbornly holding Rachel at arms length, but the primary issue was how Joseph handled Rachel's agoraphobia. In most romance novels where one protagonist has a major obstacle to overcome, the other one is usually doing everything he or she can to aid in their recovery, and all of their efforts are part of what makes the story so romantic. In Summer Breeze, I felt that Joseph spent more time facilitating Rachel's disability than helping her to overcome it, and in the end, they failed to really light that romantic spark for me. Also, all the folksy colloquialisms, many of which I had never even heard of, were overused to the point that they became a bit annoying to me, and there were other phrases that seemed rather anachronistic. Additionally, there was a scene where Ace expounds on the true meaning of a long happy marriage as though he's been down that road when in reality, he's still a virtual newlywed himself. It was really lovely, but he just didn't seem like the right character for the speech. For me, the best part was the strong, suspenseful ending and a sweet epilogue. The mystery aspect of this story was good, and kept me guessing all the way to the reveal of a surprise villain, although I would say that Joseph's retelling of the whole story to Rachel in the second-to-last chapter was pretty dull and redundant. Also, Joseph's love letter to Rachel in his waning years was extremely romantic. Overall, this was just a light, easy read.
While Joseph and Rachel were both certainly likable, I can't say that they really stood out to me. In my opinion, Catherine Anderson has a talent for writing heroes with more beta-like characteristics, but her alphas thus far have fallen rather flat for me. Joseph was definitely an alpha who could be very stubborn and even a bit prickly at times. He denied his feelings for Rachel for a large part of the story, constantly saying that he liked his freedom and had no intentions of marrying, but then rather suddenly proposed, which was another reason that the relationship was a little hard for me to believe. Joseph was very physically attracted to Rachel, but very adamant about not making love to her until they were married. While I found the sentiment to be commendable, the timing of his proposal almost made it seem like an excuse for sex, even though I know that wasn't the author's intention. Also Joseph was a very plain-spoken man who always said what was on his mind, which for some readers may be endearing, but didn't really do anything for me. Overall, Joseph was a good and admirable man, just not really my favorite kind of hero. I suppose that the agoraphobia made Rachel a very unique and rather memorable character, but other than that one aspect of her life, she just didn't stand out to me either. I think that part of it was once again the storytelling limitations due to her affliction that made her seem very ordinary and also her suppressed memories of her family's deaths made it difficult to get inside her head to fully understand her condition, as she never really expressed her feelings about the tragedy. Rachel was a sweet and lovely girl who I liked and wanted to connect with, but again just never completely did.
The secondary cast was strong and varied. Readers get a decent visit with Ace and Caitlin from Keegan's Lady, as well as their son, little Ace. Joseph's other two brothers, David and Esa, play substantial roles, particularly David, who I would have guessed to be the next member of the family to get a story, but that is not to be the case. There was also a brief mention of Patrick (also from Keegan's Lady) and Faith from the novella, Beautiful Gifts, and even a quick nod to Luke Taggert, the hero of Simply Love, a completely unrelated book except that they both take place in Colorado. I also liked the appearance of Tucker Coulter and his mother from the present day in the prologue and epilogue, and how Ms. Anderson used this story as an inspiration for his own future romance in Sun Kissed, though I agree with another reviewer who pointed out the oddity of the diary never being mentioned in the main body of the narrative. I really enjoyed Joseph's dog, Buddy, who was quite the character. I thought it was very cute how Joseph would talk to Buddy and Buddy would "talk" back. Ms. Anderson has a talent for creating love not just for the young, but the young at heart too. I liked the secondary romance between Rachel's ranch foreman, Darby, and her spitfire aunt, Amanda. I thought this senior love story was very sweet, but also very sad that they had loved each other for decades and had basically been kept apart by a big misunderstanding. All the residents of No Name really came together in a loving show of frontier community oneness, when they each contributed to Rachel's courtyard, but one has to wonder why they didn't try to reach out to her sooner instead of leaving her to languish in solitude for five years. There was also the distasteful, bullying Pritchard clan who had a longstanding feud with Rachel's father. All in all this was a very well-rounded supporting cast, though I have to say that a few of them reminded me very strongly of some characters from the Little House on the Prairie television show, which makes me curious if that is where Ms. Anderson got her inspiration for them.
Summer Breeze is the third story in the Keegan/Paxton Family series (aka Coulter Historicals). It is preceded by Keegan's Lady and the novella, Beautiful Gifts, from the anthology, The True Love Wedding Dress. At present, Ms. Anderson is working on the next book in the series which will probably be released sometime late next year or in early 2010, and will feature Eden Paxton and Matthew Coulter. It appears that she also has plans to eventually write stories for David and Esa Paxton as well. Even though Summer Breeze was not one of Ms. Anderson's best novels, in my opinion, it was still a pleasurable read that was worth the time spent on it. I intend to continue this series when the next book comes out, and look forward to continuing my exploration Ms. Anderson's backlist until then.
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