Eden Paxton's fiancé called off their engagement when his family discovered that she was a bastard. Rather than letting it go at that, they sullied her name in social circles to the point that Eden and her mother felt it necessary to leave San Francisco to escape the embarrassment. They decide to move to No Name, Colorado to be near her brothers. On the journey, the train is robbed by a notorious group of bandits known as the Sebastian gang, and before it's all over, Eden finds herself a captive of the outlaws. They plan to take her across the border to Mexico and sell her to a man they know who buys virgins, but it doesn't stop them from abusing her every night when they make camp. Growing up with four older brothers, Eden learned how to be tough when the situation called for it, so she valiantly tries to keep her head up while watching for any opportunity to escape and hoping for her brothers to come rescue her.
Matthew Coulter's wife was brutally raped and murdered by the Sebastian gang who also beat him senseless and left him for dead. For the last three years, he has doggedly followed the criminals' trail, waiting for the opportunity to dispense his own brand of justice. When he hears that the gang has taken a young woman hostage, he doesn't think she'll survive the night. When he finally catches up to them and discovers she's still alive, he knows he'll have to rescue her but is disappointed that in order to accomplish that he'll have to let the gang get away again. Still, Matthew is an honorable man who views Eden as his responsibility from the moment he frees her from the outlaws' clutches and won't hesitate to do anything to keep her safe. As they ride hard through the Colorado wilderness, always just one step ahead of the Sebastians, Matthew and Eden form an unbreakable bond of friendship, which gradually blossoms into love. But when they finally reach safety, can Matthew give up his quest for vengeance to stay close to the woman who's captured his heart?
Early Dawn is another sweet, historical romance from Catherine Anderson that was nearly perfect in every way. The hero and heroine are very much the focus of the story with the secondary characters only coming into play during the first few chapters and the last few chapters. The rest of the time it's all about Matthew and Eden as they get acquainted and learn to trust each other while riding around the Colorado wilderness, trying to evade the bad guys. With only two characters in play for the bulk of the story, and with them, on the surface, just running in circles, it might seem that this would be a boring narrative, but in my opinion, Early Dawn was anything but. I'm still marveling at how she did it, but Ms. Anderson managed to turn this into a very engaging story. The threat from the villains, as well as wildlife, made for enough action and adventure to keep things moving along at a nice pace. This was combined with lots of wonderful getting-to-know-you moments for Matthew and Eden. They also share plenty of tender interactions before finally giving in to their growing feelings for one another. Everything just came together to create a very enjoyable read.
The story gets off to an intense start with Matthew regaining consciousness after sustaining grievous injuries when he and his wife were attacked by the notorious bandits known as the Sebastian gang. He finds out very quickly that his wife was brutally raped and murdered, then we fast-forward three years. During that entire time, Matthew has been relentlessly tracking the Sebastians, feeding an almost obsessive need for vengeance. Despite his deep desire to bring justice to his wife's killers, when Matthew discovers that they're holding another young woman hostage and abusing her, he puts his own desires on hold in order to rescue her. From the moment he made the decision to get Eden out of the Sebastians' clutches, he took on full responsibility for her protection which is a very admirable trait. After spending three years with mostly only his horse and pack mule for company, Matthew isn't much of a talker, but I have to give him credit for figuring out fairly quickly that Eden needed him to be a little more forthcoming in order to fully trust him. From there on out, he's completely open and honest with her, and it pays off in spades with her warming up to him pretty quickly after that. They form a deep friendship that slowly blossoms into love. I adored all the little things Matthew did to make Eden feel more safe and comfortable around him. He may be a man of few words, at least initially, but he knows how to speak volumes through his actions. Matthew is a thoroughly honorable gentleman who considers himself to be married to Eden from the first time he makes love to her. Deep down, Matthew was a sweet, peaceable guy who was driven by extraordinary circumstances to seek vigilante justice. On the outside, he's a little rough, but inside he has a tender heart that was badly broken by the loss of his first wife, a woman he loved very much. At first, he's afraid to love Eden. He doesn't view himself as a good husband after what happened with his wife, but Eden slowly convinces him otherwise.
Eden is a dichotomous young lady. She grew up with her older brother Ace teaching her how to handle a gun, ride a horse, and work with cattle, so she's not afraid of the outdoors or hard work. The last several years though, she's spent as a proper lady, attending a fancy girl's finishing school, and socializing in the drawing rooms of San Francisco society. Her fiancé broke off their engagement when his family discovered she was illegitimate, but rather than stopping there, they sullied her name in all the circles where she'd previously mingled. To escape the embarrassment, Eden and her mother decide to move to No Name, Colorado to be near her brothers, and it's on the train ride there that she is abducted by the Sebastian gang. Eden had a very level head, trying to collect all their valuables before the bandits got to them in hopes they'd just take their things and leave them alone. She also had spunk to throw herself between the gang and a crying child and his mother, trying to protect them even after having witnessed them killing at least three people. She fought her captors tooth and nail too until she was knocked unconscious. Every night when they made camp, the five Sebastian brothers passed her around, physically and sexually abusing her, but stopping just short of outright rape, because they were intending to sell her across the border in Mexico and needed to keep her virginity intact in order to get a good price. Throughout her ordeal, Eden managed to keep her head up quite admirably, although by the time Matthew rescues her a lot of the fight had understandably gone out of her. Still, after the rescue, she traveled without complaint in spite of suffering severe pain from broken ribs and initially being afraid of Matthew, not knowing what his intentions were. Gradually, she begins to see Matthew for the kindhearted person he is and grows to love him, not just as her heroic rescuer, but as a wonderful man who would give his life to keep her safe. When Matthew started falling for her too, he said a few rather harsh things to her out of fear, but Eden was intelligent and intuitive enough to realize that he was probably only saying them because his feelings for her scared him. She is extremely understanding and supportive of Matthew's love for his first wife too. She never tried to force him to forget the other woman, but instead encouraged him to make room for her in his heart as well. All in all, Eden was a wonderful well-rounded heroine who could be tough on the outside but had a heart of gold inside.
As I mentioned earlier, the secondary characters don't play big roles. The entire Sebastian gang were some of the most dastardly villains I've ever read in a romance. Their evil deeds fuel a large part of the story, but thankfully, they're only present for a relatively small part of it. All four of Eden's brothers are out looking for her too and eventually, catch up with her and Matthew. As the oldest, Ace (Keegan's Lady), leads the charge, but Joseph (Summer Breeze) is perhaps the most protective and the toughest nut to crack when it comes to Matthew presenting his case for loving Eden and wanting to marry her. David, who becomes the hero of Lucky Penny, the next book in the Keegan-Paxton series, and Esa have small roles, as does Ace's wife and Eden's half-sister, Caitlin. Overall, Early Dawn was a sweet story that I thoroughly enjoyed, the best in the series so far in my opinion, and it really has me looking forward to reading David's book soon.
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