Linese Cordell has been waiting for two long years for her husband, Chase, to return from the war. Theirs was a whirlwind courtship that lasted a mere two weeks before they were hastily married and Chase headed out to fight for the Union. Now he's been wounded in battle and finally coming home to her, but she feels like she barely knows him. While he was gone, Linese became instrumental in keeping the family-owned local newspaper afloat, despite Chase's emphatic statements that a woman's place was at home. She fears what he might think if he finds out what she's been doing all this time, but more than anything she simply wants to rekindle the love they shared during their short time together. Her dream may prove more challenging than she expected, though, when the man who returns to her is keeping her at a distance.
Chase Cordell comes home with no memory of who he is or of anything that happened in the past before he was injured. After growing up with a grandfather who was mocked by the townspeople for his mental deficiencies, Chase fears that his memory loss may somehow be hereditary and draw the same kind of stigma, so he chooses not to tell anyone about it. However, trying to make his way in a town he has no memory of and with a wife he doesn't recall either proves to be difficult. Then bits and pieces of the past start coming out, leaving Chase wondering just what sort of man he was before the war and if he even wants to remember. But what his mind doesn't recall, his body and emotions do as he finds himself more and more drawn to his beautiful wife. Even as parts of the puzzle begin to fall into place, the things he still can't recall may prove to be a danger both to himself and those he loves.
Many years ago, I used to belong to the Harlequin Historicals book club, which meant that I received several new books each month, many of which I never got around to reading. The Return of Chase Cordell is one of those books that has been languishing on my TBR shelf all this time. I finally picked it up this month as part of a reading challenges in which I'm participating. The story takes place during the Civil War, although there's little in the way of actual warfare detailed in the plot. Instead it's the story of a hero who had a whirlwind romance with the heroine that lasted a mere two weeks before they married, and then he immediately went off to fight for the Union. After being wounded in battle, he's now returned to the small town of Mainfield, Texas, where they live, a community that seems to be on the fence in the war effort. There are those from both sides who live there, as well as those who pledge no allegiance to any cause, but instead, are willing do whatever it takes to line their pockets off the backs of others who might already be suffering. It was a nice story, and overall, the characters were likable. But I have to admit that it's very slow paced, with things only picking up during the last third or so of the book. I also saw some missed opportunities for deepening character development as well. So while I can say that I liked the book, I didn't love it. However, the strong ending helped make up for some of the earlier deficiencies and earned it an extra half-star.
The story opens with Chase, the title character, returning from war with an injured hip and the loss of his memory. The catch, though, is that he hasn't told a single soul, not even the doctor who treated him, that he can no longer remember his past life. All he knows about himself is what he learned from the things others told him and the letters he'd received from his wife, so he's returning home with no idea what to expect and trying to hide his infirmity. However, not long after his return, pieces of the puzzle start falling into place, making him realize he did something questionable in his past life before heading out to war, something that he fears might have even been illegal. A part of me simply didn't understand why he kept his memory loss a secret. Chase's reasoning supposedly is that, while he hit his head during the fall after being wounded, it left little more than a small bump. Because of this, he doesn't think the cause is medical, but he does know (though I can't recall how) that his grandfather lost his mind and he thinks that it might be hereditary. So he spends his first few months at home muddling though while wracking his brain for any small memory he can dredge up. He also owns the local newspaper, although we don't know if it was a family business that was handed down or what, so he uses the papers to look for clues to his past. This made for an unusual sort of mystery, but at the same time, the clues weren't adding up quite fast enough to suit me.
While all this is happening, Chase is also falling in love with his wife all over again. He may not remember her, but she stirs something within him that he can't deny. He begins to suspect that he may not have been a great husband in the past and vows to do better. This part of the plot reminded me a little of the movie, Regarding Henry, so it didn't surprise me when I read in the author's note at the end, that this was one of her inspirations for the book. However, because of Chase's deception, he spends a lot of time trying to avoid Linese even though she makes it clear that she would welcome him back into her bed. Again this is something I didn't entirely understand. His reason is supposedly because he fears that he'll do something in bed that will tip her off to his memory loss, but I wasn't entirely buying it. After a couple of false starts, he does finally give in with pleasant results all the way around, and I liked that he also eventually came clean with her about why he'd been distant. Once they finally reconnected, I liked Chase pretty well. He turns into a caring, passionate, and attentive husband. When he finally realizes what he'd been doing before the war and all the puzzle pieces start falling into place, I admired his honorable nature and willingness to die for a worthy cause, but at the same time, I thought perhaps he should have tried a little harder to find another solution, especially considering he had a family by then.
Linese is a sweet heroine, which I typically like, but I felt like there was something missing in her characterization. For starters, when details begin to emerge regarding how Chase and Linese met, I can't say that I fully understood what made her fall for him in the first place. I can get on board with a confident hero who has a touch of arrogance on occasion, but if I'd had a strange man just walk up to me and state (not ask, mind you) that he was going to marry me, I have serious doubts that he would have won me over. When we finally get the whole story of the meeting, I still wasn't particularly impressed. Linese even told Chase he'd have to get past her aunt who was a tough customer, but we never did find out what he did to persuade the older woman.
Anyway, first meeting aside, I could see why she would fall for the new and improved Chase, so that part was OK. I think it's just that because we know so little about Linese, she never became a memorable heroine for me. She was raised by two maiden aunts, although I don't believe the reason for that was given. I assume it was probably due to the death of her parents, but she has very little backstory to speak of. One of the most interesting things about her, IMHO, is the fact that despite Chase expressing some chauvinistic views about a proper woman's place before leaving, she had been working at the newspaper and even writing the editorials for the past two years. When we first see her, she's finishing her last article before going to greet her husband. I thought perhaps some conflict might arise out of this situation, but nothing really came of it. After Chase returns, Linese simply resumes her place as his dutiful wife, and even after she finally confesses that she was the editorial writer for the paper all that time, it's basically a non-issue. I also thought it rather bold that Linese befriended the ladies from the local bordello even though it was far from proper, but again, no conflict of any kind arises from it. It was cute, though, that she got one of the prostitutes to teach her about how to pleasure a man, so that she could seduce her husband. Overall Linese was certainly a kind, gentle, and likable heroine, but in the end, she was a little on the bland side.
Once things started moving on the mystery part of the plot, I was much more engaged. I liked the connections to the Underground Railroad and how the author managed to fairly balance the sentiments on both side of the war without engaging in demonization. The townspeople were a mixed lot of good guys and bad guys, some of which were obvious and others whom it was fun to figure out. Chase's "crazy" grandfather was an interesting character who's a lot more than he seems at first glance. Once Chase and Linese got past the things that are keeping them apart, I could feel the connection between them, which was a plus. Other than a lack of contractions in dialogue which made it rather stilted, I thought the writing itself was pretty strong. So overall, The Return of Chase Cordell was definitely a worthwhile read, particularly for anyone who likes romances centering around the Civil War era.
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