By Susan Elizabeth Phillips.
Rachel Stone is incredibly damn broke. To the point where her 5-year-old son Edward keeps asking if they're gonna die. Let me just tell you that at the beginning of this book, I was fairly convinced that she was going to die. To say she's on her last legs is...a weak description. They're so broke they're starving, living in their car, and the car just died on the way into town--thus forcing Rachel to immediately talk/force her way into a job at the drive-in the car died at. The owner of it, Gabe Bonner, is mostly being a total asshole to her right off the bat. The first few chapters were totally chilling to me somehow and I was worried/horrified enough to keep on reading. Now, we wouldn't have a plot if Gabe didn't eventually cave in and hire Rachel as a handywoman to fix up the drive-in, so that happens. And he eventually softens up, mostly because after the last few years she's had, Rachel doesn't bother to stay meek and mild any more and is willing to tell people what she actually thinks.
Little does Gabe know--he had been living out of town for awhile--that Rachel Stone is formerly Rachel Snopes, young bride to swindling evangelist G. Dwayne Snopes. G. Dwayne used to live in Salvation (in a really ugly-ass house that Gabe's brother Cal bought) until he finally got busted, flew out of the country, and then the plane crashed. Now 95% of the town super despises Rachel--she's publicly shunned, harassed, stolen from, vandalized, etc. in this book. Even the town pastor Ethan--also Gabe's brother-- is super mad at her. So much for Christian forgiveness, eh? Now, you may be wondering what the hell Rachel would return to a town where everyone hates her. The answer is, she thinks G. Dwayne was hiding some money in the items he asked her to bring him before the crash. And that stuff is still in town. So while Rachel works her butt off, she also enlists Gabe to help her track down the items and see if the money's hidden there.
Rachel makes a few friends, such as her temporary roommate, church secretary Kristy. Kristy has been secretly in love with Ethan her entire life, but Ethan pretty obviously only likes trashy-dressing girls. Rachel is all, "So try dressing trashy, then," and Kristy does it. This throws Ethan for a mighty loop. He's already having a crisis of "am I seriously meant to be a minister, 'cause I just don't think I'm that good at it," plus his lack of Christian charity towards Rachel (though her son is immune), but "oh damn, my secretary that I've known since grade school can dress trashy?!?" messes him up but good. Somewhat amusingly, but sometimes he gets kinda asshole-y and it's a little uncomfortable. But of course that all works out in the end. I also want to mention that when Ethan hears the voice of God, it either sounds like Clint Eastwood, Marion Cunningham, or Oprah. I found that hilarious.
What else is going on in this book? Gabe is a closet millionaire--he's a former vet and invented some vet gadget that made a bunch of money--which convinces Gabe's older brother Cal (from "Nobody's Baby But Mine," which I haven't read and this is the sequel to) that Rachel is after his money. Frankly, I'm not even sure if Rachel knows Gabe has any seeing as how cheap he is, but whatever. Cal gets rather asshole-y too in places, but his wife Jane is nice beyond all reason there to make up for it. Oh yeah, and there's the dying kid in town whose grandma is convinced that Rachel can faith heal. Rachel is all "oh hell no, I'm not a fraud like my husband," but it turns out she just might have some talent at that.
I found the plot of this pretty compelling. I've been reading a bunch of books lately that I am not particularly enjoying wading through so far, but this one hooked me from the getgo and I went through it very quickly. Rachel keeps plugging along despite the hard times she's had--and interestingly enough, this book does NOT give her a makeover and a new wardrobe once she suddenly has a bit of cash again. Seriously, the heroine goes around in faded housedresses and one lone pair of shoes for almost the entire book like she's out of the Dust Bowl era. That takes some stones, especially given the makeover plot for Kristy in this one. I enjoyed Rachel and Edward.
Edward isn't a bad kid, but he's obviously had a rough upbringing. He's the same age as Gabe's dead son Jamie, and the book does not make light of the fact that Gabe is (a) missing his kid and thinking, "Why is this kid alive and mine is dead?", (b) constantly comparing Jamie in his head to Edward and thinking Edward is a scared wimp, and (c) frankly, neither of them like the other very much. Especially given how much of an ass Gabe was being at the start of the book. This book does not make becoming a stepparent look easy-peasy (I'm looking at you, To Sir Phillip, With Love!) and I appreciate that the author took time and effort to emphasize that, and yet manage to come to an accommodation at the end anyway. The insta-bonding between Edward and Cal's kid Rosie is pretty darn cute too. And while I tend to not like the sort of "bad guy plots against heroine" sort of thing the author does occasionally, it actually made more sense to have the characters against Rachel acting as they were and eventually resolving it.
On the not-so-good side:
There are a few moments here and there at the beginning that are...well, squicky at the start. For example, Rachel is desperate enough to strip in front of Gabe (seriously, this woman has nothing and is starving) if THAT is what it will take to get her a job. Gabe admits to getting a chubby from looking at this poor scrawny woman--when a luscious Mexican hooker hadn't been able to. Now, I know it's a romance novel and they have to have the whole Glittery HooHa thing,/ but that is not a turn-on moment. The woman is just sad right there, and a guy getting a husband-bulge (thank you, Cabin in the Woods) for a woman in this situation is just...kinda ew. Like, can't he get more turned on after she's eaten some food for a change?
And why the hell does this author have to have those moments of alphole (Alpha Male Asshole) in her books? Like the hero being nasty to the heroine at the start, at one point throwing her into a wall (okay, so she snuck into the house, it's a wee bit justified)? It's something I can't help but notice in most of her books, and it bothers me. I know he's cranky because his wife and child died, but it went a little over the line here. Also, if you have to keep telling us over and over again that Gabe used to be the most gentle dude on the planet...well, I don't see it even after he's getting better. The dude is not all bad, but he clearly has some temper and I find it hard to believe he was THAT angelic in the past. Seems like he and his brothers all have a certain level of "we can really get pissed off" going on, even though they are nice overall. I'm just saying.
But overall, I found this book fascinating enough to give it four stars despite my uncomfortable moments. It was a good read.