This novel is the perfect full circle for the series in a lot of ways. The Christmas connection is the most obvious, but themes and history intertwine between the first novel and this one. The emphasis on faith is stronger than in many of the Saddle Springs titles, and more on par with the focus seen in the author’s other Christian romances. Not that the earlier Saddle Springs titles were lacking in faith, but they seemed more about people already confident in their beliefs, barring a stumble or two. That is not true of this novel, where without the return to faith and the struggles to maintain that choice, none of the story would have turned out this way.
Sawyer seems very changed from his carefree rodeo days, and with good reason. Memory of his friend’s tragic injury haunts him to the point of PTSD, stealing him out of the present and throwing him into the terror, horror, and helplessness of when his friend was trampled. This is a wake-up call not just for his choice of careers but also for how he separated himself from family and especially faith.
Still, it’s not as if he flipped a switch, and everything is perfect. He hides the trauma and focuses on fixing everything to the point of bullying others along. This last is never more clear than in how he treats Anna. He’s confident she’ll give in to his charms and persistence, and ready to force her hand if she holds strong with her plan to adopt out their child. Sawyer treats the situation as a competition, a contest of wills. It’s not until he stops pushing that they have hope of another way.
Side note: The book offers an interesting look at the options available to pregnant mothers along with the complexity of the situation between competing claims and the discomfort of a close relative adoption.
Between the loving support and shared wisdom of his parents, brothers, and sisters-in-law, Sawyer has a lot of help realizing how mono-focused he is. Community is one of the author’s strengths, and it is very evident in this book.
Speaking of family, Anna’s comes up in fragments here or there until we learn everything…and it’s a doozy, I’ll tell you that much. Even better, we get to see some of her situation firsthand. Anna’s upbringing is the mirror image of Sawyer’s, maybe even the funhouse mirror image. The specifics of her history and the personalities involved helps the reader understand what drove her to seek Sawyer in the first place and why she behaves as she does now. It’s a bit of a miracle she turned out so well, but she’s much more complicated than when we met her as a waitress some of the series’ lead characters had befriended.
This book is based on a plot device where Anna believes Sawyer will reject her if she comes clean. She only refers to her secret obliquely, keeping both the reader and Sawyer in the dark for much of the book. While Anna kept the answer from the readers longer than I would have preferred, context clues and hints kept me engaged with trying to figure out what she hid. As far as Sawyer is concerned, once I knew what she was hiding, I could understand the multiple levels to her reluctance, levels which tie back to the first book of the series.
Still, it was about halfway before she has an active reason to keep her past from Sawyer. Anna doesn’t admit it to herself for the longest while, but her decision not to reveal her history from the start is telling. Whatever brought them together originally, she is more than just in lust with him now. Anna’s trying to do what she sees as the right thing, but it’s hard to give up hope of this working out despite her efforts.
I liked how the backstory between Sawyer and Anna came up logically within the story context. Sawyer receives a text from Anna out of the blue, so his thoughts go to how they left things. The introduction of his change of heart regarding the rodeo, though, I cannot use the word “like” for. It was skillfully introduced within the story as part of a few terrifying moments. Sawyer believes his nephew has climbed down into a corral full of unhappy, milling cattle and panics. Nicely done, though far from likeable.
There are also beautiful segues between what is happening in the world and how the characters feel about their relationship to God. Simple things like a bright, welcoming day clouds over as the character realizes they are not living up to their renewed faith, for example. I’m keeping it vague because the passages are best experienced in context.
My only issue with the writing came in their faith journey. Both Sawyer and Anna have renewed their faith before the book begins. At the same time, old habits and patterns keep pulling them away from God, a realistic portrayal. However, the description of their difficulties rang too similar at times, and so felt a little repetitive. Ultimately, though, their faith struggles are tangible on the page. It’s easy to see the process and not just the end result.
Whether primary or secondary characters, they didn’t have all the answers, made missteps they had to resolve, and weren’t always the perfect examples of good Christians. If romances offer possibilities for conflict resolution, inspirational romances add possibilities for resolving faith struggles into the mix. This story depends heavily on the belief that everything should be released to God. This can seem to be abdicating responsibility for free will choices. In this novel, however, the characters accept responsibility for their actions and choices. They’re not separating their decisions from the consequences. Rather, they are allowing for God having a plan and trying not to interfere with the plan by being bull-headed and thinking they know all the answers.
This review is longer than I expected or planned on, and I cut it down, but it speaks to how much is going on in the book. Beyond complex characters who earned my sympathies even when I didn’t agree with everything they did, the story explores a difficult situation where both main characters have changed since the irrevocable decision to sleep together in a previous book. This is a novel about consequences, but it’s more than that. It’s about trusting in God, accepting forgiveness, and not standing in judgment over others.