This Heart of Mine
By Brenda Novak
Publisher: Harlequin MIRA
Riley Stinson was only eighteen when he became a single father. With some help from his parents, he has reared his son, nurturing him, encouraging him, and limiting his contact with the boy’s mother. Now his son is almost a man, a good kid with a promising future. Riley has protected Jake by ensuring that contacts with his mother were minimal, and he is uneasy with Phoenix’s return and her hope for an increased role in Jake’s life. But when a friend displays the compassion for Phoenix that Riley hasn’t allowed himself to feel, he looks at Phoenix through a different lens and remembers why he fell for her all those years ago. He finds himself wanting to help her even if it means standing against those who want her out of their town. As Riley opens his life to Phoenix, he discovers a woman who has the power to change his world and offer him more than he dreamed--if she dares to risk her heart again.
This Heart of Mine is the eighth book in Brenda Novak’s Whiskey Creek series, and this one just may be the most emotionally riveting in the bunch. From the start, Novak has given readers characters different from those who inhabit most small-town romances, including a hero and heroine from the wrong side of town (When the Snow Falls, #2), a heroine in need of a liver transplant (When Summer Comes, #3), a hero struggling with the revelation that his life-long best friend is gay and in love with him (Home to Whiskey Creek, #4), and a heroine who is a former drug addict (Come Home to Me, #6) along with the more common protagonists such as the celebrity, the rape victim, and the abused wife. Riley has been part of the group of high-school friends who remain close as adults throughout the series, and references to Phoenix in prison have been frequent. I have been eager to see what Novak would do with their story.
What she has done is give readers a compelling, original reunion story. Humble is not a word one often associates with romance heroines, but it is an accurate description of Phoenix as the story opens. She indeed has a low estimate of her importance and worth. Such self-abnegation would ordinarily signal a weak heroine, but Phoenix is not weak. To have survived her childhood and her unjust imprisonment and emerged without bitterness and with the will to work toward her goals required a stubborn strength. Most readers will respond to her with sympathy and will find it rewarding to see her triumph in ways that match her name. Riley too may seem weak to have given in to parental pressure, but he was very young at the time. His insistence on being the parent rather than allowing his parents to assume responsibility for his child demonstrates his strength, and the kind of kid Jake turns out to be—kind, responsible, and independent—is a testament to Riley’s character. And when he does see Phoenix clearly, he fights for her against those who condemn her.
If you are a reader who loves small-town romances but would like to see one that expands what that sub-genre can be, I definitely recommend This Heart of Mine. But don’t be surprised if you find yourself so invested in Whiskey Creek that you seek out the earlier books. I am eagerly awaiting A Winter Wedding (October 27, 2015), the ninth book in the series in which Kyle Houseman, a man who, through his own mistake, lost the woman he loved to his step-brother in When We Touch, the novella that introduced the series, finally gets his HEA.