By Cheryl Reavis
Publisher: Harlequin Treasury
Release Date: July 15, 2011
(Originally published as
Silhouette Special Edition #1177, June 1, 1998)
Reviewed by Janga
Corey Madsen is still grieving for her husband, Jacob, who was killed more than a year ago when a drunken driver struck his car. Corey and Jacob, pastor of a church in Fayetteville, North Carolina, used to foster children, but Corey has had no desire to continue the practice by herself. And so she tells her friend, social worker Lou Kurian, when Lou calls, desperate to find a temporary home for an abandoned toddler. Corey is reluctant, but Lou is persistent. Corey soon finds herself agreeing to take the nameless little girl, whom she begins addressing as “Shorty.”
Shorty was found in Staff Sergeant Matt Beltran’s red Corvette, but the sergeant insists he is not the father. Matt, a soldier stationed at Fort Bragg, knows Rita Warren, the dancer who is soon identified as the mother of the fourteen-month-old girl, but, despite appearances, Matt is not the kind of guy who frequents the clubs where Rita dances. He grew up in a Catholic orphanage, and he is accustomed to being the responsible one, first for the younger kids at the orphanage, now for the young soldiers under his command. Also, he is dealing with his own grief and a heavy load of guilt. The buddy to whom the Corvette belonged was killed when he covered for Matt in a training session that went awry.
It turns out that one night Matt did go to a club where he tried to drown his grief for his friend in a bottle. Although Matt has no memory of that drunken night, the paternity test and the timing of the baby’s birth persuade him that Shorty was conceived that night. But knowing he is the biological father of a child and becoming daddy to a little girl are two different things. Even when spending time with Shorty results in her claiming a big chunk of his heart, Matt knows that the combination of active duty and no family makes it impossible for him to assume custody of his little girl.
Matt is not the only one who has fallen for the toddler. Corey loves Shorty as if she were her own, and she cannot bear the thought of the little girl who has at last learned to laugh returning to poverty, neglect, and insecurity. When Rita hires a lawyer and threatens to sue for custody and Lou warns that the court may well grant her petition, Matt and Corey unite to protect the child they both love. Plans for a marriage between the virtuous widow and the rough-edged soldier horrify Corey’s family and friends, but Matt and Corey know that their marriage not only is the best thing for Shorty but also may satisfy the unacknowledged longings of their hearts.
Little Darlin’, even though I cringe at the title, is a romance that is as good nearly twenty years after its original release as it was when it first appeared on bookstore shelves. Reavis excels at creating military heroes who are imperfect tough guys trying to hold everything together and hide their pain. Reavis makes this secret-baby plot work because the secret is not preserved for years and because she evokes sympathy for all involved. Matt made some poor choices but he is a decent man who wants to do the right thing and who quickly comes to love the child even before he knows she is his, however reluctant he may be to admit it. Corey knows when she takes Shorty that the placement is temporary, but she cannot help the overwhelming love that develops for the solemn-faced little girl who is dependent upon her. Matt and Corey’s relationship grows over the course of the story. Their awareness of each other is controlled for most of the book, and their HEA is iffy until quite late. Neither is into playing games. Their honesty with each other is refreshing.
The secondary characters are dimensional as well. Baby lovers may adore Shorty, but she is not just a too-cute kid; she is a person in her own right with a real personality, and she acts like a real kid with her routine, her food preferences, and her newly acquired skills. Lou is a warhorse with a stubborn streak, a big heart, and an unwavering commitment to her difficult job. Rita is not some irresponsible slut. She has led a tough life, and she does her best with what she has. She makes some bad decisions, and she is often far from likable. But neither is she an evil villainess with no redeeming qualities.
If you have never read Cheryl Reavis, this book is a great introduction to her work. She is one of those authors who provides an emotional punch and roots her stories in a world flawed enough to give her characters and their situation a solid reality. I have a shelf full of Reavis keepers, and I am delighted that I have been able to add most of them to my digital collection. I highly recommend Little Darlin’ and its sequel, The Long Way Home, Rita’s story. Both feature the kind of characters that I find myself wondering about years after my first reading of the books and the kind of character-driven stories that are rewarding to reread again and again.