Phantom Waltz is my contender for the most romantic romance I’ve read this year. After flirting from behind the counter of her father’s store, Bethany Coulter expects Ryan Kendrick to turn tail and flee the moment he realizes that she is in a wheelchair. Bethany, a former champion barrel racer, was injured in a rodeo competition eight years ago and has learned to deal with her new limitations by walling off her heart.
However, despite his initial shock over Bethany’s revelation, Ryan insists on going through with a date. Initially he merely wants to be a gentleman and plans to let Bethany down easy, but by the end of the evening he’s seriously intrigued, and by the end of the week he’s in love. While I would ordinarily have misgivings about such a love-at-first-sight storyline, in this case it makes sense and it’s born of a poignant compassion. From the first, Ryan realizes that he will damage Bethany’s fragile confidence too badly if he trifles with her; he can’t just amble along and wait to see if things will work out between them. Before his very next move, he has to be certain that he’s committed to take it all the way.
I found Ryan’s instant commitment to be believable, because he’s one of those flat-out likable Jamie Frasier-style heroes – he’s not incredibly tormented, and he treats his lady right from the get-go. As luck would have it, his mother is a nurse, so he’s got a trustworthy second opinion on the abilities and limitations of paraplegics other than overcautious Bethany. I didn’t always like Bethany quite as much as Ryan; sometimes her emotional barriers feel rather wearing. However, she is also impressively self-sufficient and realistic about her limitations. When Ryan acts too high-handed while trying to solve every problem, Bethany expresses her concerns and justifiable anger without seeming whiny or stubborn. Before her accident, Bethany was extremely active, and her joy as Ryan helps her to regain lost pleasures like dancing is heartfelt.
I can’t say whether every detail is right, but the author has obviously devoted considerable research to the particular problems a paraplegic faces, provides no simplistic miracle cures, and masterfully draws in the reader’s empathy as well. A simple fender-bender on a deserted road provides some of the best white-knuckle suspense I’ve read in a long time. No nefarious villains, just the challenges that two realistic characters face in their struggle to be together.
Sexuality is a big part of this book – Bethany and Ryan both worry that Bethany’s handicap will get in the way of fulfilling relations. There’s no mind-blowing first-time sex here, either; it takes some work to get it right, but when it finally does, it’s unbelievably romantic. In fact, the entire book is palpably romantic in a way that few romance novels achieve. Bethany and Ryan spend much more energy on concern for each other, than on concern for themselves. It’s a very sweet and uplifting connection.
A few minor quibbles held the book back a little – Ryan’s supposed past as a womanizer is confusing, since it’s so opposed to the image of him we see throughout the book. There are times when the dialogue is stilted and over-formal; it’s meant to be the words of educated characters but lacks a natural flow. Despite these minor problems Phantom Waltz is a book I’m certain to revisit; I recommend it and I eagerly await more from this author.