Desert Isle Keeper
Shades of Honor
Shades of Honor is a Golden Heart award-winning novel, and in this case it was an award well deserved. I’ve had something of a dry spell lately; I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to be so enthralled in a book and so concerned for the characters that I lose all track of time. As the hours flew by I knew it was going to be a late night (or maybe an early morning?) but the lost sleep was worth it.
The book started winning points with me right from the beginning, as it has an unusual setting – post Civil War New York. Don’t let the cover fool you – it calls to mind the plantation South, but in this case the returning soldier is a Yankee. Radford Grayson is returning home to Fredonia, New York after a prolonged absence. First he was serving in the war, and then he spent five years working for a railroad because he didn’t want to face his family or his home. Now he’s coming back with his young daughter Rebecca in tow, hoping to make a new start. Rebecca was rejected by her mother and abused by a nanny, and Radford is hoping that returning to his hometown and large family will help her heal. His family has long owned a saw mill, and he wants more than anything to become part of it again. As the oldest of four sons, he was raised to be in charge someday, but his younger brother Kyle has taken over in his absence and isn’t willing to step aside for a brother he feels he can no longer trust.
Rather than fulfilling his life’s dream and starting at the mill, Radford begins to help an old family friend at his livery stable. William Tucker was Radford’s friend and mentor during the war. He helped him survive, and Radford feels that he owes him everything. William has been physically unable to run the livery, so his daughter Evelyn has been doing all the work, and she’s finding it hard to keep up. Evelyn has always been a tomboy; she wears pants on every day but Sunday, and has worked at the livery her whole life. Still, it’s a two-person job, and Radford’s help is definitely needed – even if his heart still lies at the sawmill. Because William needs help getting around, Radford and Rebecca live with Evelyn and her father.
Evelyn finds herself attracted to Radford almost instantly. He’s older than she is, so when they were growing up she didn’t really know him that well. To him she was just the rag-tag girl who played with his brother Kyle. Now she’s an attractive woman who seems to be just what his daughter needs, and just what he needs as well. But there’s a problem – she’s already engaged to his brother Kyle. How can they possibly indulge their feelings for each other and risk hurting someone they both care for? And even if they figure out that problem, Radford still has horrible nightmares from his experiences in the war. Both characters have some soul-searching to do and huge obstacles to their mutual happiness.
We all have plots that we prefer over others, and I have to admit that this type of plot (married or engaged to the “wrong” person) is a huge favorite with me. I love to see how characters work through this problem honorably. Extra points go to authors who manage to solve the problem realistically without killing anyone, and still more points if the third person in the love triangle isn’t a total jerk. I found Shades of Honor perfectly satisfying on all these counts. Evelyn has grown up with Kyle. They were best friends as children, and with her father’s debilitating illness, marriage to him seems like a good idea. What could be better than marrying your best friend, after all? She is totally unprepared for the feelings Radford evokes – they are nothing like what she feels for Kyle. But how could she possibly betray the fiancé who has done so much for her?
Radford’s dilemma is similar. Upon his arrival home he realizes that Kyle has built up the mill in his absence and done an excellent job with its management. Kyle’s resentment is obvious, and it’s understandable too. He sees Radford as a flake who’s likely to take off again at the drop of a hat. Radford does intend to face his demons and stay, mostly for his daughter’s sake. And he feels terrible about his feelings for Evelyn. How can he possibly waltz back into town and steal his brother’s fiancée after everything he’s already done?
It would all seem much easier if Kyle were a terrible villain from Romance Central Casting, but he’s not unlikable. Instead, he’s realistically drawn. His possessiveness of the mill and his distrust of Radford are natural under the circumstances, and he’s completely oblivious to the problems in his relationship with Evelyn. One doesn’t know whether to feel sorry for him or shake him, but when matters come to a head it is easy to understand his point of view, even though you still root for the hero and heroine. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kyle’s story was written eventually, and I would be quite interested to read it.
Shades of Honor is a perfect name for this book, as Evelyn and Radford come to terms with what it means to be honorable in different ways, both in relationships and on a battlefield. I love a good moral dilemma, and this is a juicy one. Characters often agonize over their choices in romance novels, but frequently the correct choice is ridiculously obvious to the reader. While we know that Evelyn and Radford are meant to be together, it’s not completely apparent how they’ll get there. Kudos to the author for careful plotting and deft characterization.
All in all, I found Shades of Honor to be a fabulous effort, particularly for a first time author. I would love to see it get the audience it deserves, particularly among American Historical fans who are tired of the ubiquitous western. And if you start it late at night like I did, you can always sleep another time.