|Jayne Dawson and her husband, Hank, have been married less than a week, when the past comes calling. A strange man is pounding on their hotel room door in Midas, New Mexico and calling out to someone named Jesse. Hank tells Jayne not to worry, that heís going off with the man to settle matters. It turns out to be the last time she sees her husband alive.
Hankís body is found in the barn of Ethan Trent, a man who owns a ranch well on the outskirts of town. Ethan is not happy to find a body in his barn, or the arrival of the young widow who is taking her sweet time getting the heck off his property. When her fool stubbornness gets her snowed in, and she takes sick, Ethan is left to pick up the pieces. All of which is a foreign concept to a man who has been living like a hermit since a terribly tragedy altered the course of his life. By the time Hankís past catches up to Jayne, itís too late for our hero. While he may be emotionally wounded, he vows to protect Jayne and her unborn baby from the threat.
Bylinís second novel is all about second chances and the courage it takes to grab hold of them. Jayne has been bamboozled by her husband, and is suitably shocked when the truth is revealed. Blessedly, Bylin doesnít make this the center of her story Ė as the mystery behind Hankís past is resolved within the first 50 pages. What is foremost on Jayneís mind is Ethan Ė a man she is coming to care for. Ethanís past is a long shadow over their tenuous bond. Jayne isnít sure she can compete with that past, or if she is strong enough to haul him into living the present and dreaming of a future.
Ethan blames himself for the way his life has turned out, and especially for the tragedy that has left him a lonely and bitter man. The arrival of Jayne is the last thing our hero wants or feels he needs Ė but when it becomes apparent she is in danger, his hero instincts kick in. He sees it as a chance to right the wrongs of his past - like if he protects Jayne and her baby that maybe that will assuage him of some of his guilt. However the more time he spends with Jayne, the more he is in danger of losing his heart to her Ė and thatís a thought so frightening that it nearly cripples him. Thatís what Ethan must decide Ė if loving Jayne is worth the risk of losing her.
While the external plot conflict of Hankís past keeps the story moving along, itís this internal character conflict that really makes West of Heaven interesting. Heroes who vow to never love again are as common as blue skies in romance novel land, but thatís not entirely Ethanís problem. Itís not that he refuses to love again, itís that heís scared to Ė and itís up to Jayne to help him find the courage.
Bylinís second effort Harlequin isnít without problems however Ė most notably Ethanís annoying habit of referring to ďlittle EthanĒ as ďOld FaithfulĒ and some scenes at the end that some readers might interpret as too-stupid-to-live behavior on Jayneís part. This reviewer didnít see it that way, as itís merely Jayne trying to force Ethan into living life instead of being scared by it. But it could be interpreted the other way nonetheless.
All in all I found West of Heaven a good, solid western read. It touches on themes that make westerns so interesting to begin with Ė second chances and starting over - and thatís really what makes this story work. Sure the external conflict is fine, but itís Bylinís characters and the internal struggles they are facing that make this a fine sophomore effort.