The Last True Cowboy

A Mother's Gift

The Night Remembers

Something Worth Keeping

Sunrise Song

What the Heart Knows

The Last Good Man
by Kathleen Eagle
(William Morrow, $23, PG-13) ISBN 0-380-97815-6
The latest effort from gifted author Kathleen Eagle arguably deserves a 5-heart rating for its brave and unusual subject matter. Yet at times The Last Good Man is hampered by a weak, often exasperating heroine. Overall, this is a beautifully crafted novel that compels its readers to think as well as enjoy.

The small town of Sunbonnet, Wyoming, isn't famous for much, but it can claim Savannah Stephens, who left home after high school and became a glamorous lingerie model. But now, several years after Savannah dropped out of the public eye, she has returned to Sunbonnet, hurting and destitute. She's accompanied by her six year old daughter, Claudia, who's a dead ringer for Kole Kills Crow, the town's former bad boy and current federal outlaw. Savannah doesn't want to talk about her abrupt exit from the modeling business, Claudia's father, or her plans for the future. She just wants to hide.

But Clay Keogh has other ideas. Kole's half brother and, once upon a time, Savannah's best friend, Clay has waited for Savannah all of his life. He owns a small cattle ranch but has a soft spot for all things equine. He is the best farrier in the region and has a habit of adopting sick, old or stray horses. He's ready to take in Savannah too, but she's not just any old stray to him - she's the love of his life. But things aren't so simple. Savannah is recovering from breast cancer and reconstructive surgery. She's not sure if the cancer is fully cured, and she doesn't believe she has anything to offer now that her only talent - her body - is forever marred. So she's willing to give Clay some of what he's been waiting for (including some extremely hot, almost frantic sex), but the rest of her is locked away, protected from additional harm.

Savannah isn't an easy character to like. As with most of this author's characters, she's finely drawn, and she comes fully alive for the reader. Problem is, for most of the book she is depressed, passive and totally self-absorbed, unable to see what Clay is offering her and unwilling to give him anything in return. As the book progressed, however, my attitude towards Savannah softened. I've never experienced breast cancer, thank god, nor has anyone close to me. But who's to say how I would react if I faced death and the loss of my livelihood as Savannah does? She has felt since childhood that her only value was physical, and breast cancer has devastated her emotionally. So while I sometimes wanted to slap her, I was also rooting for her to find some happiness as well.

The other "Eagle-eyed" characters in the book are dead-on and realistically portrayed as well. Both Clay's mother and his ex-wife are tough, hardened women but not entirely unsympathetic - in other words, real people. One of the most interesting characters, Kole Kills Crow, doesn't even make an appearance in the book, but his presence is felt throughout. Savannah's daughter, Claudia, seems a little too good to be true, but her precocious personality is understandable because she often serves as her mother's caretaker.

But the star of the book is definitely Clay Keogh. Who wouldn't fall in love with this man? Capable, patient, sexy, loyal to a fault - he truly fits the title role. At times I thought he deserved better than the self-centered Savannah, and I was glad when he acted less than saintly on several occasions when he was hurting from her slights. He's a natural-born giver, but he has to learn how to accept support from someone else. And when he's in a crisis, Savannah finally reaches out beyond herself and realizes that she can help him as much as he's helped her.

Kathleen Eagle rarely delivers anything less than an intelligent, thoughtful love story, and The Last Good Man is that, and more. It's also an important look at a killer disease and the many facets of recovery. While it covers a serious topic, the book never feels melodramatic, and there are bits of comic relief sprinkled throughout. Eagle notes in her afterward that a close family member has experienced breast cancer, and she urges women to support breast-cancer research - a valuable message from an always admirable author.

--Susan Scribner

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