Unforgiven by Lisa Higdon
(Zebra, $ 4.99, R) ISBN 0-8217-6178-1
****
Lisa Higdon's new historical, Unforgiven, deserves a serious look especially if you are a fan of nineteenth-century western romantic fiction. The plot is standard romantic fare, combining the mutual attraction of a nave, provincial girl and an experienced, adventurous young man with enough misunderstandings, miscues, murder and mayhem to keep you turning pages. Lisa Higdon develops strong, interesting characters who bring this story to life. As her main characters mature over three years, my involvement with them increased as did my appreciation of this author.

Caitlin McDonnell is the only child of Duncan McDonnell, a self-made Texas rancher, who is protective and cautious with both his daughter and his younger brother, Cameron. One evening, Caitlin meets young Cole Thornton, a drifter working at a neighboring ranch. Despite the threatening aspect of Cole's father, Caitlin senses a sweetness about Cole. She also longs for a taste of the unknown. Knowing her father will prevent any contact with the young ranchhand, Caitlin agrees to meet Cole secretly, hoping to experience more than the brief kiss he shares with her that first evening.

Ultimately, these secret meetings do lead her to experiences beyond her wildest dreams life on the run with a young man desperately trying to escape the cycle of crime of his father and uncle. Since his mother's death, Cole Thornton has been hardened by life with his father's outlaw gang, but he has a nascent goodness bubbling beneath the surface. Cole's dreams involve escaping the infamy of being a Thornton, gaining the freedom to have a ranch of his own and provide a decent life for Caitlin.

When Cole and Caitlin meet and fall in love, they seem equally naive and innocent despite their different backgrounds. Needless to say, events do conspire to shatter their youthful dreams, separate the young lovers and cause each to grow and mature independently of the other. Then, in the way of true romance, they find each other again. The crux of the story is whether each can get past the anger caused by the other's involvement in the shattering of their youthful dreams and renew their love, sharing a new dream.

Caity's father and uncle are well crafted. Duncan McDonnell is overly protective. However, during the course of the story, the reader begins to understand the hardships he has endured and the sacrifices he has made. Duncan is generous in his love, accepting his daughter's returning home. Though he contributes to Caitlin's estrangement from Cole, they develop, albeit slowly, an understanding of his motives.

A word of caution: If I had not been asked to review Unforgiven for this The Romance Reader, I might not have selected it if presented with a choice. Why? Since I had never read a book by this author before, I would have had no reason to go beyond the clinch front cover and the brief description of the contents on the back cover. Perhaps it is some sort of Puritanical quirk, but I have a problem walking up to cashiers with this type of cover.

The excellence of Lisa Higdon's exploration of character in Unforgiven is the primary reason for my recommending it so highly. Certainly, I will be looking for other books by this author.

--Sue Klock


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