The Best for Last by Gail McFarland
(Arabesque, $4.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-7860-0561-0
****
The Best for Last is yet another story in what is becoming a recurring theme this year the impact of the child welfare system. Noelle Parker is a hardworking, conscientious caseworker in the state's family and children services division. She's working late on a Friday night before a long holiday weekend when the building's janitor brings in a little girl who apparently has been abandoned.

The child is about three years old and appears to be well cared for. She does not speak, but immediately bonds with Noelle, who takes her to the protective services office for placement in temporary facility until her parents or identity are found. No one is available to assist her and, because it's a holiday, such cases are turned over to the police. Making a quick judgement call not to subject the child to a weekend in police custody, Noelle stretches the rules and takes her home. During the weekend, Noelle calls a protective services worker at home to no avail.

Noelle and the little girl she calls "Angel," are kindred spirits. As a child, Noelle was abandoned within a family structure, having grown up in an atmosphere of benign neglect. After her father's death, her mother remarried a wealthy older man. Noelle became an accessory. "Generously, mother and stepfather allowed Noelle the privilege of visiting their real life...From childhood, Noelle never fully escaped the feeling of having been tacked on to form the family making Louis and Mattie look good in public was her prime function."

Eager to escape her home environment, she married or was traded off by her mother who was anxious to have her husband to herself. "He really did get a good value. Wayne had taken her off her parents' hands for a two-bedroom condo full of furniture, a new convertible, a seven-day honeymoon cruise, and full payment of his student loans. On top of it all, he got a slave." Noelle's emotionally abusive union was what one character called a "toxic marriage." Needing desperately to love and be loved in return, Noelle lavishes her attention on Angel.

No good deed goes unpunished. After the holidays, Noelle's call to a sympathetic caseworker in protective services is intercepted by the bureaucrat from hell. Hoping to make a name and earn a promotion for herself, Noelle is charged with kidnapping and child endangerment. Noelle is faced with losing her job, possible jail time and close personal scrutiny by the media.

But it's Jamal Alan Harris to the rescue. Jamal is an attorney who often worked on abuse and neglect cases for the state. He was working on a case the night Noelle and Angel first met. He was immediately attracted to her but noticed she was reluctant to talk to him. From that time on, whenever Noelle needs help, Jamal, her modern-day swashbuckler, was there. From a flat tire, to an attempted purse snatching to kidnapping charges to escaping the relentless media, Jamal rides to the rescue in his silver Lexus. He's on a mission to save the fair Noelle so they can get to the happily ever after.

Despite the desperation of Noelle's situation, the author allows the relationship between the two main characters to progress naturally. There is a very satisfying secondary romance as well. While the story is well paced, there are minor inconsistencies within the plot that give one pause. The courtroom and hearing proceedings seemed unorthodox, the characterization of Noelle's accuser often seems overblown and several logistical elements are not fully explained.

Gail McFarland's debut novel, Summer Wind, was followed by "This Side of Forever," an excellent short story in Arabesque's 1998 Mother's Day anthology about two survivors of the love wars brought together by their mothers. The Best for Last, her second novel, has demonstrates her ability to both write short and long romances well.

Even with its flaws, I really enjoyed The Best for Last and am adding Gail McFarland to my "Emerging Authors" list.

--Gwendolyn Osborne


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