His Daddy's Eyes

Back in Kansas by Debra Salonen
(Harl. Super. #986, PG, $4.50) ISBN 0-373-70986-2
People who scoff at romances and accuse them of being trite, frivolous or too predictable will be very surprised ­ pleasantly so, I think ­ at the intensity, the depth and the heart of Back in Kansas.

When she was seventeen, Claudie St. James was raped by her stepfather. She ran away with a young man who promptly abandoned her. Believing all the lies that her stepfather had spewed at her and believing in her own worthlessness, Claudie turned to prostitution.

Now ten years later, Claudie lives in Sacramento and has turned her life around. She manages a bookstore and has founded One Wish House, a halfway house for ex-prostitutes. Afraid that she's put it off too long, Claudie is returning to Kansas to confront her stepfather and to rescue her younger sister. She's fearful that the young girl is in jeopardy of being molested, with history repeating itself.

Without telling anyone why she's leaving or where she's going, Claudie embarks on her quest, one that will take her from California through Wyoming and South Dakota where she has a reunion with two of her brothers. Now she's on her way to her final destination and a confrontation that will have the power to change her life.

What she hasn't counted on is that her very good friend, Robert Lester­ known to his friends as Bo, is following her and is unwilling to let her be alone when she confronts her past.

Bo is an ex-cop turned private investigator who loves Claudie, warts and all. He's a reformed alcoholic who knows how hard it is to rid one's life of demons. This vulnerable, gentle man is afraid of frightening Claudie or of asking too much of her. This hesitancy causes some wonderfully humorous, tender scenes. This scene highlights Claudie's confusion.

"Make up your mind. When I don't want you, you want me. When I throw myself at you, you play hard to get." Her chest was heaving and he could see she was close to tears. "What are you?" she growled. "A woman?"

Matt, Bo's cousin, is a secondary character who seems to be heading for stardom in his own book. He's another complex, wounded hero with a shining soul. He's surprised that he likes Claudie, considering her past occupation. When he tries to explain why Bo is preoccupied with family matters, here's his rationale. Claudie and I both laughed with him.

"He's tweaked about his dad, but he can't talk about it. Guys don't talk about their feelings . . . Truth is, guys don't have inner thoughts."

Back in Kansas is a compelling, worthwhile read, but I do need to point out some minor concerns. The reasons that led Claudie to prostitution are not clearly defined. Women get raped every day, yet don't turn to prostitution. As for Bo, we also don't really understand his alcoholism until the end. An earlier explanation would have helped. Lastly, while Claudie makes no secret of her past, I sometimes felt she overdid the confession. Every time she told someone about her past, I had this type of imaginary conversation.

Imaginary Woman Friend: Claudie, that's a wonderful scarf.
Claudie: Thanks, but it's not something I would have worn when I was hooking.
Imaginary Woman Friend: Claudie, I love your apartment. Your bedroom is so pretty.
Claudie: Thanks, but when I was hooker, I couldn't always choose where I slept.

Those concerns aside, Back in Kansas has so much going for it. Having two scarred, all-too-human protagonists is such a welcome change. These two have had miserable pasts, but self-pity never rears its ugly head. Claudie and Bo have a lot to overcome, and it isn't easy. At times it isn't pretty, but it is so worthwhile.

Before it's too late and Back in Kansas becomes hard to find, treat yourself. If you have the chance, I'd suggest that you find His Daddy's Eyes, the book prior to this one that introduces Claudie and Bo as secondary characters. You may also want to mark your calendar for Matt's story, Something about Eve, an August Superromance release.

--Linda Mowery

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