This month's TBR theme is "tortured hero or heroine" and I think Clay Montgomery from Brenda Novak's Stillwater trilogy fits the bill.
I was the winning bidder last year at Brenda's auction for an autographed set of this trilogy. I finally got around to reading the first book back in December. I liked it very much and really meant to read the next two sooner than this. But conveniently for me, when I needed a tortured hero I knew just what to read.
This romantic suspense trilogy tells the story of the Barker/Montgomery family who is deeply affected by the mysterious disappearance of their father/step-father, the Rev. Lee Barker, some 19 years before the books begin. The Rev. Barker was a beloved figure in tiny little Stillwater, Miss. and despite a total lack of evidence, step-son Clay Montgomery was presumed guilty of murder. With no body, Clay was never charged, but he is largely shunned and left friendless over the years by a community convinced he is to blame for the loss of their popular preacher.
The previous book was the story of his sister, Grace. In that book we first learn that Barker was guilty of unspeakable crimes against Grace and other young girls. And we learn the truth of what really happened to Barker when Clay was only 16 years old. In the intervening years Clay has kept silent about what happened in order to protect his mother, his sister Grace, and other sister Molly (all 3 of whom know the truth). While Clay is indeed not guilty of killing Barker, he nonetheless stands guard over the hidden location of Barker's body and he does this by isolating himself on the farm where they'd all lived with Barker. Clay also protects his step-sister, Barker's natural daughter, Maddy, who has no idea of Barker's crimes and holds her father's memory in high regard as does the rest of the town. The difference is that Maddy loves her step-family and is convinced that they couldn't possibly be involved in her father's disappearance.
When Maddy's old school friend Allie McCormick, a cold-case detective in Chicago, moves back to Stillwater, Maddy convinces Allie to use her cold-case skills to find her father. Allie has come back to Stillwater after a difficult divorce where her own father is police chief to provide a stable environment for her 6-year old daughter. It is not long before Allie has an encounter with Clay and she finds it hard to believe all of the rumors surrounding Clay. As she digs into the file and gets to know Clay, she becomes more convinced of his innocence while she's pressured by the town to find him guilty. It's not long before Allie has fallen in love with Clay and Clay with her. Allie, of course, eventually learns the truth and has to decide whether to reveal all or find a way to protect both Clay and his secrets.
Meanwhile, Clay has spent his entire adult life harboring these secrets in order to give his sisters and mother the chance to live normal lives. He has never let anyone close for fear that someone else would suffer because of what he knows. Grace (heroine of the first book) has found love and peace with her new husband and even has a baby on the way. Grace represents all of the things Clay has yearned for--intimacy with someone else and a family to love and care for. He's scared of his feelings for Allie because it would not be wise to involve her in his family. Clay makes a great tortured hero because he wants so badly to live a normal life and no one will let him until he meets Allie.
There are numerous sub-plots to this story and a wide range of secondary characters who help carry the tale. I've really found all of it very well-written. The main characters are well-developed and I could empathize with their dilemma. I also have to give kudos to Ms. Novak for the continuity. This book is clearly meant to follow the first and ends with a lead-in to the 3rd. Yet I do think it could be read alone. As readers, we're allowed to see the truth about Barker early on. It's the rest of the town that has no idea, although slowly but surely the truth is being revealed to select individuals. Some references are made to the first book, but this book does not rely heavily upon them. There was just enough there to refresh my aging memory or inform the new reader who might have missed Grace's book.
I would definitely recommend this book and when I'm done with Maddy's story I will be looking to read some of Ms. Novak's other romantic suspense titles.
Hey! Guess who has a birthday today! Cheesecake ahoy!