The Army Ranger's Return by Soraya Lane totally nails it for me. That feeling I get when I read a really well-done, well-executed category romance. Yes, reading any type of good book is rewarding, but category holds that little bit of added magic for me. If this story is anything to go by? That added magic is emotional intensity.
When Jessica Mitchell was undergoing treatment for breast cancer she found out about a pen pal program that pairs up people at home with military personnel serving overseas. That's how she meets Special Forces Ranger Ryan McAdams. They quickly become active pen pals, exchanging letters back and forth on a regular basis. They also discover that they live near each other! So when Ryan returns state-side thanks to an injury, they agree to meet in person.
Ryan is very nervous about coming home. When his wife passed away, he shut down and ran away. Unfortunately, that means running away from his young son, who is now a surly 12-year-old and not all that happy to see Dear Old Dad. He needs to repair his relationship with his son, deal with his physical therapy, and somehow thank Jessica, the woman who got him through to the other side.
This is a wonderful emotional story. In Ryan's case, Jessica's letters got him through the day-to-day monotony of his last tour, and also the struggles. He was able to tell her things he hasn't been able to talk about with anyone else. An instance of where it's easier to tell a total stranger about your problems than those who are living those problems with you. Jessica listens, and gives him good advice. Without her, and her letters, he doubts he'd have the courage to face the mess he's made with his son.
The fly in the ointment is that Jessica has not told Ryan about her breast cancer, or the fact that it's casting a long shadow. The disease took her sister, and her own breasts. She's in remission now, but it's something she's going to have to deal with for the rest of her days. She doesn't tell Ryan because she just wants to feel normal again. She's tired of people close to her wanting to protect her. Baby her. Looking at her differently. She just wants to feel like a normal, everyday woman. The woman she was before The Big C rolled into town. Then Ryan shows up and she fears that learning the truth might bring an end to their friendship. Of course this all gets very complicated when she realizes that she just might be falling in love with the man.
The one sticking point here is definitely The Big Secret. I totally understood, and even sympathized, with Jessica's plight. This bit of conflict felt very organic to me, and realistic. Should Jessica have kept this from Ryan? OK, no. But then, I understood why she did - because the author made me understand why she did. As the reader, we know that Jessica is selling Ryan a little short - but he's a man with his own baggage to deal with. A kid who "hates" him and his feelings over his wife's death. Would the knowledge of Jessica's cancer be too much for even a strong, tough Army Ranger to bear?
Which means you have to read the book to find out. The conflict with Ryan's son is fairly well done, although I did want some more of that. The author makes it work given the page count of the Harlequin Romance line, but oh what she could have done with it in the SuperRomance world! I also liked that snippets of those letters Jessica and Ryan wrote to each other were included, and I really appreciated the emotionally draining final chapters. It's the stuff keepers are made of, and I suspect this book will be one for many, many readers. Soraya Lane has two books out now. Catch the elevator on the ground floor folks - she's turning in her fifth book at the end of this month.
Final Grade = B+