My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts as I went with the book...
Paradise Valley was my first book of Rosanne Bittner. I’m a fan of western romances, and this book certainly was interesting. I liked the author’s writing style, and her description of the wild west of the 1880’s. But unfortunately, there were things that bugged me in the story too and it would have to start with the h, Maggie. Let me elaborate in my review in the following.
Maggie has led a hard life. Even though she was born a girl, she has never known the kind of kindness or love a girl can expect from her father. Maggie was very young when she had to start working on all the rough chores in her father’s farmland right after her mother died. She was also married off quite young to an equally rough and unemotional older man (I assumed James to be much older than her). Her life didn’t change much after the marriage. Maggie was still doing all the farm work, even after she had her daughter. James didn’t like weakness and he expected Maggie to work as hard as he did, so no loitering about after having a baby! Her baby was Maggie’s only solace from this loveless marriage. Even that was taken away from Maggie when the baby dies in a fever. Oh I felt so sad for her when I was reading about her past life. Then, when James became adamant to seek out a ‘better life’ leaving Missouri, Maggie had no say in it. She just followed her husband because that’s what she was expected to do. So overall, Maggie tried her best to be the good, accommodating wife to James for as long as they have been married. But that changed one day at Wyoming, when James is murdered by some thugs and Maggie raped, left to fend for herself while the thugs, all three of them looted their wagon and rode away.
Maggie was hurt and miserable from her horrible experience, yet she had the energy to dig a grave for her husband. Her body was complaining but she was stubborn enough to see through it, probably because she was in shock, working on the auto-pilot mode. She keeps berating James for taking a single wagon rather than riding in a more public manner. But no matter, it was more than clear from Maggie’s musings that she had no love for her husband. She knows no one here. She doesn’t even know where she is. She keeps thinking of her baby, buried so far away, and now she’s burying her husband. Maggie was finally lying back, contemplating her fate here in the middle of apparent nowhere when a lone rider approaches her. Maggie becomes alert and brings out a rifle and threatens to shoot the man! But the rider gently tells her that she obviously needs help and he’s here to offer it. He throws out his pistols and knife on her demand to allay her suspicion, to show her that he means good. He introduces himself as Sage Lightfoot, the owner of the ranch Paradise Valley, where currently Maggie is standing.
Sage knew immediately what might’ve happened, looking from the murdered man to the abused woman and the looted wagon. He’s led an enough colorful life to have an idea. Moreover, Sage is on the hunt for three men who murdered his best ranch-hand, raped his wife and then looted money from him too. And when Maggie gives him a halted description of what has occurred, alongside the description of those men, Sage knew those are the same men. He was also feeling for the woman, so he does his best to help her. He tells her that he was going after those men, but now he’d take her to his ranch because she obviously needs care and rest. Maggie couldn’t have denied his offer because he’s the only person she knows right now in this unknown territory. Then she makes her own demand. She wants those men caught, she wants revenge... and she wants Sage to take her with him when he rides out again on his hunt.
Ok, even I was kinda amused by Maggie’s demands as Sage and later, his ranch hands were. They had to travel through rougher terrains to reach Sage’s ranch which was miles and miles away from where Maggie has been; all belonging to Sage. He knows the land as the back of his hand, so he informs Maggie of what to expect from the returning journey. Sure enough, they had to fight back a very volatile weather of wind, sun and cold, a big Grizzly and wolves. The Grizzly attacks Sage out of the blue, leaving him badly injured. It was up to Maggie to find the cottage they were looking for at that time, and bring back Sage’s men to help him. She does that and more, taking care of Sage. Even though Maggie was wary about the Sage’s men, she knew that they won’t harm her, much as their leader.
Sage is moved in a litter and taken back to the ranch house. Men are agog of Maggie, especially when they hear of her killing the Grizzly at one single shot when she appears to be so small! But they also respect her, as Sage warned anyone trying to disrespect or harm her will have to answer to him. It was obvious to Maggie that his men respected and cared for Sage. Maggie takes up the cooking for a while because the food there was not good. She is also able to take rest, refreshing herself as best as she could. By now, Maggie knows there has been a woman in this ranch, and the men don’t like talking about her. Sage becomes close-lipped every time she’s mentioned. Maggie is a little apprehensive about it. Who was this woman to Sage, she can’t help but wonder because I could see she was already forming a ‘hero-worship’ kind of obsession over Sage. The fact that he’s very handsome, unlike any man she’s ever known, doesn’t help the matter. Sage confirms later that he’s half-Indian, his father being some French man who abandoned him and his mother a long time ago. A letter comes soon enough for Sage, from a woman named Joanna. Sage becomes angry after reading it, and when Maggie looks on the envelop, she finds that Joanna shares his surname. So now she has a name and apparently, she is Sage’s wife!
Maggie is more than jealous, becomes eager to know more about Sage. But she has other things to think about now, so she doesn’t forget to remind Sage that she wants to go with him, NO MATTER WHAT. She wants the men to be taken down, if possible, to witness their death with her very own eyes. She’s SO resolved in it, nothing, even Sage’s warning that this won’t be a happy, relaxed and easy ride don’t deter her. Then, she does something that annoyed the hell outta me. She learns that she might be expecting. She was certain that it was the result of the rape because she hadn’t been with her husband for a long while before that fateful night. Maggie decides to keep it a secret. You know why? Because she was determined to have her way, as I mentioned, NO MATTER WHAT!! She’d go, if it means hiding this from Sage, who’d surely leave her here if he gets any clue of it.
So when they ride out, Sage isn’t aware of it at all. At first, even I was hoping that it was just nothing, no pregnancy, just as Maggie was. But that was not to be. Their journey is just how Sage warned it’d be but Maggie manages to stay put. She’s very focused on the revenge after all. They try their best to keep at the trail of those men. I would’ve enjoyed the description had the dialogues were not full of Maggie’s nagging about wanting to know Sage’s ‘past’. As the story progresses, we learn that Sage was an outlaw himself once upon a time. Already mentioned how his father abandoned him, and then his mother was brutally murdered by the invaders along with the most of his tribe. A missionary couple found him bloodied and bruised, took him in and cared for him. Sage thought he found a new family, until he made a blunder at the age of 17 by falling for the beautiful girl of the richest family of that small town. It was, of course, mutual but when they were found together is when the real face of his so-called parents were revealed. It was always about the money/donation for the church they got from that family; taking in Sage was also a part of that ploy. And now that he has done something so ‘disgusting’ and ‘shamed’ them, they kick Sage out without any help whatsoever because of that family’s demand. After all, he has the dirty Indian blood in him!
This was a very painful and confusing time in Sage’s life, and somehow he ended up being an outlaw. He made some friends and a few foes on the way, but Sage was good at what he did. Yet, he was never proud of his deeds. It was all about survival but inside, Sage craved for his own lands, a home and hearth, complete with a family. This is something I absolutely adored in him. After a few years riding with various gangs and living loose and fast life, Sage finally had enough money to buy acres of lands. While he was busy buying more lands and setting up a big house (definitely home enough for a big family) the girl from his teenage years, Joanna, returns in his life. And you can guess, she seduces Sage again with the promise of love and devotion, and they were married soon. But things don’t go well as Joanna’s real face is out in a few days. She despised the sights and sounds of the ranch life, craving more for the city and all the glitz and glamour that brought. When she failed to convince Sage to move to the big city with her, Joanna up and left, divorcing Sage in exchange a hefty sum. Sage already realized that Joanna never really loved him. He was used, and again, it was all about the money. He was burned from this experience so badly that Sage didn’t want to share this with anyone... and still, Maggie kept on nagging him, asking him question she KNEW she shouldn’t ask. She also wanted to know about his outlaw life, and the things he did. Can she trust a man like him, even if he seemed changed now?
Most of the book is filled with the highs and lows, the incidents and description of this journey. At some point, Sage and Maggie find a few outlaws who were living in a small ranch acquired through questionable means. Sage was looking for a particular man from his outlaw days, but finds he died a while ago. In that ranch, Maggie also finds a woman who does everything for these men. She’s also the common whore for them. Sage is apparently easy with this lifestyle, but it’s a little hard for Maggie to take in since she’d basically led a sheltered life. She becomes jealous of that woman, knowing she offered herself to Sage. But Sage and Maggie were riding as husband and wife, mainly for Maggie’s safety and Sage declines the woman’s offer lightheartedly. He also manages to find some information on those men that proves that they’re on the right track.
Soon Sage and Maggie are on the trail again but one of those men, a mean Indian, follows them. He had his eyes on Maggie and meant to ‘have’ her. In the fight, Maggie is injured. Sage too, but he manages to kill the Indian. It was a bloody and gruesome outcome but I liked that reality that it depicted, showing that Sage was capable of murder when the occasion calls for it and he has done that many times before. Maggie tries to take this fact in. But she finds that though wary, she’s not scared of him. Maggie also begins realizing that she’s falling in love with Sage. Personally, I thought her declaration was not quite believable; it seemed too soon. Moreover, I hadn’t felt that kind of intensity or connection between Maggie and Sage throughout the story. But I can’t deny the fact that they were attracted to each-other. They take shelter in a shabby old cottage, and Sage begins looking after Maggie’s leg wound. This is where Maggie confesses her love for Sage, and then, seduces him. I was already quite annoyed by her activities so far, also the fact that she was hiding her pregnancy from Sage. By that time, she was more than sure about it. And now this? *SMH*
Worse was, she knew what this might mean. That she’s deceiving Sage and when he learns of the pregnancy he’ll automatically think the baby’s his. This is a disaster waiting to happen. At that point, Sage has given into her nagging and opened up enough about his past for Maggie to know that he hated being lied to and being used. She knew all these, and yet, Maggie kept making demands of him to have sex more times over the course of the story. If it was once or twice, I would try to understand. If she came clean about the truth in that time, I would’ve respected her more. The more I think about it, the less I think that Maggie was a ‘strong and honest’ woman, as the author tried to drum-roll into us. She was forever making excuses for her actions, like Sage will leave her when he hears of it etc. She had every right to feel insecure but prevarication is not the answer. It is the better option that you keep having sex with the man, hiding your pregnancy all the while? At least that is how it was portrayed, with which I couldn’t agree. Does that sound like a smart move? Not to me. Truth is bound to be out sooner or later. Poor Sage! He was worried about getting Maggie pregnant, so he decides to visit nearby brothel to get some preventives as soon as they reach a town. But that doesn’t settle well with our Maggie! She’s jealous and still, she won’t fess up. Not once, until the very end... even then Sage had to hear it in an ugly way, rather than from Maggie’s own mouth.
After this, they stop at a few different towns Sage knew from his outlaw days. In one of those cities, Maggie and Sage find one of those men they are hunting for. In an incident, Sage kills him. Before his death, the man is able to give them some clue to where the other two might be. Maggie asks Sage to have sex with her later that night ‘to take away the memory of what happened to her’. Afterwards, they journey again. When a sudden bad weather with incessant rainfall is upon them, Sage and Maggie find refuge in another nearby town. Turns out that the proprietress of that boarding house is an ex-prostitute and Sage knows her very well, if you know what I mean. This woman, Kate, is much older than Sage and in his youth, she was one of his favorites. Now this part of the story quite ruined my fun too. Yes, I understand the ‘reality’ of Sage’s past, still I didn’t like how easy he was with Kate. Between the two, their innuendoes and hints of what they did when they were lovers was just... not appealing to me. It was certainly not about Kate’s former profession, because as an individual, I quite liked her. Her honesty about her harsh life made me sad. She certainly didn’t deserve to be what she became before she decided to gather enough money for an ‘honest living’. Kate was definitely a prostitute with ‘a heart of gold’, but I totally could’ve done without that part about her and Sage. Moreover, even though she had a lover presently, Newell, who helps her with the boarding house, Kate made it known a few times that she’d be amenable about having Sage back in her bed. Why oh WHY? Gah. :/
Maggie wasn’t that jealous of Kate, though she certainly got their relationship since the first moment. I don’t know why though when she was jealous of even the mention of any brothel. Maggie also realizes that Sage trusted Kate a lot when he tells her about their pretense of husband and wife. No matter, Kate is nice to Maggie. Later, Newell and Sage discuss about those men and where they might be now. They’re pretty sure that the scoundrels will go back to this dangerous place every outlaw knows called Hole-In-The-Wall. This place is like a nightmare because of the way it’s structured; reaching it is not at all easy. But one can view one’s target, or so to speak and kill them easily. Sage knows this is going to be something of a war. He’d need more men and his wit about to help him get through this. At that point he’s not thinking of anyone or anything but revenge, and his resolve is strengthened when Maggie is kidnapped by those men sometimes later when neither Sage nor Newell was about. They also injure Kate quite badly before hauling Maggie out. From what I saw, it was clear that Newell and Kate had feelings for each-other, though they considered themselves too old and definitely not the types to abide by the social norms. But after this, Newell becomes a part of Sage’s ‘war’.
Without a doubt, I liked the depiction from here because I was pretty much hooked in the suspense. I was on the edge just to know what happens next. Can Sage save Maggie? Would those SOBs abuse Maggie again? Those men have already gathered a few more outlaws with them, all in for money and the promise of woman, Maggie. She had a tough journey up there, being manhandled all along the way. From the description, I did wonder; how was it that the baby survived that treacherous journey so early in her pregnancy?
Sage was going crazy, thinking what she might be suffering at their hands, but for his trouble (when he reaches there finally, a big, bloody and gruesome fight ensues), Sage learns about Maggie’s pregnancy from one of those dying men. She told them to save herself from another bout of rape. I felt sad for Sage, because he was shocked. For Maggie... well, think I’ve already exhausted this review with my feelings for her. lol I felt bad that she had to suffer but that is about what I could bring myself to feel. Sage becomes distant after knowing the truth. He asks her again if she’s really sure that the baby is not James’s, and she replies positive. Sage takes Maggie to some place he knew from before, so that she can take rest and recover from her latest ordeal. He rides back to Kate and Newell to find out how things are there. Maggie waits for Sage, apprehensive that he might or might not return, even though he said he would, to take her back home. And then, there was the matter of Joanna, who is probably already waiting back at the ranch, hoping to reconcile with Sage. TBH, I thought that the part of Joanna was just unnecessary. It felt like a drag, maybe because by then I didn’t really care one way or the other.
Overall, Paradise Valley was a good read. Though I’ve tried to explain the things that bugged me over the course of the story, others might enjoy this more than I have. 4 stars.
This ARC was provided to me by Sourcebooks Casablanca via netgalley which didn’t influence my review and rating in any way.