Connor and Desmond McBride are perfectly suited for this mission and perfectly suited to win a girl's heart, but they hold secrets that will surface and threaten their success. Livvie's determined to solve the case and claim both of the McBride brothers for her own. She is, after all, Jessie McGee's daughter and takes after her mother in more ways than one.
The Orphan Train was a phenomenon that grew out of the Civil War where so many men died (over 1/2 million) and so many families were cast to the winds, so to speak. Literally hundreds of children were left homeless and parentless and in an effort to give them new caregivers, this project was begun. However, all good things of this kind seem to attract the greedy, cruel, and opportunists, and in this case, unscrupulous people were "adopting" children, especially boys, as indentured workers and some were then being secretly 'sold' to work in mining operations in Idaho and Montana. Such was the case when our heroine was given the "secret" mission of going undercover to seek out information and possibly identify those who were causing young boys to disappear.
Olivia Raines, daughter of the heroine of Kentucky Woman, the preceding novel in this series, is determined to follow in the footsteps of her two fathers, Cutter Raines and Billy Marlowe, both of whom were undercover agents for President Lincoln during the Civil War. It is now 1890, and while Cutter is retired, living in Kentucky and working as a country doctor, Billy Marlowe, unbeknownst to his kids, is still active as a government agent. He has now recommended Olivia as one who could successfully go undercover as a young teacher in Fort Cloud, Kansas. First Lady Caroline Harrison is in charge of this project and Olivia is given the support and protection of identical twins, the Brothers McBride. Because they are identical, they are to pose as her husband--one at a time in public--and alternate in that role, while the remaining brother will remain home on the ranch that has been purchased in their name.
Sounds like a good plan, eh? Well . . . it would if there weren't a few glitches in the thinking. First, Livvie (as she is called) is no more prepared to live in the frontier town of Fort Cloud than she is to be a circus clown. She has been raised in ease and knows absolutely no housekeeping skills. She can't cook or sew, clean or do chores . . . all these were taken care of by servants in her home. She has a moderate education but never attended public school. She knows nothing about the dynamic of a one-room school house or how to go about teaching 20 children with 10 different educational levels. Her wardrobe would be more than fine in any Eastern parlor, but in Kansas it will be hot, unwieldy, and useless against the harsh weather of the Plains. But Olivia is one of those wonderful women who may fear what she will find in Kansas, but she fears failure more. Her stubbornness and determination are off the charts.
The McBride Brothers are gorgeous, witty, at home on a ranch, and more than able to keep Olivia safe. But their childhood was full of loss and abuse, and Olivia doesn't have the slightest knowledge of what they have gone through--they were, themselves, passengers on an Orphan Train when they were 10 years old. Now they are back in Kansas and initially with no long-term interest in Olivia, are doing all they can to help her adjust, keep the ranch running, cook, clean, and make her initiation as a school teacher as smooth as possible. But their attraction to this beautiful woman, while physical and lustful at first, gradually grows into something more and even though they are involved in a bit of brotherly competition for her favors, they know that Olivia is the woman who has brought sunshine into their hearts for the first time since their mother died.
This is one fabulous historical romance set in the Old West, full of color and action, romance and suspense, the kind of novel that engages the mind and is what us serious readers look for when we open a book. There are references to Olivia's parents in this book but it is a stand alone novel. However, reading the first novel is also a wonderful reading experience and would fill in lots of blanks for the reader. Amber Carlton is a new author for me, but I am so impressed with her writing skill, her evident expertise in setting up the plot and fleshing out the story line. She is one of those authors--and I think of them as being in somewhat of an elite circle--who have an innate ability to craft characters in such a way that they simply come alive. The context of this novel is so historically "right on" and the flow of the narrative is absolutely seamless.
As the story unfolds, the lives and secrets of both Olivia and the McBrides are exposed and as they come to trust each other more, they begin to share information about their early years, some of which is shared with Olivia and some is even a surprise to the brothers themselves. In fact, the younger twin was so scarred by the abuse there are whole chunks of his childhood he can't remember, trusting that his brother has told him accurately. His deepest wound is that he can't even remember his mother. This is a story that is full of human feeling and experiencing, of friendship and community loyalty, depravity and greed by those who care little for these orphan boys, and the deep friendships these orphans form among themselves. As the danger for Olivia and her men increases and as they move ever closer to finding out who is involved and where the boys have been taken, Olivia's love for these kids and her deepening attachment to the McBrides bring lots of emotion into the story. There were a number of occasions when I found I was tearing up--a few ran down my cheeks, I'm afraid.
This novel is not a new publication by any means. It has been available for several years, but it is one that will continue to be one of my favorites and one that will keep on yielding delight as it is re-read. I give it a rating of 4.5 out of 5.