Man With A Past : Going Back (Harlequin Superromance No. 1347)

Man With a Past (Going Back) - Kay Stockham This book had the makings of a five-star Harlequin, but the effect was spoiled a bit by a too neat ending. I thought the HEA would have been more powerful if it were in spite of the rather large obstacles in their way. Quibble, quibble, quibble...Joe Brody is returning to town after 10 years in prison for manslaughter in the death of his baby daughter when he was a mere 18 years old. He knows he didn't cause his daughter's death, but no one in town believes him other than his father. Gratitude and loyalty bring Joe back home to look after his elderly father, who is currently in a nursing home healing a broken hip. Just as he's getting disheartened by the local employers slamming their doors to the "baby killer," he happens upon Ashley Cade, who needs a handyman for her project to turn an old Victorian into a bed and breakfast. The pay was room and board and a pittance in cash, but it was the best he was going to get.The widowed Ashley's a new arrival in the small town. She's moved here to make a fresh start after her husband died in Iraq, leaving her a young widowed mother. After growing up in a group foster home herself, she wants to give her young son stability in his childhood, and sees buying a home and running a business in a small town as the best way to put down solid roots. This desire to be a part of a community wars with her growing attraction to Joe as she's slowly finding out he's the town pariah, and with good reason.The novel has a strong character focus, and the romance that follows is slow and emotional. Both are a mess of insecurities and grief and reluctant to indulge this attraction they feel. You could cut the tension between these two with a knife. Ashley is apprehensive about moving on from the first husband, who was also a childhood friend of hers, and about getting involved with a man while raising her son. Joe feels unworthy of Ashley, and is understandably afraid of how she'll react when she finds out about why he went to prison.I liked how their problems were given the weight they were. Amazing sex didn't wipe their troubles magically away. There are false starts, awkward moments and a few tense, angsty scenes. I loved how both characters were tough as nails and extremely vulnerable at the same time. They were real people to me. The kind that aren't perfect and that make mistakes but are able to admit when they're wrong.Unfortunately, the ending is way too neat. We find out how his daughter actually died, there's a big pow-wow hug fest with the baby's mom - now dying of cancer - her dad the angry police chief and Ashley where the kindly small town doctor reveals his irrefutable evidence, then every wish is granted in a saccharine epilogue. As the book's strength is the drama, angst and conflict, it seems an odd decision to make it all go away.Taken as a whole, though, I have to say I loved the book. The characters and their dilemmas were made real to me, making their stories and eventual HEA a joy to read.