Safekeeping CovelSafekeeping is a 1994 Harlequin by Peg Sutherland. It’s part of the Dangerous to Love series, a set of fifty books each set in a different American State. This is #46, Virginia. It’s also part of the Women Who Dare series, and it’s no longer in print or available electronically. Sutherland wrote for Harlequin in the 1980s and 1990s, under that name and others, and now writes creative non-fiction and poetry.

The meet is a little forced. Quinn, eight months pregnant, goes into the mountains with two under-privileged pre-teen girls, for an afternoon stroll in the woods. They get trapped by a snowstorm, and seek shelter in an isolated cabin. The cabin is home to Whitney, an ex-con, hiding from the police as well as toughs working for corrupt government officials.

Roughly the first half of the book is the couple and children trapped in the cabin. The confined space is a great setting for various tensions as everyone comes to terms with the arrangement, and the couple become attracted to each other. Then Whitney manages to get the children home, and starts investigating how he can resolve his predicament. Quinn, unable to walk thanks to a narratively convenient twisted ankle, remains at the cabin, and goes into labour early. Fortunately there are no complications, and Whitney is an experienced midwife, having helped his grandmother deliver babies in the same cabin. The action moves to town, more characters and settings come into play, and the second half, more thriller than romance, is faster paced.

At about 300 pages, this is longer than a typical Harlequin, and grittier than some of the romantic-suspense genre. Quinn had a rough childhood in Los Angeles, including losing a brother to gun violence, another to prison, and losing a baby from a teen pregnancy. Her big city background is offered as an explanation for venturing into the woods before a snowstorm. She moved to Virginia years ago for a better life, but just a few months ago the father of her baby, a policeman, was killed when he tried to stop an armed robbery. Whitney also had a rough childhood, which led to his involvement in an armed robbery where someone was killed. Prison brutality has left him with emotional scars. The hoods and government officials after him have killed one person already, and are prepared to kill more.

I love the characters. They’re realistic, wounded, and strong. Neither is in need of rescue, and they balance each other well. Quinn may not be woods smart, but she’s tough and street smart, and can take on the bad guys when necessary. Whitney is a quietly masculine hero, at home in the woods, good with children, home remedies, and computers. Sutherland contrasts his authentic masculinity with the false masculinity of street gang toughs and rich pretty boys. Quinn and Whitney both have public service office jobs, value education, and enjoy helping others.

The story-telling is rich, with flashbacks that deepen the character growth in the course of the story. The plot has a few contrivances, and the mid-novel tone shift is a little awkward, but overall this is a solid romance read that effectively balances sentimental and nostalgic moments with harsh modern realities.