The torments of childhood can only be put to rest when they are squarely faced. As a 10-year-old, Sarah Jane Whitman's life was shattered by the hard-hearted judgment of the denizens of Marmet, Maine. In Sharon Sala's masterful romantic suspense, Dark Water (Mira, $6.50, 384 pages, ISBN 1551669390), Sarah Jane returns to Marmet two decades later to confront the old scandal in which her father was accused of embezzling $1 million from the bank before disappearing. Town bad boy Tony DeMarco is back, too, determined to repay an old debt to Sarah, whether she wants his help or not. The discovery of her father's body in Flagstaff Lake unleashes a flurry of secrets. As Sarah Jane and Tony dig into what really happened in Marmet's past, someone in the present will do anything to stop them. Successful business owners in their own right, Sarah and Tony must also unravel the challenges of their disparate lives in Chicago and New Orleans as their relationship intensifies. Sarah's Aunt Lorett has a gift for seeing the future that heightens the tension and dangerous anticipation as Sarah refuses, this time, to pack up and just go away. Sharon Sala's story fairly flies off the page with just the right combination of colorful small-town suspects, sidekicks and sublime suspense. The mighty Quinn Going home again is a powerful dramatic theme that resonates throughout women's fiction, and each author brings her unique flair to the subject. As does quintessential romance novelist Nora Roberts in Chesapeake Blue, (Putnam, $25.95, 384 pages, ISBN 0399149392), her return to the tales of the Quinn family. This time, the focus is on Seth Quinn, who is returning from Italy to his family's boat-building roots along Maryland's Eastern Shore. The now-renowned artist carries the burden of his childhood his substance-abusing mother, Gloria, who's been extorting money from him for years. Gloria's machinations threaten the fragile relationship Seth develops with Dru Banks. Like Seth, Dru has chosen St. Chris for its small-town warmth, a world apart from the artificiality of her wealthy parents. In the warm embrace of Seth's beloved adopted brothers and their families, Seth and Dru find both the example of love that endures and loyalty that can overcome the most sinister of dangers. Chesapeake Blue is a welcome crescendo to the story-symphony that is the family Quinn in all its boisterous, loving resonance.

Straight-shootin' time Coming home may be only an imagined ideal for James Cameron in the aftermath of the Civil War, for it is another man's ranch and another man's wife he has secretly craved for a decade in Maggie Osborne's welcome return to the Western scene, Prairie Moon (Ballantine, $6.99, 368 pages, ISBN 0804119902). Youthful bride Della Ward quickly became a victim of that war, a widow forced to struggle for survival on the harsh Texas frontier. She blames herself for the letter her young husband carried to his death, a letter blaming him for stranding her. Della doesn't realize that Cameron, too, faces self-recrimination as he confronts the task of telling her about her husband's death. As their bond deepens, the past must be faced before their future can be shared in this evocative tale of struggle for survival and redemption. Osborne writes with a special gift for the gritty and glorious life of the frontier.

Lamb in wolf's clothing What kind of callow neighbor would run down one's valuable male lamb on a country road in Yorkshire and then refuse to do right by its owner? Judith Ivory transports readers to the realm of Victorian England in the delicious bit o' lamb stew, Untie My Heart. Emma Hotchkiss is no simpering or simple country lass. Wily in the ways of confidence games, she decides to exact revenge against the newly arrived viscount, Stuart Aysgarth, by forging his signature. But shearing this sheep, as she considers him, becomes an exercise of wits and determination on both sides. Judith Ivory's tale of the young Yorkshire widow who discovers the true lamb in her life is a delightful pastoral tale that's sheer bliss to read. Sandy Huseby writes and reviews from her homes in Fargo, North Dakota, and lakeside in northern Minnesota.

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