Sep 29 2014 1:00pm

First Look: Lisa Henry’s Sweetwater (September 29, 2014)

Sweetwater by Lisa Henry

Lisa Henry
Riptide / September 29, 2014 / $6.99, digital / $16.99, print

Elijah Carter is afflicted. Most of the townsfolk of South Pass City treat him as a simpleton because he’s deaf, but that’s not his only problem. Something in Elijah runs contrary to nature and to God. Something that Elijah desperately tries to keep hidden.

Harlan Crane, owner of the Empire saloon, knows Elijah for what he is—and for all the ungodly things he wants. But Crane isn’t the only one. Grady Mullins desires Elijah too, but unlike Crane, he refuses to push the kid.

When violence shatters Elijah’s world, he is caught between two very different men and two devastating urges: revenge, and despair. In a boomtown teetering on the edge of a bust, Elijah must face what it means to be a man in control of his own destiny, and choose a course that might end his life . . . or truly begin it for the very first time.

It's Wyoming, 1870 in Lisa Henry's Sweetwater. Elijah, the adopted son of the town doctor, is seen as mentally handicapped by most people who know him—and they don't even know about his shameful, terrifying feelings. Today he'd be called gay and sexually submissive, but he lives in a time which has no good words for either of those things. And Elijah doesn't trust words anyway. Partially deaf from the scarlet fever that killed his entire family, words for him are a source of struggle to be understood, a tool for others to torment him, and a symbol of a world he can't join.

Words were stretched over the frame of friendly greetings and woven together in ways that he didn’t understand; people made patterns of weather, and news, and remembrances and speculations, but Elijah didn’t know the secret. He had always been excluded from conversation and never learned the skill.

When the one of the richest and most powerful men in town gets him alone and ties a leather strap around his wrists, Elijah can't quite believe what's happening, and that it's happening so easily:

Elijah looked from Crane’s lips to his eyes and worried about what he’d missed. There must have been some words spoken, some order given apart from that curt nod. Understanding didn’t pass in a glance, not like this. It couldn’t be what he thought. Feared. Wanted.

Heat coiled in his belly. Then lower.

Cold dread followed it.

No. He didn’t want it.

This was a precipice he was balanced on. Elijah couldn’t articulate why, but it had something to do with the way he couldn’t read Crane’s smile. He felt a sudden rush of fear and was afraid he was trembling with some strange, sick want that welled up inside him.
Even as his fear spiked, even as he shuffled toward the bed, a part of Elijah was relieved. Yes, he’d believe that was a threat. He’d believe that he couldn’t free his hands, either. He’d believe that this wasn’t his choice at all, that whatever happened he was blameless.

It was a lie, but he’d believe it for as long as he could.

With Harlan Crane controlling his body, Elijah feels seen and understood for the first time, and he loves finally finding a language which is absolutely clear to him, undistorted by “nuance and interpretation and a million other vagaries.” But it comes with a high price — pain and fear. Then a violent tragedy completely changes Elijah's life, sending him into a world where he's ruled by grief and guilt and an overwhelming desire for revenge that's far beyond his fragile ability to communicate:

Words weren’t worth nothing anyhow. What he was feeling came from someplace where words didn’t exist. It was in his bones.

In this state of emotional crisis, he turns to another man who's shown interest in him, cattle rustler Grady Mullins. Elijah expects to be used and mortified, even craves it. But though Grady is happy to give Elijah the dominance he wants, he's motivated by tenderness and protectiveness as well as lust, leaving Elijah completely at a loss, at first.

Elijah gazed back at him, wondering what the man wanted. If he was seeking some sort of reciprocity for this slow seduction of gentle words and touches, Elijah couldn’t give it.
Elijah’s breath caught in his throat. He swallowed a moan. Closed his eyes and heard nothing but the blood roaring in his skull. Just bodies, just animals, just rutting. Didn’t need Grady’s strange, unasked-for tenderness.  Didn’t want it. Elijah just wanted to fuck.

Except he turned his head and found Grady’s mouth with his own. Breath and heat and wetness, and Grady’s moan echoed back his own. Never been that close to someone.

This strange, dark place where touch made up for sound. Where it spoke louder than any words Elijah had ever heard. Where it sang.

In a time and place where there were no understood names, rules, and assumptions for people whose sexuality falls outside the accepted norm, Elijah and Grady have to invent the wheel, discovering that dominance and pleasurable pain can be given and taken with consent, consideration, and caring.

Elijah's path is a hard and painful one, as he struggles with the power Crane has over him and his driving grief. But with Grady, Elijah begins to see the possibilities life holds for him, and even to appreciate words — when they're “murmured words of affection, pitched just as Elijah could hear them.”


Learn more about or order a copy of Sweetwater by Lisa Henry, available September 29, 2014:

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Willaful has been diligently reading and reviewing romance for the past seven years, but for some reason just can't seem to catch up. She blogs at A Willful Woman and Karen Knows Best.

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