Maddie Sherwood is a woman with a past whose luck has run out. Just as she is about to resort to a desperate act, fate brings her together with Charles Lawson. This complete stranger offers her a marriage of convenience and the promise of security. In exchange she is to be mother to his three children.

At first Maddie is impressed with Charles' stage coach inn, but grows distressed when she meets his brother, Jesse. Maddie finds the former "Texas Ranger" very disconcerting. She falls in love with the children, but while Charles's two daughters take to her, she must work harder to get his eight-year-old son to accept her as his new mother.

Jesse is the one who objects most strenuously to the marriage. Maddie is at a loss to understand the conflicting emotions that are generated between herself and Jesse. Their relationship rebounds from sizzling attraction to distrust.

Maddie has her secrets, but so does Charles. As Jesse tries to learn more about Maddie, and Charles hides more from her, the pool of secrets grows. Though some readers might become confused at times, this is forgivable when compared to the bittersweet miracle of love and self-sacrifice that is the centerpiece of PARTING GIFTS -a powerful testimony to the innate goodness of man, inspiring courage and love. Keep a hanky or two nearby. SENSUAL (Dec., 430 pp., $4.99)

Reviewed by: 
Gail Collins