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"Love Comes Softly," a heartwarming love story set against the harsh backdrop of the American frontier, has been the Hallmark Channel's highest rated original movie since it premiered last year.

It may very well lose that distinction when its sequel, "Love's Enduring Promise," debuts at 9 p.m. Saturday on Hallmark. The new film, as lovely, moving and uplifting as the original, marks the return of immensely likable actors Katherine Heigl and Dale Midkiff as Marty and Clark, a pioneer couple brought together by tragedy into a marriage of convenience.

The original movie, based on the first of an eight-book best-selling series by Janette Oke, was a sweet portrait of the quiet love and unbreakable bond that develops between the two as they battle tough times and heartache, including the disapproval of Clark's unhappy young daughter, Missie.

That unabashedly sentimental and faith-based TV movie won several awards, including two at the 12th annual Movieguide awards. Hallmark will air "Love Comes Softly" at 7 p.m. Saturday as a lead-in to "Love's Enduring Promise," which is set about 10 years later.

The Davis family has grown to five with the addition of two sons. Missie (now played by January Jones) has blossomed from a sullen and spiteful little girl into a lovely, intelligent young woman. She's just as comfortable on a horse as she is inside the one-room school house where she teaches. Missie is a voracious reader. She acts out passages of "Pride and Prejudice" and dreams of one day meeting her own Mr. Darcy.

That romantic ideal seems to be brought to life in the form of the good-looking Grant Thomas (played by Mackenzie Astin, brother of Sean), a surveyor for a new railroad coming through town. He thinks she's beautiful and quaintly delightful; she thinks he's dapper and smart.

Before they can meet for their first date, however, tragedy strikes the family (as it so often does on the harsh living off the land). Dad, whose leg is severely cut while chopping wood, has his life saved at the last minute by a mysterious young man on horseback. Nate (passionately played by darkly handsome newcomer Logan Bartholomew) quickly becomes a lifeline for the family while Clark's wounds heal.

And although they can't be seen, Nate has wounds of his own that need to be healed. As Clark tells him, "Most of the time we're not looking for answers, we're looking for comfort."

As in any good gothic romance, a lover's triangle forms and Missie must choose between the smooth and rich Grant and the troubled, good-hearted Nate. Knowing the values instilled in Missie by her family, it's not difficult to guess where her heart will take her.

"Love's Enduring Promise" is co-written and directed by Michael Landon Jr. with the same tender hand that marked so much of his father's work. Although it's not a holiday film, its themes of guilt, forgiveness, love, family and values are especially relevant at this time of year.

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