Miss Bates anticipates, welcomes, and relishes a Donna Alward category romance. Alward has given us some great romance fiction: Honeymoon With the Rancher, How A Cowboy Stole Her Heart, and The Rebel Rancher are among Miss Bates’s favourites. (Indeed, How A Cowboy Stole Her Heart may be one of her favourite categories, akin to Sarah Mayberry’s She’s Got It Bad.) Clean air, horses, complex characters, thorny, believable issues, deeply-felt love, desire, need, and burgeoning friendship between hero and heroine are a winning combination. Thus, Miss Bates was eager to read Her Rancher Rescuer. Miss Bates loves how Alward takes her characters, especially her heroes, and twists them up and spins them every which way in the name of love and the heroine. She loves how her heroines are the stronger emotionally, grow to be self-assured and decisive, yet never lose their soft touch, or tenderness. Though Her Rancher Rescuer did not grab Miss Bates immediately and there are reasons for that, it grew on her. She liked it … a lot. It didn’t reduce her to a sniveling, Kleenex-sodden mess, as did How A Cowboy Stole Her Heart, but the heartstrings were pulled taut.
Her Rancher Rescuer is part of Alward’s Cadence Creek Cowboys series: one that began in Alberta, Canada, and ended, in this latest, in Montana. The heroine, Amy Wilson, is the town flirt, an “air-head” who constantly sets her sights on the closest available man. She is not, at least to begin with, a sympathetic heroine. As Alward reveals the cause of her distasteful behaviour, she grows not only more sympathetic, but likeable. This is one of the ways that Alward shows what an adept hand she is at romance writing.
The hero, Jack Shepard, is Mr. Perfect; a self-made millionaire thanks to his sporting goods empire. He’s a former champion skier, handsome and charming. He’s a knight-in-shining armor to Amy when he rescues her from the ladies room where she’s hiding from one more snub, one more insult, delivered at Jack’s brother’s wedding, which they’re attending. When Jack returns to Cadence Creek for Christmas, Amy has a chance to return the favour. The lady who runs Jack’s Montana retreat ranch has had a fall and he’s having a hell of a time finding a temporary replacement. When Amy and Jack meet at church and he confesses his dilemma, she offers to help him out for a couple of weeks in exchange for the opportunity to get away from Cadence Creek. Amy wants to figure out where she wants to go next: since the wedding and their mutual, un-acted-upon attraction and her public humiliation, Amy’s ready for changes. Most of the novel is focussed on Amy and Jack working out and acting on their attraction and liking at his ranch, as well as hosting guests amid the clear air and beautiful snowy mountains.
Alward’s strength lies in characterization: revealing and building character in such a way that we learn what barriers they’ve erected against love and intimacy and what they need to do to open themselves to life’s possibilities. In Amy’s and Jack’s cases, it involves psychic hurts they’ve endured in the past. Miss Bates likes that there’s no trauma, no outlandish angst here. What there is instead are hurts that flesh is heir to, believable, realistic, painfully familiar. Because the past comes to bear so heavily on these two characters, the narrative slows considerably as they work things out. Amy, though younger and less sophisticated, is the one who works things out for herself. Jack, till the near-end, remains blocked.
Amy’s story is an interesting one: while she comes across as a world-class flirt, as flighty and opportunistic, she carries hurt and loss, “She knew what people thought of her. A harmless flirt to be gossiped about and laughed at. Looking for love in all the wrong places.” Her father abandoned her and her mother when she was a child. Her father has never contacted her. Her mother, though devoted to Amy’s well-being, is depressed and closed off from friends and community. Add difficult economic circumstances and Amy has had a hard time of it. She’s burdened by her mother’s worries and sadness and constantly tries to make things better, perpetually pleasing and seeking approval; she maintains a happy, devil-may-care facade to her community. She chases after men, or at least that’s the perception, hoping that a man will love and accept her the way her father never did, “somewhere out there was someone who would care about her enough to stay.” When we meet Amy, she’s not terribly likeable, but she’s young and her life has been joyless.
Jack is, at first, as likeable as Amy isn’t. He saves her at the wedding and treats her gently and graciously. He encourages and convinces her that she’s not the person her town seems to think she is. When she joins him at his Montana ranch, she transforms from airhead to competent, savvy manager. Jack and Amy’s attraction and liking are utterly believable, as are their fears and insecurities. Jack, suave, able, and successful, lost his Olympic skiing hopes and had a terrible and tragic affair that broke his heart. He’s too frightened to trust another and open his heart to love; Amy, on the other hand, is too open, trusting, needy. She learns to curb that as she gains confidence and resolves to go to university, to learn, to grow, to be the person she wants to be. Because of hero and heroine’s wounded impediments to love, there is much pussy-footing of the will-they-or-won’t-they variety that makes for narrative lag. We also spend a lot of time in their heads, though Alward’s hand at lovely country, horsey, and wintry-activities setting does provide distraction.
As Amy grows in strength and, as Jack notes, wisdom and insight, Miss Bates would ask whether her transformation from callow to awesome is believable. Maybe it’s possible, but Miss Bates isn’t certain that Alward truly provided the inner resources upon which to establish this character’s metamorphosis.
Alward does build sexual tension very well; however, her strength lies not in the mild and short love scene, but in the brilliant morning-after scene, when Jack’s vulnerabilities result in some very interesting and totally un-knightly behaviour. From this point on (about 75% into the novel on the Kindle), without resorting to spoilers, Miss Bates would assert that Alward’s romance is masterful: she doesn’t do good nooky, but she sure can do emotion: need, yearning, fear, love … Amy emerges the stronger of the two, acknowledging her emotional barriers and opening herself to love. It’s a longer and more difficult road for Jack, but his testimony to possibility and love most definitely and beautifully restores his knightly self. Alward does a beautiful reversal of the idea of the hero as rescuer: pointing to his need to save damsels as part and parcel of what cripples him emotionally. Amy, who owns her vulnerability, shows him the way; in the end, however, everyone has to rescue him or herself.
Alward is consistently worth reading. Her Rancher Rescuer is no exception to evidence that herein is “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Alward’s Her Rancher Rescuer has been available from Harlequin Books since Feb. 4th. You may purchase it in various formats at the usual places.
Are you a fan of the rancher-hero, horsy romance? Miss Bates usually isn’t, but she loved many of Alwards. Do you have favourites, or do you avoid them like the romance plague?