Small-town contemporary romance abounds: cutesy towns, quaint “main streets,” bake-shop-owning heroines, and heroes or heroines who ride into town to meet the hometown girl/boy. But writing small-town contemporary romance requires a particular risk. Contemporary small-town romance is light on plot. It doesn’t have the social whirl/hierarchy of the histrom, nor romantic suspense’s thriller-danger zone. It relies on two conventions dosed light-to-heavy: the small town endowed with utopian character, a harbor, a sanctuary for all, or colouring the hero and heroine’s emotional journey potent and compelling. Maisey Yates’ Copper Ridge, Oregon series has accomplished this with some success, as Miss Bates’ reviews of the novella, “Shoulda Been A Cowboy” and first novel, Part Time Cowboy attest. In her second Copper Ridge novel, Brokedown Cowboy, however, Yates is at the top of her game in portraying a hero and heroine’s emotional journey, imbued with banter, honesty, hard truths. When the contemporary romance’s emotional journey convinces, as it does in Brokedown Cowboy, it’s riveting. Such was Miss Bates’ experience in reading Yates’ friends-to-lovers romance of surly Connor Garrett, hard-drinking, still-grieving widower, and Felicity “Liss” Foster, his secret-torch-carrying best friend of eighteen years.
Usually, romance series get a tad tired, but the “series” aspect of Connor’s character worked to his novel’s advantage. Connor was too messed up to be much of a sequel bait. In Part Time Cowboy, he’s Eli’s, younger bro’s, cross to bear. Eli is the care-giver/taker of the family, the town, as sheriff, and Connor, drunk, hungover, depressed, self-pitying, bitter and sarcastic. Connor’s emotional wounds, from Jessie’s, his wife’s, loss are worn on his … well, sleeve-tattoo (the story of why he got the tattoo, which he shares with Liss in Brokedown, is heart-breaking). Heroine Liss is there too, haranguing him to stop drinking, making sure he gets a decent meal, and hanging out so he’s not totally isolated, though his scowling, cranky company leaves much to be desired.
Desire him, she does, our Liss … since they were teens. Liss made peace with her feelings, loved Jessie, her best friend, fiercely and well, stood by her as maid of honour and stuck by both her friends through their eight-year marriage and then, Jessie’s death in a car accident. She was no third wheel, however, dating and living with some lacklustre boyfriends, but always trying to move on and still stay true to two dear friends. In Brokedown Cowboy, a worthless ex-boyfriend took off and, even though as an accountant Liss knows how to keep finances in order, left her credit rating in the dust. Liss’s landlady is selling her house and asks her to move out. Liss is left without the financial clout to rent elsewhere. When she breaks down and tells Connor, he insists that, after every way she’s carried his sorry ass the past few years, the least he can do is offer a roof, bed, messy kitchen, and frozen pizza and beer. Should be simple to help out a friend, right? Connor and Jessie’s proximity (hilarious moment when Connor admits Jessie’s sexy with the discovery of her mint-green thong among his clean underwear) leads to some wrenching, sublime emotional reckonings.
When the novel opens, Connor and Liss are diminished. Connor’s wife, marriage, ranch, gave him purpose. He’s adrift: “When he’d walked into a room, there had been one place his eyes had gone. Jessie. She had been his focal point, his North Star … suddenly, she was just gone. And so was his star.” Connor works till he drops, then drinks to numb pain and staunch nightmares. There be reasons, good ones, Connor’s grief remains unresolved. The possibility Connor will emerge whole lies in his family, but more so in Liss. Here’s what he thinks as he, Eli, Eli’s girlfriend Sadie, sister Kate, and friend Jack settle into a weekly-ritual poker game (kept up, they know in their secret hearts, to ensure Connor’s “okayness”): “Liss sat next to him now. And he figured if he couldn’t be with his wife, he should be right near his best friend.” Miss Bates enjoyed the navigation metaphors. Moreover, Connor’s mess was sympathetic; he’s difficult, but his generosity, even his guilt over “issues” in his marriage, which he’s never talked about, and heart come through. Much of the novel is about Connor’s reawakening: his first step to show care for another when he offers Liss a place to stay. Miss Bates loved this: ” ‘I can do this,’ Connor said. ‘I can give this to you. So let me.’ ” The second, when he starts to feel desire, when he acts on it, and when he can’t not act on it, though guilt-ridden. Connor is a two-steps-back-one-step-forward kind of guy: every time he comes alive, guilt drives him down. His guilt hurts Liss, but he sure knows how to apologize. You can’t help but like the guy. His pain is believable; his guilt, understandable.
Liss doesn’t have an epic tragedy diminishing her. She’s a cheerful, endearing character who’s shed a lot of tears – alone. Her single mother never gave her joy, just obligation and the knowledge Liss made her life difficult. Subsequently, Liss learned not to take up too much space in the world, to be accommodating and helpful. Her independence is hard-won, but she’s the kind of genial, self-deprecating survivor who breaks your reader heart. When Connor offers her a place to stay, she thinks: “She didn’t like putting her crap on other people. Especially not someone who was already going through so much. Regardless of what he said, it did matter. She didn’t like to be a burden to people.” She isn’t; she’s lovely: funny, loving, giving without being a pushover. But it’s hard for Liss to see how she deserves anything. When the Garretts, Sadie, and Jack help her move, she’s burdened by a strong feeling of obligation. She doesn’t know what to do with people loving and helping her. Liss’s journey to seeing herself as deserving of love, loyalty, commitment, without becoming strident, is one of the novel’s many strengths.
Another strength to the novel is how Yates handles the friends with benefits aspect of Connor and Liss’s relationship. Firstly, there is no doubt Liss loves Connor. When she decides to make love with him, it’s meaningful. She also understands that she doesn’t mean the same to Connor. He cares; they’ve been friends for years, but he’s not doing anything other than finding his reawakened sexuality. Miss Bates liked that Liss was the sexually emancipated and uninhibited one and Connor had had only one lover, his wife. The love scenes don’t feel tacked on, or de rigueur (hardyhar). They are lovely and ominous. Why ominous, you’ll say, MissB? A pretty peculiar way to describe a love scene, no? They’re emotionally ominous and that is to Yates’ credit. They foreshadow the emotional wrenching Connor and Liss undergo: Connor in learning to love another person and Liss in learning to validate herself. It’s incipient when Liss realizes what she’s come to be (through no fault of Connor’s; he ready to admit to everyone, his brother, sister, etc. how much he’s taken): “Over the past three years she’d been helping him glue his life back together, making sure he was functional, getting his groceries, that she’d stepped into a different role in his life than the one she’d grown up in. She’d become more like a wife without the benefits. And without the love.” For a while, Liss also becomes the woman who’ll warm his bed, heart, and other parts. When she realizes this isn’t enough for her, it’s pretty glorious. Let Miss B. add this isn’t ponderous angst-filled romance: Brokedown Cowboy is funny. Connor and Liss have great sense of humour and their exchanges are as quippy and smart-mouthed as they are touching.
Lastly, Miss Bates noted how cleverly Yates wrote how sex complicates things, the benefits exacting emotional investments Connor and Liss assumed they wouldn’t have to pay. “Friends with benefits” can’t be simple because, in a friendship, it’s the last frontier to love and commitment. Otherwise, the friendship isn’t breached, as it wouldn’t have been when Jessie was alive. Friends get to keep part of themselves secret. Becoming lovers exposes Connor and Liss in ways they didn’t expect. There’s a reason we have the notion of making love as “knowing” someone. There’s are emotional intimacies shared in the dark that are as precious as those over a cup of coffee, maybe more so, or at least it’s so between friends who love and care for each other. The emotional rawness and nakedness frighten Connor. After years of hiding in his man-cave of guilt, grief, regret, he’s open and tender, like a wound first revealed from its bandages. Here’s how he responds to making love with Liss:
He could see her skin clearly thanks to the pale moonlight filtering through the window … And it occurred to him then that he was in bed with his best friend, only the second woman to ever touch his body, only the second woman he’d ever been inside, and he was talking about his wife.
That feeling of being out of time, of being in a safe zone, vanished as a wave of reality washed over him.
With that revelation came the feeling of being something more than naked. As though he hadn’t just removed his clothes, but peeled back his skin, as well, exposing the contents of his chest. As though everything had been dragged out into the open. His guts, and not a whole lot of glory.
Romance is rife with love scenes, but it takes a sensitive writer to do what Yates does here: write the aftermath as pointedly as the sexual acts. There is Connor’s awareness of Liss’s body in the moonlight, after the fact, beautiful to him, new and familiar. There is his sense of being outside of time: he expected his life to be spent in bed with one woman and he finds himself with another, one he loves but never considered as a lover. There is the disappointment of reality, the awareness that he’s exposed more than flesh to Liss. Miss Bates loved this scene because it asserts the sanctity of marriage. Connor’s feelings of emotional nakedness are his sense of having betrayed Jessie, not only with his body, but his soul and heart. Because that is what a true commitment is: that one gives, as gifts, to the other, body, soul, heart – exclusively. Connor’s resurrection has begun and he couldn’t be in better hands than Liss’s – it’ll take him a while to admit he loves her because his admittance will mean he’ll have to lay Jessie to rest. But he does it all, Connor, because he’s a man of integrity. He figures out how to honour Jessie and love Liss. And Yates allows us to be privy. Even if you don’t read the first novel and novella in the series, don’t miss Brokedown Cowboy, dear reader. With Miss Austen, her maker, Miss Bates says “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma. (Not only is this great romance, the darn cover is sexy and appealing: Connor is totally hubba and Miss Bates loved the rueful look on Liss’s face. The autumnal colours are her favourites!)
Maisey Yates’ Brokedown Cowboy is published by HQN Books. It was released on May 26th and Miss Bates is sorry she didn’t read it sooner. You can by looking for it at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to HQN Books for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.