Sarah M. Anderson’s hokey-titled One Rodeo Season is anything but. What starts as a fun little rodeo-meet-cute between Ian Tall Chief, bullfighter, and Lacy Evans, stock contractor, turns from a “no-strings” relationship to friendship and love, from rom-lite to considered romance novel about identity, cleaving to others, and negotiating commitment. Ian Tall Chief works as a bullfighter when he’s not working at the S. Dakota Real Pride ranch. Lacy Evans is a rodeo stock contractor when she’s not at the Wyoming Straight Arrow ranch she recently inherited from her parents. From their first meeting, Ian is Lacy’s protector and defender. She’s threatened by a powerful rancher, Slim Smalls, and hit on by a slimeball. Ian rushes in where “angels fear to tread,” his former-football muscles standing between Lacy and a world of hurt. But Lacy is a tough cookie, and comes at Ian from the get-go: “Who was she? Someone tiny and fierce and unafraid of him.” Lacy is “fierce,” gauche, a loner, but the attraction between them is undeniable. Except. There be inner turmoil for Lacy and Ian. The inner turmoils’ sources are deep and troubling. They make building a commitment-based relationship unfeasible. Ian charms and gently compels skittish Lacy to a friendship. While Lacy vehemently declares her ability to care for herself, she knows Smalls’ threat and her own precarious emotional state dictate she accept Ian’s help and protection. Ian and Lacy are one of Miss Bates’s favourite couple-combinations: Ian is charming, funny, and knight-in-shining-armor. He has a wide circle of friends, makes friends easily, fits comfortably in his huge clan, and is a looker. Lacy, on the other hand, is solitary, awkward with people, lacks social graces, and plain.
One of the first things to strike Miss Bates about Anderson’s MCs is how young they are. Lacy’s 23 and Ian, 26. It is no wonder they are still working through identity issues. Miss Bates enjoyed Ian’s rejection of Native stereotypes: “He hated it when people ascribed his hard-won physical skills to some mystical Indian gift. Ian was a cowboy, a linebacker, a bullfighter. He was not some noble savage who communed with bulls, dammit all.” Ian moves through the world with confidence and know-how. His charisma, good looks, and football physique allow him to knock over any and all antagonists. Lacy, on the other hand, isn’t gifted with anything other than stubbornness and determination. Unlike Ian, her identity is toppling under the weight of her parents’ loss: “She would do anything to keep that ranch. If she lost the Straight Arrow, she didn’t know what she’d do. She didn’t know who she’d be … ” Anderson establishes, at least initially, Lacy as a character adrift, someone whose identity was built on bedrock experiencing uncertainty and dislocation.
For Lacy, the question of “Who am I?” must be renegotiated while Ian struggles with one fundamental error he committed six years ago in his arrogant, misspent youth. Lacy lost her parents eight months ago and is a woman still mourning when Ian and reader meet her: “She’d never have that back, that sense of perfect belonging … God, she missed her parents. She missed being their daughter.” Understanding who you are in relation to your family is how Lacy has always defined herself. But recent revelations about her parents have led her to question her identity as their daughter. Ian’s dilemma is not immediately apparent, but is revealed in his need to take care of Lacy:
“Why are you doing this?” she asked, that voice of hers so soft without all the hard edges she usually used. “I’m nothing to you. You don’t even know me.”
“You’re not nothing. Not to me.” She sucked in a quick gasp of air. “And rodeo is a family. I was raised to look after my own.” But even as he said the words, he could feel the ink over his heart start to burn, like he was having it carved into his skin all over again. So it was a lie that he always looked out for his own. No one knew about Eliot …”
[Possible spoiler ahead!] Ian and Lacy struggle with notions of belonging and family. Lacy suspects that she was adopted and Ian is guilt-ridden over a son he gave up six years ago. Lacy’s sense of belonging has been shaken. Ian’s racial identity is strong and proud; that he gave up his son brings that into question with the values he upholds, to care for one’s own. Miss Bates found Lacy’s and Ian’s need to belong and redress (respectively) compelling and moving.
Ian’s past and Lacy’s present make them feel as if the ties binding them to family and belonging are sundered. Ian’s friendship and support, and the freeing sexual relationship they eventually share help Lacy heal and find her joy. Ian’s shame at his mistake, even though he retains contact with his son and sends him letters and gifts, keeps him silent. He broods on his error: “The Land of Misfits, Ian thought. It wasn’t far off. He didn’t fit anywhere else. He had a job back on the Real Pride Ranch and the rez would always be home, but he’d wanted more. He’d thought football was his ticket to the rest of the world, but it hadn’t worked out like that.” And now he’s haunted by his inability to live up to what he thinks a man should be. As Lacy is restored, Ian’s secret shame brings him closer and closer to an emotional reckoning. Reckoning comes in the form of someone “tiny and fierce” – Lacy. Miss Bates loved how Ian redefined his notion of manhood to be with Lacy and how Lacy was able to renew her sense of self: ” … a family of her choosing. Something more. That’s what Ian had said … Was this what he was talking about? A family of sorts? She wasn’t the same Lacy Evans she’d always been. She was someone new … ” The idea that family isn’t only blood-related, but a choice was a wonderful way to portray Ian and Lacy’s reconciliation with the past and forging a new future – together.
Miss Bates loved Anderson’s One Rodeo Season for the complexity of its themes, but was lukewarm on its execution. It was difficult to tell where this romance was going in the first third. It certainly felt as if Anderson struggled with setting up her story and ensuring that her premise was viable. Initially, Lacy and Ian were one-note wonders: angst and rueful humour, but Miss Bates couldn’t forget how young they were. Purely on the basis of her personal preferences, the love scenes were crude. But then, again, Miss Bates remembers Lacy and Ian’s youth and how sexually, um, energetic the young are. She liked Lacy and Ian and what they were grappling with, finding and understanding identity, belonging, and family, and stuck with them. She didn’t think much of the suspense plot and its accompanying villains. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says that Sarah M. Anderson’s One Rodeo Season provides “real comfort,” Emma.
Sarah M. Anderson’s One Rodeo Season is published by Harlequin Books. It was released on February 17 and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Harlequin via Netgalley.