Nicole Helm’s True-Blue Cowboy Christmas is the third and final volume of her Montana-set Big Sky Cowboys series. Miss Bates enjoyed the series’s combination of humour, angst, strained family dynamics, and theme of love’s healing, reconciling power. And when it comes wrapped in a Christmas-set romance narrative, all the better! One of the thematic aspects Miss B. enjoyed the most about Helm’s series is her creation of characters at a crossroads. Helm’s MCs come from difficult places, with pasts that hurt and thwart. When we meet them, they’re caught between a crippling past and the glimmer of breaking free of it, with the help of the transformative experience of love. Breaking out of old psychological habits and personal-history constraints is painful, like giving birth, but the potential rewards are great: the promise of living a better, different way is too potent and our protagonists too honest, desirous of it, and good, to forego the opportunity.
There is much old hurt our True-Blue hero and heroine confront. Summer Shaw is living in a caravan on her family’s property, the Shaw ranch, and working to connect with brother Caleb (the second book’s hero) and sister Mel (the first book’s heroine). Summer is a people-pleaser, -appeaser, -appealer, and -soother. She wants to make everyone happy, including a precocious little girl who wanders away from her family’s neighbouring ranch straight to Summer’s caravan, full of questions about fairies and rampant with imagination and a need for adventure. Summer and Kate strike a friendship … until Kate’s father, Thackerey Lane, shows up growling and suspicious. Thack, like Summer, carries a heavy burden: at 28, widowed and a single father, the circumstances of his wife’s death scarring and haunting. Summer’s past is equally painful and complicated, dominated by “the unpredictable prison that had been her life with Mom.” Summer’s psychologically abusive and exploitative mother makes Cruella de Vil look like a fairy-godmother.
The romance novel’s initial chapters have amusing moments, as free-spirited Summer clashes with cautious, sombre Thack. Summer’s first impressions are of Thack as killjoy. She alternately refers to him as “Mr. Grumpy Cowboy Pants,” or “Grumpy Cowboy Dad”. Summer doesn’t yet understand the fear and trauma that lie behind Thack’s over-protectiveness for seven-year-old Kate. Through the pseudo-antipathy that makes a delight of the opposites-attract romance, there is burgeoning physical attraction: “So what if he was hot? So what if his eyes were a kind of unearthly green? She shook her head. He was a jerk, and his poor little girl needed a friend.” Kate’s love for her dad, his near-paranoid protectiveness, and Summer’s open heart towards any needy thing make for a great romance narrative. Once Summer witnesses Thack’s genuine love and care for his daughter, she cannot help but be moved by and for him. She, in turn, cannot help but compare how Kate is growing up to what she experienced with her mother: “What must it be like to grow up knowing you were safe and loved?” As things shift and change for Summer, Thack, and Kate, as they grapple with what will be their future as a family, the pain and joy of forming connections and making commitments, Helm’s narrative blossoms.
Thanks to Thack’s wife’ premature death, trauma of losing his mother while yet a child, and watching his father fall apart over it, Thack, likable as he is and sexy as his Gary Cooper looks may be, suffers from the annoying plague of a heightened and unreasonable sense of responsibility. Like Summer, Thack fears that whatever he does for his daughter, father, and ranch, he is never good enough to keep the world and its wolves at bay: “He kept putting little Band-Aids on things, only to have them fall off altogether.” Helm recounts Thack’s slow transformation under the power of Summer’s sunny and giving nature. Inevitably, they argue about Kate and the struggle to keep her safe on Thack’s part and Kate’s need to gain a modicum of independence. They argue over Kate’s tendency to wander and daydream. Summer proposes that Thack should teach her outdoorsy survival skills: “Maybe you should teach her,” she finally offered. “Give her the skills to disobey me?” “Give her the skills to survive,” she replied without even pausing. “Everyone deserves those.” Of course, we know that Summer speaks of herself, but Thack can’t yet be her white knight, not until he acknowledges first that she’s right about Kate and second that she speaks of herself as much as she does of Kate.
Helm’s beautiful back-and-forth movement for her hero and heroine, of seeking connection and indulging in the repulsion borne of fear, was beautifully executed. Moreover, Summer, Thack, and all the secondary characters are so darn likeable that the reader can’t help but cheer them on and celebrate every step towards love with them. Besides, Helm has Thack make an allusion to one of Miss Bates’s favourite comfort watches: “What on earth was that noise? A guitar. Singing. Had he fallen into some bizarre rendition of The Sound Of Music? Of course, he didn’t have six kids, Summer wasn’t a nun, and there was no way he was that … They were … ” Yes, they are, falling in love that is, and no two deserve it more. Sadly, Helm’s romance comes apart at the end with one of the most over-the-top, darkest-before-dawn scenes Miss Bates has ever read in a romance novel. She’d love to hear what other readers thought of it. Because of that pre-HEA scene, Miss Bates maintains that Outlaw Cowboy is the best of the trilogy. But she wouldn’t give up reading any of them. Helm’s True-Blue Cowboy Christmas still provides “real comfort,” Emma.
Nicole Helm’s True-Blue Cowboy Christmas is published by Sourcebooks Casablanca. It was released on October 4th and is available in your preferred formats at your favourite vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Sourcebooks Casablanca, via Netgalley.