Caitlin Crews’s A True Cowboy Christmas is one of the most convincing contemporary marriage-of-convenience romances I’ve read … and so many other things. It opens with the hero’s father’s funeral. Gray Everett, however, is not mourning his father, but afraid of ending up like him. Gray introduces us to the family with: “Everetts historically lived mean and more than a little feral … tended to nurse the bottle or wield their piety like a weapon, spending their days alone and angry.” Gray’s Colorado ranch, Cold River Ranch, has never been a happy home. His father, a mean, violent drunk; his cheating wife, dead for ten years in a car crash; Gray works the land, cattle, and horses, keeps the bank at bay, and rears his teen daughter, Becca. Back at the ranch, at the post-funeral luncheon, where neighbours and friends have gathered to pay their respects and many to breathe a sigh of relief that Amos Everett’s meanness will no longer touch anyone, Gray realizes that ” … if he didn’t change”, “today’s grumpy hermit” would become “tomorrow’s bitter, old man.” He resolves, there and then, in sight of the funeral-baked casseroles, that he “was going to have to figure out a way to live this life without drowning in his own darkness” and “to make sure that Becca didn’t succumb to it either.” Gray looks up from his thoughts to heroine and neighbour-spinster Abby Douglas’s question, should she warm up a casserole?
Though Gray is replete with anger and hurt, he decides that he will save himself and offer Becca a mother by proposing a marriage-of-convenience to the stalwart, dependable woman he’s known all his life. She’s been in the background, as the Colorado mountains, big-blue-sky, and acres of his land. He wants a marriage of quiet consideration, fuss at minimum, and emotional-level at respect:
What he needed was a practical woman. A solid, dependable woman who understood reality and could commit as much to the legacy of this land as the man who worked it, instead of making demands and dreaming of far-off cities Gray would rather die than live in.
Famous last words? You bet. Gray compounds his emotional comeuppance by characterizing Abby as: “Plain, sweet, easygoing and helpful … Solid, practical Abby … steadfast and pragmatic … the perfect solution to a problem he’d only just realized he needed to solve.” Gray isn’t wrong about Abby, she is all those things, but she is also much more. Gray’s understanding of Abby, while not “off,” contains one fundamental problem. His understanding of his problem: he doesn’t need a practical, dependable wife, he needs to be loved and to love in return. Of course, being a Christmas grinch and unconscious of his own feelings and needs, Abby’s honesty, love, and challenges to all his notions of self-identity come crashing down.
I adored Abby and I loved Gray and I was thoroughly immersed in their painful, heart-feeling, and glorious romance. Abby loved Gray since they were children and he was the handsome young man to her childish eyes (Gray is 38 to Abby’s 30): “Abby Douglas had spent most of her life fantasizing about Gray Everett … six feet three inches of straight-up cowboy fantasy … Abby had fallen head over heels in love with Gray, literally, when she’d been barely five. She’d fallen down at the church picnic, he’d picked her up and set her right, and she’d never quite been the same after.” When Gray shows up at the home Abby shares with her grandmother the day after his father’s funeral, you’d think Abby would fall at Gray’s feet in gratitude and panting spinster-lust at his inelegant marriage proposal. She doesn’t: “Abby didn’t want to fling herself into Gray’s lean, hard arms, she … kind of wanted to kill him.”
Thus begins a tug-of-emotional-war between Gray’s determination to keep Abby at messy-feelings arms-length and Abby’s wise understanding of the man she’s loved since childhood. The roots of their often painful, deeply heart-rooted love, how they hurt and bolster each other, their marriage as disappointment and their marriage as utter connection and joy have their origin in the conversation around Gray’s proposal, one of the best I’ve read:
“Right. Something about shared goals and roots, and did you call me uncomplicated?” Gray regarded her for a moment. “That’s a compliment.” “I think you’ll find that no matter how you phrase it, there are very few women who like being uncomplicated.” “Because you’d rather be an impenetrable mystery?” Abby frowned at him.
There was something about the way she fired questions at him. As if she was interviewing him for the position of husband. And he was amazed how interested he was in getting the job when he’d been so sure she’d act grateful and pleased that he’d proposed to her in the first place. But it was more than that. Gray felt nearly agitated, and he didn’t like that at all … Gray … considered himself a pragmatist who preferred the company of his horses and the enduring quiet of the mountains, that was all. Abby was much more entertaining than he’d anticipated.
Abby, it turns out, is much more than entertaining. She’s warm, funny, smart, and loves him with a love as abiding as his mountains and land. She makes him work for her and that makes Gray respect and like her even more. Her beautiful, steady hazel gaze unnerves him. At first, he’s entertained, amused, and intrigued. He actually thinks he has the upper hand! Then, as she becomes necessary to him, he’s unnerved, unmanned, and overtaken by his love for her, a love he neither recognizes nor acknowledges, rendering him cold and unfeeling, even as he seethes with need, desire, and love.
As Gray’s heart roils and moils, Abby faces him with equanimity, a good dose of challenge and humour, and a growing understanding of her own self-worth. She understands exactly what she’s getting into by marrying Gray: “It was all her dreams come true, and none of them, all at once.” She confronts what is, from the above passage, Gray’s arrogance in thinking her grateful for his proposal, with a deep knowledge of romance tropes! Witness one of my favourite scenes, Abby telling her wonderfully-drawn grandmother about Gray’s proposal:
“When I imagined somebody wanting to marry me, I imagined that they would want to marry me. Not any old woman who fit their idea of what a wife should be. I might as well by a mail-order bride.” “Your great-grandmother was a mail-order bride,” Grandma replied serenely.
Abby continues to play with our genre’s conventions of MOC, mail-order brides and spinsters-without-much-choice, as she thinks of Gray marrying “the last true spinster of the American West”. Of course, Gray’s lack of heart-knowledge leads to a lot of ugly, painful scenes and their marriage devolves into Gray’s resentful silence and Abby’s confronting him with what their “convenience” constitutes: “angry, silent sex and shared chores”.
That final masterful phrase should further prove how fantastic Crews’s Christmas romance is, for Christmas is key to bringing out the painful truths that will make Abby and Gray’s marriage one of true minds and beating hearts. Their dark moment emerges out of their frailties and their joy and HEA out of shared strengths, but the greatest of these is a capacity for reparation, forgiveness, and love. Whatever you do this holiday season, take a few hours to read Crews’s incomparable romance. With Miss Austen, I say it contains “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Caitlin Crews’s A True Cowboy Christmas is published by St. Martin’s Paperbacks. It was released on October 30th and may be found at your preferred vendors. I received an e-galley from St. Martin’s, via Netgalley.