I read Carly Bloom’s third “Once Upon a Time in Texas” romance, Must Love Cowboys, and the joy and enjoyment of the first, Big Bad Cowboy, still eludes Bloom and me. I absolutely LOVED the first book; though #3 was an improvement on the sleeper-ness of #2, it only sustained my admiration two-thirds of the way through.
Must Love Cowboys had a promising start based on a likeable trope, fake-relationship, and an opposites-attract couple. Small-town librarian heroine, Alice Martin, and cowboy-ranch-manager, Beau Montgomery, couldn’t be more different: she’s books-cat-tea and he’s open-sky-Lothario…except appearances are deceiving where Beau is concerned. Which is what leads to the fake relationship.
There’s history: fourteen-year-old Alice was Beau and his twin brother’s, Bryce’s, babysitter. At 32 and 28 respectively, little does Alice know Beau has been carrying a torch for her since. What’s at stake in this fake relationship beyond Beau’s heart? Beau is dyslexic and has made it through school and work relying on Bryce, who kept his secret all these years. But Bryce is ready to move on from their small-town Texas ranch and takes a job sufficiently far away he can no longer serve as Beau’s reading crutch. To start, while I think Beau should and could have dealt with his reading issue by this point, it is accurate of Bloom to portray the embarrassment that comes of not being able to read in a society that, to a certain extent, still functions on this basis. Nevertheless, I thought Bryce was callous in how he abandoned his brother simply by advising him to ask Alice for help learning to read. Meanwhile, Alice, who has hints of neuro-diversity (though Bloom is never explicit as she is about Beau’s learning challenge), has had neither a date much less a boyfriend “evah”. And she needs a date for her library-intern’s wedding. A bargain is struck: Alice will tutor Beau and Beau will serve as Alice’s wedding escort. That’s pretty much it plot-wise: the obvious is, well, obvious. Beau and Alice get to know each other, respect each other’s vulnerabilities, become friends as Alice teachers Beau to read and Beau helps Alice check off fun boxes on her bucket-list, like riding a horse and going skinny-dipping.
If there’s one area where Bloom continues to succeed, it’s to make me laugh. I had a smile on my face while I was reading the first half of the romance and would even intersperse it with a guffaw or a snort. (Bubba continues to delight!) Beloved characters from the first two books showed up and Bloom also created that utopian small-town feel of eccentricity, humour, gossip, and support evident from Big Bad Cowboy. At the same time, to give her credit, there is nothing toxically masculine about her cowboys: they’re gentle souls with a mass of vulnerabilities, plenty of charm and humour, and little by way of alpha-male posturing. Beau is a likeable character. One of the novel’s strengths is how Alice “teaches” Beau to read, not by rote, but by strategy and giving him audiobooks and eventually physical ones. It’s refreshing to see a hero who loves narrative and it certainly makes it more so because of Beau’s dyslexia. As a teacher, I appreciated his portrayal. Alice is a woman who’s always felt like an outsider in her town by virtue of her bookishness and awkwardness. And yet, as she gets to know Beau, she opens up to friendship with other women in the town and gains a sense of belonging.
What I didn’t enjoy about the romance is how Beau and Alice become lovers, which is all there is to the last third. The love scenes were explicit beyond my comfort level, but that is a personal call and may not impede other readers from enjoying the novel. The love scenes were in keeping with characterization and made consent, agency, and respect their core, even while the um…activities were cringeworthy for yours truly. (Though no fan of purple prose, I prefer love scenes to be suggestive over descriptive, but hey, that’s me.) Aside from personal taste, I thought the extent and scope of the love scenes stalled the novel; in retrospect however, where else could it go? Beau and Alice were friends, in love, and the small matter of the deadline to their fake-relationship could have been dealt with in one conversation. The betrayal when it came had bupkis emotional stakes as a result. Miss Austen and I say of Must Love Cowboys, it offered “tolerable comfort,” Mansfield Park.
Please note I received an e-arc of Bloom’s Must Love Cowboys from Forever romance, via Netgalley, for the purpose of writing this review.