by Joan Johnston, historical (2012)
Dell, $7.99, ISBN 978-0345527445
Joan Johnston has come to a full circle with Texas Bride, a Bitter Creek novel, for it is published by Dell, which published the first few books in the series, and it is a historical romance - a Western, specifically - just like the author's first handful of books for that publisher.
Just be warned, though, if you haven't been paying attention to the series so far, and you are a big fan of Frontier Woman, you may just want to scream when you learn that Cricket Creed, the heroine in Frontier Woman, is now married to Alexander Blackthorne, who engineered her permanent estrangement from Jarrett, the hero of that book, and Cricket is now in love with Alexander. This allows the author to merge her The Sisters Of Lone Stars series with her Captive Heart books to form the one big happy family that is the Bitter Creek series, but I hope you aren't too invested in Cricket or Jarrett's happily ever after as that particular couple is kaput, gone, finished, forever.
Okay, I probably have made the whole series seem so complicatedly incestuous, so you may be surprised when I say that Texas Bride can be read fine as a standalone. I barely remember anything about the aforementioned three series - it had been a while - but I can follow this one just fine. However, there are many detailed explanation about the events that happened to the various Blackthorne and Creed folks prior to this story, and if you are new to the series, you may be wondering why you should care to slough through all the information dump.
Oh yes, the story. Miranda Wentworth and her siblings are orphans who were abandoned by their uncle in an orphanage run by an abusive and cruel hag who would fit right in in an opus by Charles Dickens. When the story opens, the siblings engineered a plan to let Miranda become a mail-order bride of one Jake Creed in Texas, and once Miranda is married, she would send for the rest of her siblings. Things don't go as planned, let's just say, and Miranda ends up running away with her two younger brothers, while the remaining three sisters stay behind to plot their own escape and give Ms Johnston plenty of reasons to create a series.
Jake is certainly comely enough, but he has a daughter and a wheelchair-bound father-in-law, whom he expects Miranda to care for. His understaffed ranch is not doing so well, thanks to his ongoing feud with his stepfather Alex, whom he never forgives for marrying his mother. It's cheaper to have a wife - it's only a one-off payment, after all - compared to hiring a housekeeper that would demand a regular wage, and there's a sad joke in there somewhere. At any rate, so now he has a new wife. But he's unable to move past the death of his beloved wife Priscilla, and he also has a fear of knocking Miranda up and having her die at childbirth like his late wife, so he will never sleep with Miranda. In fact, he is also determined never to care for Miranda, so he will kill her with his endlessly surly scowl. Clearly, he didn't get the memo that romance heroines find prolonged pity parties and surly behavior in guys too sexy for words.
Do you know that Jake is scared of getting Miranda knocked up? Do you catch the first twenty times Jake whine about how he will never open his heart again? If yes, don't worry, because Jake spends the entire book, except for the last two or three chapters, constantly moaning and whining about the same self-pitying issues all the time. Broken records have nothing on this repetitive one-note whiner. I may be more sympathetic if his concerns about childbirth mortality are for the woman, but no, he's just being a baby because he doesn't want to get hurt again as he can't bear going through the whole thing, so he will protect her from death by baby-popping by never touching her ever again. Never! Never! That is, until the late quarter or so when he finally succumbs to his lust and start boinking her with gusto. Then it's time for him to whine about not wanting to fall in love. If you love wading through over 200 pages of the hero moping constantly about the same things over and over, then you will just adore Jake. Me, I eventually start humming happy songs every time he begins yapping again. It's that or go crazy and gnaw on this book.
Miranda is a more appealing character, as she is tough and resilient, never backing down or giving up despite the way life constantly craps on her. She doesn't let Jake walk all over her as well, which is one reason why I can read this book without wanting to bite someone. If she had been a full-blown enabler, then Jake would have been positively excruciating as a character. I also enjoy how Ms Johnston doesn't automatically turn Miranda into a magical character that is sage and wise about being a mother and wife despite growing up in an orphanage - Miranda's growth as a character is more realistic.
The biggest reason to keep turning the page, for me, is the soap opera revolving around the Blackthornes and the Creeds. Cricket's relationship with Alex is fascinating (one that I find far more intriguing than her childish pout-and-stomp melodrama with Jarrett), as is Alex's relationship with Jake. There are no true villains or heroes in here, as everyone involved can behave like silly children when they put their hearts into it. I find the whole thing fun to follow, like having a front row seat in a boxing match featuring family members that despise each other. There are no resolutions to the drama here, not by the last page of this book. The author must be saving the good stuff for later books in the series.
The resolution of the story, by the way, is disappointing as the solution to the main characters' woes is practically handed to them by the author like an early Christmas present. After all the drama, and especially, Jake's constant whining, the ending has me going, "Wait, this is it?" The way the story is wrapped up really makes Jake look like a big fool for whining and bleating about his insecurities for so long.
Texas Bride is by no means a great book, but the likable heroine and the addictive soap opera elements make it a compelling page-turner despite its flaws. I just wish the hero had been less of a broken record.
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