Harlequin Historical, $6.50, ISBN 978-0-373-29803-7
Historical Romance, 2014
Someone has thoughtfully pasted a round red sticker on the cover of my copy of Wild West Christmas, proclaiming that there are “Rugged Cowboys!” within the pages of this anthology. Look at the guy on the cover – of all the flattering adjectives I can use to describe him, “rugged” is at the bottom of the list. As for the stories themselves, I believe the word only applies to the hero of Lynna Banning’s story. Incidentally, where are the stories with rugged cowgirls again? Maybe that one is for another day, some day.
Back to this anthology, as you can probably guess, the stories all revolve around the hero and the heroine getting joined by holy matrimony come Christmas.
Anyway, let’s take a look at the first story, Jenna Kernan’s A Family for the Rancher. Alice Truett is in love with Dillen Roach, but he fled the relationship when… well, she assumes that he discovered that she was actually the daughter of a wealthy man and decamped for her so-called deception, while he wanted to make some money for them only to somehow lose the way. Today, he spends his day by getting drunk to the point that he can’t walk straight, and that’s just a few hours after he’s woken up. Lo, who comes in town but Alice, bringing with her his two nephews who have recently lost their mother. Dillen panics, because he’s not fit to be a father or a lover or… or… oh, what the heck, she’s asking for it, so time for boinky-boink! Oh, but she’s on her own the next morning, because he’s a useless tool, blah blah blah.
You know, Dillen is the luckiest bastard this side of town. He basically flops at pursuing his ambitions, spends his time wallowing in self-pity while dry humping every liquor bottle in sight, and here comes a wealthy woman who doesn’t put up much of a resistance when it comes to giving him some even after he’s ditched her without a word and shows up now as a drunkard buffoon. Oh, and she’ll take care of the kids too, so he doesn’t do much to earn his happy ending. Oh, he talks about wanting to be a good person, blah blah blah – but this want on his part revolves around dumping her again on her rear end after he’s boinked her for her own good. Charming. As I’ve said, he’s the luckiest tool to get all this happy ending stuff after spending the entire story whining and moping and generally being a pathetic loser. Can’t say the same for her, though – I guess she must have found liquor fumes on a man’s breath a potent aphrodisiac or something, because I can’t see the appeal of a guy who displays the charming combo of self-pitying passivity and an inability to rein in his drinking habit.
Oh, I know, in romance novels, love is the ultimate AA meeting, but come on now, all that whining and moping on the guy’s part are most off-putting.
Kathryn Albright’s Dance with a Cowboy is a much better read. Garrett Sheridan has always loved Kathleen, but she ended up marrying his brother Josh. I’m sure there’s a dozen or so country songs with this plot line. Kathleen is a widow when this story opens, and she has come back to stay in the neighborhood with her daughter in tow. Garrett’s parents want a reconciliation with Kathleen and their granddaughter, but Garrett feels that he should stay away because he holds himself responsible for her husband’s death.
Now, the two main characters are likable folks. But they are stuck in a story where everything they think about the other person is due to communication breakdown, often initiated by other family members who have a grudge with the other side. Even if this is an understandable justification for the current state of their relationship, I still find it hard to swallow how passive Garrett and Kathleen are. They just go with the flow when another person would have at least pause and go, “Wait a minute, this doesn’t feel right, maybe I should check a bit more…” When they should have talked, they instead clam up to suffer in wounded silence, often because of assumptions that turn out to be wrong. Their annoying ability to find any excuse to be a martyr causes this short story to keep going even when the rest of the family issues have been cleared up. If these two are so eager to believe the worst about themselves, how are they going to work out any future issues in their new beginning as husband and wife?
It is a relief to come across Lynna Banning’s Christmas in Smoke River, because this one has so little baggage that it’s a nice change of pace after the overwrought whining and moping that bog down the previous two stories. City gal Lilah Cornwell moves in to Smoke River and discovers a good time with her hunky neighbor Gale McBurney. Here, Lilah’s adventures in country honky-tonk land is probably a bit too much like a happy vacation to be believable, but the two main characters are such fun together. They have fun, they have great things to say to one another, and I end up having fun as a result. Yes, the hero has some baggage and he feels that he hasn’t much to offer Lilah, but he doesn’t mope or make a big show about all this. Also, these two don’t try so hard to second guess the feelings of the other person. They fall in love easily, get over their issues quickly after, and the happy ending is just around the corner. This is an uncomplicated no-nonsense story about falling in love and having a good time, and I’m all for it.
On the bright side, Wild West Christmas starts out with the weakest story of the lot, so the reading experience gets better as I turn the pages. This probably explains why I end up feeling more goodwill about this anthology than I normally would, especially considering that I don’t like two out of three stories here. Still, only Jenna Kernan’s story is an outright dud here, so Wild West Christmas is pretty democratic in giving me one bad story, one average, and one fun one. I’m not sure why I’d recommend this anthology to anyone, but if you do happen to find yourself about to read this one, well, I’d suggest skipping the first story and go on from there with expectations set as low as possible.