Intimate Strangers
by Gem Sivad, historical (2009)
Liquid Silver Books, $6.10, ISBN 978-1-59578-539-8

I don't know what to expect when I start reading Intimate Strangers, but by the last page, I'm feeling as if I've been hit by a truck. And I mean that in a good way, mind you.

Ambrose Quince has total control over his wife Lucy... or so he thinks. He's a guy and it's 1874, so I guess we can't blame him for thinking that he has the right to force the wife to stay at home and pop out the brats instead of running a horse breeding program in their ranch. After an argument where she rails at his arrogance and he naturally says all the wrong things in response, she vanishes. He hears that she has run off with another guy while people begin whispering that he has killed her and buried her in his Texan ranch.

And then we cut to 1877, when we meet a scarred woman, Quincy Smith, who is working as a chef in Buffalo Creek. She has no memories of a time before she was apparently rescued by the Sheriff from what seems like a brutal animal attack. When a stranger shows up at the café and claims that she's his brother's missing wife, Quincy decides to go with him to see this possible husband of hers. If she's Lucy like this man claims she is, then her appearance can spare Ambrose from being hanged for her "murder". You see, the folks back home have finally decided that there is enough evidence to hang Ambrose so the timing of Ambrose's brother serendipitously discovering her in Buffalo Creek is definitely right.

This new Lucy, however, is no silly Betty meekly accepting of her husband. She doesn't trust him and she suspects that he may very well be the one who gave her her scar. Still, she is determined to figure out who she is and what happened that night that she was attacked, so she's staying put for now. I like Lucy. She's tough, she's sharp, and she definitely is not some bird-brained twit needing a man to help prop her as she attempts to stand upright. And when I say she's tough, boy, is she ever. What I like about Lucy here is that she remains very much in character - which is to say, she doesn't suddenly turn into Barb Wire and start shooting people with guns as if she's a professional ninja sniper - but at the same time, she has this will to keep going and stay fighting despite having endured a horrifying ordeal shortly before she lost her memory.

As for Ambrose, he is still not the brightest bulb around when it comes to saying things that a woman needs to hear, but I give him credit for knowing that something has to change and he will try to initiate these changes for the better. I was afraid that he would become something like an unreasonable stubborn male determined to believe to the bitter end that his wife was a whore, but to my pleasant surprise, it turns out that Ambrose just has problems expressing himself because he is a loner by nature so really, he loves Lucy, he just doesn't always gets the word out right. Of course, he wasn't blameless in the initial tiff that had Lucy running away from him, but he is smart enough to know that he too will have to change and compromise in this second chance at love with his wife. Ms Sivad has Ambrose coming to this realization slowly and gradually, always with him remaining in character, so I can't help liking this fellow as the story progresses.

The mystery is pretty readable, although it's mostly because of Lucy's refreshing toughness and strong personality as she tries to unravel the mystery of her missing three years. I find myself enjoying the romantic elements much more than the mystery because of the characters' chemistry and enjoyable interactions with each other.

I really have a great time reading Intimate Strangers and I would have loved to give this one a higher score. Alas, I feel that the story is weakened considerably by the presence of cartoon villains that are more ridiculous than menacing. Still, this is a most unexpectedly good read from an author I am not familiar with. The setting is great and I love how the author doesn't sugar coat how hard life can be back in the ranch of those days, and the main characters' relationship are most enjoyable to follow. All in all, this is a most wonderful kind of serendipity.

Rating: 89

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