Harlequin Historical, $6.50, ISBN 978-0-373-29863-1
Historical Romance, 2016
Familiar Stranger in Clear Springs is what it says on the box, so to speak: the familiar stranger is Tom Barrington, who works for the government in catching robbers and other criminals, and who comes back to Clear Springs on a personal business to clear up loose ends and assuage his sense of guilt. He has a history with shopkeeper Elizabeth Morley: four years ago, they liked one another a lot but she was about to marry a wealthy man of her brother’s choosing, while he was very busy playing that “I’m no good for any woman, boo-hoo-hoo!” song even back then. But he decided to kiss her anyway, and while he had no problems leaving for greener pastures – don’t worry, with a sad face to show, so he’s clearly and nobly suffering – while Elizabeth decided that the kiss was so awesome and special that she couldn’t marry another man. Well, the joke’s on her, if you ask me, as she spends the next four years being the brunt of her brother’s ire after the marriage didn’t happen and all the wonderful things he expected to come to him after the marriage happened never showed up.
Well, now Tom is back, and he’s still going on and on about how he is no good for any woman. But do you think that he’d then leave Elizabeth alone so that he can spare her the hurt? You know how romance heroines like Elizabeth are – they latch on to the first man that ever stokes the fires in their loins, unable to love or lust after anything ever again, those poor things. Of course, there is no story if Tom keeps away – he may not be good enough for any woman, but apparently it’s a different story for that pistol in his pants. At any rate, Tom discovers that Elizabeth has never married like he was told by her brother, so he feels that he has some unfinished business with her. So the first thing he tells her is that he is glad that they never hooked up beyond a kiss the last time around because, as he’d love to tell everyone, he is no good for any woman due to his career and life choices.
Elizabeth is in love again, but oh, will Tom’s mission puts her in danger? What do you think? And because Tom tells her that he is so glad that they never hooked up, she agonizes over those words and wonders wretchedly whether he could love her.
One good thing about this story is that Tom and Elizabeth do talk, although Tom’s personal brand of narcissism often means that his words often come out all wrong and cause Elizabeth to agonize over what he says to her like popcorn on an overheated stove. They quickly discover that the whole miscommunication thing that led to Tom thinking that she had married (and hence he never wrote to her out of respect and, of course, because he is no good for any woman, what-bloody-ever) was engineered by her brother, who was determined to marry her off to some wealthy bloke so that he could get funding to make his political aspirations happen.
Eventually, Elizabeth learns that she has been a complete doormat to her ridiculously nasty brother all these years, which is good, although I’d have felt more enthusiastic about her epiphany if it happened before her brother practically throws her out of her store onto the streets. Meanwhile, Tom learns that he loves Elizabeth more than he loves his guilt and angst and self-loving about being no good for any woman, and I may cheer louder for him if he had come to that discovery before the heroine’s life is in mortal danger. Still, at least these two discover that they want to be together for the rest of their lives, so all is good. Oh, and don’t worry about the heroine. Tom is wealthy enough to buy back all the things she’d have been subsequently deprived off, because if there is only one truth in this world, it’s that no love is really magical unless it flowers on a bed of cold, hard cash.
This one is an interesting case of the author using liberally all the tropes and clichés associated with Western historical romances, but she also takes pains to include ample character development. I’m inclined to be very favorable to this book as a result, but at the same time, the romance is not the most happening one, as when both characters spend time together, they tend to rehash the past or, on his part, go over his angst again and again like a broken record. Do they even know one another properly by the last page? I’m not sure that they do, come to think of it. This one has plenty of issues, and I’m glad the characters have the appropriate growing up to do before they get to the happily ever after, but I don’t feel the romance. The whole thing seems more like me listening in to their therapy session. This one is tilted a little too much to the side of angst and hand-wringing woes, and my enjoyment of it is affected as a result.