16 November 2016



Synopsis from Goodreads: Mercy Clarke had no trouble getting a hundred head of cattle to Abilene. Getting back home through five hundred miles of untamed frontier is something else again, especially with a handsome gambler like Thad Buchanan tagging along. He swears to pay her in gold if she guides him to Fort Victory, but she doesn't quite trust his fine manners and gentlemanly ways. And then there's that look in his eyes --- he could make her forget that she's sworn off men for good ...

As Thad sees it, the same rules apply to playing poker and loving women: it's all about knowing when to hold 'em. And come to think of it, a pretty lady like Mercy Clarke would fit very nicely in his arms. Now, if she could be persuaded to put down that rawhide whip and tell him exactly what she has in mind, he has no doubt they could come to an agreement that will satisfy them both. No doubt at all ...

Stats for my copy: Mass market paperback, Zebra Books, 2005.

How acquired: Bought.

My thoughts:  I’d not heard of this author before, but I picked this book up because of the cover. The picture is a little misleading, in that I did not realize looking at the cowboy on the cover that he was a Civil War era cowboy, not a contemporary cowboy. But I got over that pretty quickly and settled into the story.

We first meet Mercy and her younger sister, Miranda, as they are driving a herd of cattle from Colorado to Kansas, along with two hired hands. Mercy is a strong, serious, determined young widow, who I judged to be in her mid-twenties. She’s been running her ranch alone since her husband died and her father was severely injured. She’s borrowed money from a neighboring rancher, and she needs to get a good price for her cattle in order to repay the loan by its due date, which is fast coming up. If she doesn't pay, she’ll lose her ranch, and that is what drives her. She is all about that ranch, and being the boss of that ranch. Miranda is 19, a typical young, flighty girl. The two hired hands are surly, and resent taking orders from a woman.

Then we meet Thad, a name I almost dislike just because I never know whether it should be pronounced with the th sound, or pronounced as Tad. Which shouldn’t matter when you’re reading silently but I like to know the proper pronunciation of names. I finally settled on Thad with the th sound, since his full name is Thaddeus, and you wouldn’t pronounce that as Taddeus. I don’t think. Thad has an unspecified injury that affects his arm/shoulder at times, and his father and brother both died in the war. After the war he worked on the family ranch with his mother, and after she died he ended up losing the ranch. Now he’s trying to get to Colorado, where his sister and her family live, and he’s looking for someone to guide him through the unfamiliar territory.

Mercy flat out refuses to let him travel back to Colorado with her, but as luck would have it her two hired hands demand their money and inform her they are not returning with her, leaving her to face the long trip back with just her sister. The fact that they would be two women traveling alone doesn’t seem to bother her, but she does prefer to travel with more than two people as there is safety in numbers, especially when you’re carrying a lot of cash with you. And as luck would also have it, Thad’s sister happens to be Mercy’s best friend. She’s often heard Clarisse talk about her “baby brother”, and even though she wants nothing to do with Thad, who she thinks is a no-account drunken gambler, she also knows how much it would mean to Clarisse to see her brother, so she grudgingly agrees to take him with her, along with another young man who is friends of her family. With the understanding, of course, that she is the boss.

I liked Thad right off the bat. What little money he has comes from his poker winnings, so he does spend time in saloons, but he doesn’t drink, and does not consider himself a gambler, as he only plays poker, which he explains is a game of skill. Where Mercy’s mission in life at the moment is her single-mindedness drive to sell her cattle and return home with enough money to save her ranch, Thad is single-mindedly determined to find someone to guide him to Colorado. His sister has told him she knows a widow who would be a perfect wife for him, and the thought of marrying and starting a family and working a ranch again appeal to him. When Thad mentions that to Mercy, she speculates that Clarisse probably intends to introduce Thad to a widow they both know who has two young sons, and she spends some time telling Thad about her. Despite the fact that Mercy is also a widow, it never seems to occur to either her or Thad that maybe Clarisse meant Mercy, though I assumed so immediately.

I was caught up in the story from the beginning, and enjoyed Mercy’s and Thad’s interactions. They’re attracted to each other of course, and Mercy is determined to not acknowledge that. She’s been hurt before, and she doesn’t plan to ever marry again. From the brief mentions of her husband, you get the impression that he was not kind to her and that their relationship was not on good footing (though later in the story we get a better look at their relationship), and she is bent on protecting her heart now. And even when she admits to herself that she likes Thad, she’s still set on not getting involved with him, because he wants a family, which she can’t give him. I’m particularly drawn to stories where the hero and heroine bicker with each other and find each other frustrating and trying, and this book had that in spades.

And then I was suddenly jolted out of the story when, on page 88, the author tells us “Thad was only twenty-three, but sometimes he felt like an old man.” Twenty-three! I was picturing him as being in his late twenties, maybe even thirty. At this point Mercy’s age has not been mentioned, but if Thad is only twenty-three, then Mercy is probably also younger than I thought she was!

After I got over that shock, I settled back into the story. And finally, about fifty pages later, Mercy, too, is surprised when Thad tells her he is twenty-three, saying “Really? I thought you were closer to my age.” She then reveals she is twenty-seven. So I was right about her, at least. But I had to take a few second to wrap my mind around this, as I am not a fan of older woman/younger man. However, I realized at this point I’m way to invested to care about that, and thinking back now I like that the author revealed their ages the way she did. It added some realism to the buildup of their relationship.

On the trail home there are plenty of adventures, as they are attacked, more than once, and grow closer, and push each other away, and get closer again. And by the end of the book I was getting a little weary of the constant push and pull and wanted to knock their heads together and tell them to just admit they want to be with each other. Everything resolved nicely in the end, if a bit pat, and I really enjoyed this sweet western romance.

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