Clinched it with this latest book! Jo Goodman is now one of my top western historical romance authors. Flawed yet engaging characters, western life, a plot varied with intrigue, passion, and humor, and the sort of storytelling that compels the reader to keep turning pages and rooting on the heroes. I immediately picked this one up when I saw it and I am ever so glad I did.
While I didn’t notice anywhere that it was touted as such, this is actually the second in a duology about the McKenna Brothers. The first book, This Gun For Hire, leads to this one. They can be read standalone, but this one has brief scenes with the pair from the first book and reads better in order.
The story opens when young Annalea Pancake finds a wounded man a few miles from the family ranch house. Annalea has the sense that the stranger is a good man, but her older sister Willa is a vast deal more suspicious. He was nearly dragged to death behind a horse and even as she and the others work to save him, she wonders if it was do punishment for a bad man. And the wounded man can’t really help her much because he only remembers his past up to a certain point. He shares that he is Israel McKenna and he has no idea what he was doing in the area and how he came to be drug to near death.
Israel knows more than he is telling, but it isn’t really pertinent to the issue at hand. The Pancakes and their ranch hands take him in and he heals. Israel decides to stick close to the ranch and earn his keep by working for the Pancakes. Willa is a hard woman with high expectations of herself and those who are around her, but Israel sees beyond her flinty expression and icy eyes to a woman hiding behind a wall she has built up. And he slowly chisels away at her barriers.
Slowly, Willa and Israel piece together what they think happened even as the ranch next door has ambitious ideas about the Pancake Ranch and Willa. As the pair begin to form a bond, Israel knows that he needs to talk about his past and hope Willa can see that he has changed.
The story has a few different plot points even beyond the growing romance between Israel and Willa. There is the mystery of Israel’s lost memories, the growing conflict between the two feuding ranches, secrets from the past, and even Israel’s brother on his trail and thinking the worst.
I liked the gritty, hard life feel to the story and the inclusion of scenes of life on a small ranch. The reader gets a real sense of place when reading the book- ranch land, ranch buildings, saloon, hotels, trains.
The writer doesn’t pull any punches with her strong-willed characters and the colorful way she draws them. They are shades of gray types whether it is hero or villain. Raw feelings and passions are unapologetically included.
I enjoyed the romance between Israel and Willa. They were good for each other and their relationship had to grow out of suspicion. Israel was not intimidated by a strong, capable, intelligent woman and Willa had to learn to appreciate Israel’s strengths, too, even if they weren’t always easy to spot.
He is handsome and charismatic. He lived by his charm and wits and now wants to prove he is substance and hard work. Israel is extremely observant and misses nothing which is why he sees past the front that Willa puts up. She is harsh and critical and pushes herself most of all. Willa denies feelings and pleasure. Her attraction to Israel confuses and scares her. Work is her life. She can’t abide weakness so is disgusted when her pa grieved his wife’s passing and took to drinking. She can’t see the changes in him until Israel points them out. It is only the arrival of Israel that challenges her to see things differently and see her coldness as a front to hide behind so she didn’t have to confront her own inner demons.
As with the previous book, my only niggle was the distraction caused by Willa’s way of speaking. It was odd and stilted. I adjusted and the story was powerful enough to keep it from being more than a small thing in the background, but it is noticeable.
In summary, this was a fantastic western historical full of danger, mystery, passion, grit, humor, and life in the Old West. I can definitely recommend it.
My thanks to Penguin Group for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.
Romance Roundabout #158 HR
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