This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
I love a strong western historical romance and trying new to me authors, but it wasn’t just that. The title and blurb roped me in quick. This was mail-order bride meets false identity meets frontier life danger and excitement. Oh, saddle that bronc up, I am so there. I didn’t realize it was Inspiration Fiction at the time and discovered that as I read, but not a problem. I wanted to see what happened with this whole Sword of Damocles type scenario of a guy living a lie and it was just a matter of time until the truth came out.
The story opens with Johnny Paynter working on a cattle ranch in Colorado. He’s out at the distant part of the ranch and one of the other cowhands informs him that the foreman has been killed and Johnny’s the big suspect. Johnny wants to go in and clear his name, but Cam lets him know that everyone’s riled up and not listening to reason. They’re talking a hanging. Johnny agrees to Cam’s idea to put some distance between him and the angry mob for a bit, let things cool down and then try to clear his name. He decides to go to Texas to stay with his brother, Mark, who has a small ranch and he hasn’t seen for a while.
Sally’s life as a poor widow living under the roof of the minister and his grudging, grubbing wife is miserable so she does the unthinkable and answers an ad from a Texas rancher about a wife. They correspond several times and just in the exchange of letters, they both fall in love. Sally tells Mark Paynter all her personal thoughts, past hurts and future hopes and he does the same. She gladly accepts his written proposal and catches the train to little Beaumont, Texas.
Johnny no sooner arrives at his brother’s ranch than he finds Mark shot dead and evidence that it was to steal from him since his horses, food and money are gone and the place ransacked. Johnny wants to head to the sheriff, but Cam reminds him that they are on the run and not only that, but they would probably become suspects in Mark’s death. The few townspeople they meet think he is Mark because they look a lot alike. Johnny is still thinking it over when it gets more complicated. He discovers that his brother is getting set to marry and the woman is on her way even now. He reluctantly follows through with more lies and finds himself married to his brother’s would be wife, the beautiful Sally. How is he ever going to untangle himself from this mess? And what about the huge lie to Sally? He knows the truth will hurt this lovely, sweet woman that he is coming to love.
Sally knows there is something off about Mark and she doesn’t know what to think of his friend Cam who he never mentioned as working for him. She loves Mark even more each day and he is so gentle, considerate and kind, but why is he reluctant to share her bed as her husband and treat her in all ways as his wife? And then there are all the little things that are different about him? Maybe she needs to give him more time, but she can’t wait forever. Sally wanted a true home and family when she accepted Mark’s offer. She wants all that with Mark, but she needs him to share what he is keeping from her.
As I indicated before, this is a story about a man caught up in lies and what he chooses to do about it. The lies snowball on him so that he can barely function as lies tend to do. I was fascinated and kept reading wondering what it would finally take for the truth to gush out- would he come forward or would she catch him at it? I was really pulling for him to man up and tell the truth even though the consequences are dire- his life and his marriage are at stake.
The story is narrated alternatively by both the hero and heroine. It’s a slower-paced more character driven piece for most of the book with the majority of the excitement occurring at the end. A lot of background work and setting are painted in and I really enjoyed this as it depicted frontier ranch life very well. The characters are well drawn. They both have their issues. Sally’s are more external with her new life and adjustment to being married that is her challenge. Johnny has that too, but he’s also got some internal flaws to work out which is why I was probably more vested in his side of the story. I liked Sally well enough, but I guess I prefer my fictional characters with a few flaws so I can see them grow.
Normally, I wouldn’t be impressed with a guy who kept going the easy route that the lie offered and leaning on his friend so much to guide him, but I got the impression that Johnny is pretty young and on the naive side when this story starts off. Yes, he works a man’s job with all the tough, dangerous work a cowboy on the frontier faces, but he tends to take people at face value. Johnny trusted his older, more worldly-wise saddle buddy who, unlike Johnny, thinks of his own skin first and foremost and if the way to keep that intact is to run or lie, Cam is down with that. But anyway, back to Johnny. Even though he’s a tad gullible, I still really liked him and saw this whole thing as his opportunity to really prove he was a man and act like it. Which he did. From the moment he read Sally’s letters to his brother, Mark, he was already starting to fall for her and feel protective of her. He works hard to make up for the loss of Mark (which he feels deeply yet can’t mourn openly) even though Sally isn’t aware of his motive. In the process, he realizes that he’s falling in love. He wants so badly to know whether it is Mark or Johnny that Sally loves and he knows there’s only one way to find out if he’s willing to risk it. Loved that tension.
The inspirational thread is strong with the lying and restitution being a central theme. Sally is a strong Christian and lives it. She prays and reads her Bible a lot. Johnny grew up going to church and he easily slides right back into it all when Sally comes. Just wanted to give fair warning in case strong Christian elements aren’t your bag.
So, this was a sweet romance of course set against the backdrop of daily frontier life in Texas with some exciting moments of robbers, posses and shootouts. I would recommend this definitely for Inspirational Romance fans, but also for Historical Romance fans who like their romance clean and sweet.
My thanks to Net Galley for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.