A True Cowboy Christmas
Getting into the holiday mood? Publishers definitely are, and so is Caitlin Crews, whose first addition to the Cold River Ranch series takes place during the holiday season and explores the lives of the Everett brood, who live and love in and around Cold River, Colorado.
Gray Everett has been patiently tending to the family’s four hundred acre spread in Cold River, enduring the troubles caused by his father Amos’ abrasive behavior towards his neighbors and everyone near him. Such behavior drove Gray’s mother, multiple other stepmothers and his other brothers away from Cold River, but Gray stubbornly stuck it out, and now that Amos is dead he can make plans for the future – which include changing nothing and continuing to ranch and sell beef. His two other brothers, who have witnessed Amos’ emotional abuse of Gray for years – are dismayed by this situation, having hopes Amos’ death would free Gray from the spread, but Gray considers it his fate to have a solitary life out on the plains with his fifteen-year-old daughter, Becca, and refuses to sell the place for her future’s sake when his brothers suggest it. Ranching is his lifeblood – it was more important than his marriage to the shallow and cheating Christina, who promptly ran her car off the road in what’s still whispered to be (and in his father’s case loudly shouted) a suicide, and it might be more important than his life. He decides he needs a new wife – a plain, unexciting, dependable, stalwart one.
Enter plain-faced Abby Douglas, who’s lived in Cold River all her life, and has worshipped Gray from afar (even through his disastrous marriage to Christina) since she was fifteen while being his closest neighbor. As much as she’s desired Gray, he’s never shown a romantic interest in her – that is, until he shows up at her ranch on the day of his dad’s funeral and asks her to enter into a nice, practical, loveless but not sexless marriage. Since Abby’s wanted him forever and spent most of her life yearning for him, what can she do but say yes? She’s still smarting from mommy issues of her own (her mom, Lily, got pregnant as a teen and dumped Lily with her grandparents) so she doesn’t want to see Becca suffer a similar fate.
Once they’re married Abby’s starry-eyed, day-dreamy feelings about being Gray’s wife (italics sic) become complicated as she realizes how inflexible his attitudes are, especially toward Becca’s ideas. When she and Becca want to dress the ranch up and have a big, happy Christmas, Grey refuses, because the Everetts don’t make a big-to-do about it, and tradition must prevail. Can they ever make a happy family?
A True Cowboy Christmas reminded me of a Linda Howard romance; the kind you’d have read in the eighties or nineties. A painfully inexperienced virginal heroine who has no life outside of the hero and home and hearth, whose best skill is making a mouthwatering roast; a hero whose marriage has messed him up so thoroughly he will Never Love Again. Every single character who wants to leave town or experience the Wicked Big City is evil or wrongheaded. Crappy childhoods abound. It’s familiar, but the writing and the messy emotional entanglements eventually elevate it away from feeling rote.
Gray is extremely hard to love. So set in his ways he might as well be the personification of a stick stuck in concrete, he’s so devoted to the land that nothing until gets in his way. He’s a bit of an icy stick in the mud, and he sees marrying Abby as such a dryly unromantic bargain that he makes the whole marriage hard to root for. It’s hard to scare up something truly romantic from a set-up like that in the first place, and when you have your hero treating the heroine like a living Cuisinart/penis sleeve/coffee maker for half the novel you’re just stacking the narrative deck against them both, no matter how much you like a handsome silent cowboy type who’s endlessly negative because of his Abusive Past. When he starts thinking that Abby is Just Like His Horrible Ex-Wife For Wanting To Celebrate Christmas, you want to tell him to grow his ass up already, even as he tells himself the same thing.
Speaking of immature, Abby is funny, acerbic and relatable, plagued with self-esteem issues but oh, how I wanted her to have more of a life besides trotting after Gray like a lost pup for over half of the book. She’s lusted after him since she was underage and has never dated; and an eight year age gap normally wouldn’t bother me since they’re obviously both grown adults now, but the woman’s wanted him and only him since she was fifteen. It’s such an experience gap, even if she is thirty years old. Her starry-eyed thoughts and notions make her feel more like a teenager than an adult, especially when she almost faints because slow-dancing with Gray is Just That Powerful. And speaking of – please authors, please, please can we finally get rid of that ridiculous thirty-year-old female virgin who has never had an orgasm/sex-life before the hero trope in contemporaries?! I’m giving it more of a pass here, because it leads to a great character epiphany that I have to give the author credit for, but it still troubled me.
I loved Abby’s grandma; she’s my favorite character in the novel hands-down, with her sass and practicality. Gray’s brother Brady is more of a plot construct than a character, dropping in to glower and pressure Gray into selling the ranch for Becca’s sake and reminding him of how ranch life destroyed every other woman in their lives before doing something that makes no plot sense at all (and is none of his business honestly). Becca seems like a real person instead of a book teenager and her evolving relationship with Abby provides some of the book’s best bits, even though she leaps on the yay-Abby-and-Gray train a little too quickly (though for a reason that’s eventually explained).
Crews has a definite gift, and a way with words. Her story is rooted in the west, and you can see the old coffee shops and expansive plains that dot her landscape, but it also stays frustratingly obscure. Ultimately, A True Cowboy Christmas just misses a strong recommendation; the first half of the book is at war with the second half, making it an uneven read overall.