Cowboy Christmas Homecoming
What do you mean, it’s awfully early for a Christmas-centric romance novel? Sourcebooks says hah, and have a slice of moldy, bricklike fruitcake, partner – it’s time for Cowboy Christmas Homecoming!
Zach Garrett is trying to move on with his life after leaving the army and a hitch in Afghanistan. Still suffering from PTSD that has numbed his emotions and caused him to feel lost in the world, he’s got no idea what to do with his life now, especially since his mother packed up and sold the house while he was gone. But his uncle, Big Jim Garrett, has a solution – he hopes to offer Zach a position on his ranch to smooth his transition into civilian life. After all, most of his boys are busy with their own lives and he could use an extra hand around the place. At the urging of his sister-in-law (Zach’s mother), Adele, he plans to spring the suggestion on Zach at the family’s Christmas gathering.
Stephanie Gale – EMT and firefighter – is immune to the cacophony of the Garretts at this point. A friend of Big Jim’s, she happens to be there when Zach arrives home, and while she finds him handsome, she’s mentally preoccupied at first. Stephanie’s biggest concern is making a good Christmas for Cody and Ivy, two children she’s rescued from a house fire set by their abusive and psychopathic father, a fire he set in order to cover up the fact that he killed their mother in front of them. Having fallen in love with the children while transporting them to the hospital, Stephanie immediately involves herself in their lives. Then their father escapes from police custody and Stephanie volunteers to foster them, but she’s coldly informed that they will be moved to a home with two parents because of her dangerous job and singleton status.
Well, as we all know, nature abhors a vacuum. Zach is rudderless and emotionally scarred, Stephanie needs someone to smooth the way for the adoption, and they’re both lonely and terrible at being in relationships. Naturally, the solution is dating each other. It does help that Zach is handsome, and that Stephanie is beautiful and strong. Maybe they’ll make a solid family. That is, if Cody and Ivy’s father doesn’t find them…
Cowboy Christmas Homecoming will likely be adored by people who have devoted themselves to the Dark Horse Cowboys series. With heavy participation from previous heroes and heroines, this book will be like a holiday visit with old friends. For me, it was like spending an afternoon with that aunt who keeps sliding brochures about the moral failings of single women under your door. The book gallops between cozy domestic scenes that barely move the plot and sudden action scenes that jerk things forward and substitute for actual pacing and careful plotting.
I found Zach’s journey out of PTSD to be well-told and researched, and it’s the only reason I didn’t hate the book. It’s hard for him to make real connections, hard for him to grow, and I was moved by his steady progress. Everything about his Afghanistan service feels authentic.
But it was Stephanie’s utter fear in the face of this one semi-competent stalker that I couldn’t buy. She faces down death every day – climbs into buildings and pulls people out; she likely sees corpses on a daily basis, but one murderer has her petrified to the point where she pulls so many TSTL moves so Zach can come riding to the rescue, I lost count. (Pop example quiz: if you were receiving threatening phone calls from a man who had killed a woman and wanted to kill you, would you go out on a snow road alone with a child? Guess what Stephanie does?). But she does perform flashlight – side surgery on a gang member. Too bad he dies. We’re told this woman can literally carry men twice her weight, yet in all but one physical conflict in the story it’s Zach who comes through to the rescue. I know she’s not a cop and I didn’t expect her to be made out of stone, but I expected a little more steel from her. She’s so constantly emotionally affected by her work that I wasn’t shocked they wouldn’t let her adopt. EMTs and firefighters aren’t known for bursting into tears over the kids they’ve saved on the job.
Not that Our Villain has much depth when he’s scratching You Dead (sic) right into the side of Stephanie’s car and peeing on her sofa in a gesture of fury. Did I mention he’s the only non-white character in the story beside the kids and speaks with a phonetic southern accent to indicate his lack of education? Yep. Yikes. He and his brothers are also members of a Dalton family-like gang for…reasons.
And then we have our romance, which is nice, even tender, but feels quite rushed. On page thirty-five, Stephanie and Zach have an awkward getting-to-know you lunch. On page seventy-seven, after a tiny bit of bonding and a single date, they have sex. This takes, considering how much plot is being hefted around by Stephanie’s orphans, the antics of Zach’s family and Zach’s PTSD, roughly ten pages. They slalom with little preamble from a boyfriend/girlfriend declaration to Stephanie getting jealous about Zach shouting a woman’s name in his sleep (which includes a totally unnecessary moment of fatphobia on Stephanie’s part) because they’ve moved so quickly they haven’t talked about the PTSD that plagues his life. The pacing here is utterly awful.
The children, tragically, are terribly written and could be replaced with dolls that squeak ‘I want to be with you and for you to be my mommy, Stephanie!’. Reminder: their father shot their mother in front of them. No, they (like Zach) never talk about going to therapy, nor do they ever talk about their very dead mother. Who needs it when you can draw with New Mommy, or adopt a bomb-sniffing dog!
There’s a lot excess, fluffy padding too. For some reason, we get scenes of Jim babysitting his grandkids, of Tyler and Leah (hero and heroine of a previous book in the series) going Christmas shopping. In fact, there’s a lot about Leah in this book, and a lot of focus on her pregnancy, which dwarfs a lot of what’s happening with Zach and Stephanie.
Cowboy Christmas Homecoming is a bit of a tragic disappointment. If you like the series you might like it better than me. But in my opinion it’s as stale as last year’s gingerbread house.