In Trouble's Arms
I don’t really mind romance novel premises that are a little ancient, so long as they’re freshened up with interesting characters and original twists. I don’t shy away from those heroines with amnesia, those secret pregnancies, or those good and evil twins – but if an author’s going to start with howling clichés like that, she’d better do something pretty exciting and different with them.
So I wasn’t completely put off when I read that the premise for In Trouble’s Arms involves a hunted gunslinger hoping to put his violent past behind him. This concept has been around at least since 1953 – hey, Shane is a great movie. Unfortunately, this book doesn’t do much to liven up that old idea.
When her parents died, pretty Loreen Matland advertised for a husband to help her with the farm and her two young siblings. What she didn’t mention was that she needs protection from Billy Waylan, the low-down varmint who’s determined to make Loreen his own, either with or without her consent. When a lean and sexy man calling himself Jake Winslow answers the ad, he seems like the answer to her prayers. Only after they’re married does Jake learn what Loreen expects of him. To her dismay, he has no intention of taking Billy on. He’s learned the hard way that violence isn’t the answer. Is he just a coward?
Don’t be silly. Everyone considers Jake the coward of the county, but he knows that sometimes you gotta fight to be a man.
Unfortunately, this book quickly dissolves into a long squabble between Loreen and Jake. You see, they both have big secrets, and neither of them considers trusting the other. Both characters kept their secrets long after it would have made sense for their characters to open up and talk about it. They admire each other, but don’t trust each other. They kiss, and more, and then remember that they can’t trust each other and back away. They fall in love, or so I’m told, yet still they bicker constantly. When one of them says to the other, “If your past is none of my business, then mine is none of yours,” I wanted to shake them both until their teeth rattled. With all this insecure quarreling going on, I found it impossible to believe in the attraction between Loreen and Jake.
A little more than halfway through, In Trouble’s Arms got better. That’s about the time Loreen and Jake stopped fighting and started working together to make their farm and their family prosper. They eventually talk to each other, and suddenly this boring and frustrating book turns around and becomes fairly entertaining. When Jake makes his decision about how to handle the repulsive Billy, and the dark past that’s following him around, I was happily turning the pages. Though Loreen never stopped being predictable (except for that one really spunky dumb move at the end), a very mediocre book turned into a rather good one.
There are other things to like about this book as well. It took me a while to warm up to the protagonists, but Luke, Loreen’s twelve year old brother, is a very convincing character, a just-right mixture of vulnerability and smart-ass bravado. And Thompson is very good at rendering setting: one can feel the heat and dust of those Texas afternoons, and the cool plunge into the swimming hole after a sweaty afternoon’s work.
Rhonda Thompson has what it takes to be a very good romance writer – her first book, Isn’t It Romantic, earned an A- from AAR. In the end I liked this book, but to tell you the truth, if I hadn’t been scheduled to review it I would never have gotten to the point where it started to be enjoyable. I hope that Thompson starts her next book with a more original premise, but the real problem here is that her characters never act like themselves – their behavior seems entirely plot-driven. If the ideas in this book had been a little fresher, and the main characters started acting their age a lot sooner, In Trouble’s Arms would have been a good read.