Plots and Pans
What do you want to be when you grow up? The best answer I ever heard to that question was from a three-year-old girl who answered, “A butterfly.” Like that little girl, the heroine of this novel knows exactly what she wants to be and more importantly, where she wants to be, when she grows up. The problem is, she’s not exactly welcome.
Jessalyn “Jess” Culpepper just wants to go home. Then again, she never wanted to leave it. To her, there is no better place in the world than the Bar None Ranch owned by her father. There is nothing more magical than the Texas prairie when you’re riding herd on a group of cattle. But after a serious incident involving a bucking bronco and an injury to her dad, Jess was banished to an English boarding school to learn to be a lady. At first, she tried. She really did. But when even her best efforts were never rewarded with visits home she quit trying. And she got kicked out of one school after another. When her most recent roommate tattles to the headmistress after Jess sneaks out for an afternoon ride on her mare Morning Glory, Jess knows she is likely in for another move. She just hopes that this time it will finally be to Texas.
Tucker Carmichael owes the Culpeppers a lot. When as a foolish greenhorn he’d let Jess talk him into letting her ride that bronco, the Culpeppers forgave him. They promoted him to foreman for his years of service. And when old Mr. Culpepper lay dying, he even gave Tucker a portion of the ranch. Tucker has repaid the family with loyalty and friendship, especially to only son and fellow heir Ed Culpepper. The two are united in their determination to see the Bar None continue to thrive even while it mourns the loss of its patriarch. And they agree with the old man’s wishes that Jess Culpepper should be kept at the English boarding school still fighting the desperate battle to turn her into a lady. To that end another check is sent to ensure next year’s tuition.
The check arrives just as the headmistress determines Jess is no longer welcome at their facility. Some quick thinking – and a tiny bit of subterfuge – has Jess using the money for passage home; taking ship, train, stage coach and finally her own horse to arrive at the Bar None. Her hope is to catch her brother in a good mood (or at least a moment of weakness) and talk him into letting her stay. But when she gets there, Ed isn’t home. Instead she finds herself dealing with Tucker who, thanks to the pouring rain, confuses her for a cowhand! But when he finds out just who she is that same evening sparks begin to fly. Are the two destined to be enemies, constantly battling for the upper hand in a battle of wits? Or is the fire between them actually sparked by desire? They’ll have plenty of time to figure that out on the Chisholm Trail. Seems the Bar None is in desperate need of a chuck wagon cook or they won’t be able to get their cattle to market. And since Jess is the only one willing and able to take on the job, it looks like the two of them will be spending a lot of time together out on the cattle drive.
This book had some strong positives. The author has a style that is easy to read and smooth. And in the aspect of actually dealing with cattle on a cattle ranch, this is one of the few books I’ve read where it was clear the author had done her research. The hard work that goes into the ranch was shown and I especially appreciated Tucker, who didn’t have endless amounts of time with the heroine. He had a job to do and most of his time was spent doing it. And I liked Tucker’s personality. He was respectful and thoughtful but he was reticent and plain spoken also. I thought that made sense. I am always amazed by the sensitive, communicative heroes that many romances have who resemble the real life men I know in no way whatsoever.
But I have some quibbles that make it difficult for me to fall in love with the book. One is a simple question: How did Jess learn to cook? I used my Kindle search feature to go back over the portions that mentioned cooking and I never saw an explanation of how a girl raised in English boarding schools learned to put on a meal for a whole group of men. Running a chuck wagon is a skill, cooking for 20 or more rather than just a regular sized family is a skill – how did she learn to do this? It might have worked if the book had shown her failing the first few times but like with everything on the ranch, Jess is a success at it from the start.
My other quibble also has to do with Jess. As a former child and current parent I know how the same situation can look different from the two perspectives. To Jess, being sent away from her beloved ranch was cruel and unusual punishment. She didn’t do well at the boarding schools because she didn’t need what they were teaching and she was determined to force her father to bring her home. From my parent perspective, the situation as presented in the book looked very different. I saw a willful child who had to be watched or she would pull stunts like riding the bronco. I could understand someone who had to work long hours to make a ranch work wanting to send said child somewhere where she could learn to be a lady – or at least learn to be a disciplined human being. I see that father getting letter after letter telling him that hoyden has blatantly disregarded the rules and been expelled from school after school. I could understand him not wanting to bring such a problem home until she learned to outgrow her problem behavior. But to Jess, all that mattered was what she wanted. She certainly didn’t feel that she needed to cooperate in anyway with anyone who wasn’t helping her achieve that goal.
I could have accepted that at the beginning but Jess never grew, and that bothered me. The book just shows us Jess being a natural at ranch life, as if our desire to be a cowboy or cowgirl would outweigh any need for training. And the idea that stubborn, willful Jess would settle into the really, really tough needs of a working ranch just because she loved it didn’t work for me.
Ultimately, skillful writing and excellent research made this book a cut above a lot of what’s out there but the quibbles above kept it from being a stellar read for me. I’d recommend it only if you are a huge fan of Western Inspirationals.