Pamela Morsi’s Wild Oats was a delightful read that put a fun twist on the trope of a woman being delivered an indecent proposal, so I was eager to try the second book in the author’s Territory Trysts series. Unfortunately, The Runabout didn’t measure up to my expectations.
Plain, outspoken and unmarried at twenty-four, Tulsa May Bruder doesn’t expect grand romance, but she does hope to have a husband and children. So she agrees to marry middle-aged Dr. Foote, only to have the engagement broken when the doctor gets cold feet. The town buzzes with the news, humiliating her further.
But her friend Luther Briggs comes to the rescue, offering to pretend to court her himself. Since Luther is young, handsome, well-off and just a little scandalous, due to being half Cherokee, people will soon be gossiping about their burgeoning romance instead. And after being noticed by him causes other young men to pay more attention to Tulsa May, she and Luther can go back to being friends.
So it’s a setup I’ve read a thousand times already, but if anyone could make it work, it’s Pamela Morsi. In every other romance of hers I’ve read, I’ve cared about the characters – ordinary, decent, hard-working people who deserved all the happiness they found – and I expected the magic to work here as well. But it didn’t, for two reasons, and the first of those reasons is Luther.
The book opens with Luther waking up next to Emma Dix, the local fallen woman, when Tulsa May arrives needing repairs to her car (the titular Runabout). So my first impression of him wasn’t a favorable one. I’m not a fan of romances where the hero is intimate with a woman other than the heroine, unless there’s a good reason for this involvement.
Then Luther explains his attitude towards what he calls “women of tarnished regard”.
“I guess everyone knows that when a fellow with a bit of a past thinks to settle down, he’ll pick a gal that’s sweet and pure. Something different from the females he’s been around.”
In other words, he’s got a madonna-whore complex. Emma plays the whore role in the story, so you can guess who Tulsa May is.
The other thing that turned me off Luther was that as he’s outside fixing the Runabout with Tulsa May watching, Dr. Foote drives by. He tries to speak to her.
Tulsa May opened her mouth to answer, but Luther interrupted.
The doctor tries again, and once more Luther speaks for her. The doctor offers her a ride in his buggy, since her car is obviously not working.
Luther had no idea what Tulsa May’s answer would have been. Quickly he answered for her, his tone sharp enough to cut nails.
At this point I began to think the poor girl would be better off as a spinster. Dr. Foote is boring and officious, but Luther isn’t much better. And his faux-relationship with Tulsa May, while pleasantly written, didn’t hook me. There’s nothing keeping these two apart except for Tulsa May thinking she’s plain, and Luther thinking that he can’t ruin a friendship with this sweet, respectable – and really quite pretty – girl who’s always been kind to him.
The other reason I ended up clenching my teeth as I read was the secondary romance between Luther’s brother Arthel and the town beauty, a spoiled brat called Maybelle. She has a crush on him, so she behaves just like an alpha-hole hero who reacts to his unexpected feels for a woman by insulting her every chance he gets. And since Arthel is half-Indian, she constantly mocks him about this. At one point she refers to him as ‘Chief Buffalo Brain’, but he seems to find the racist ridicule amusing. Finally, Emma Dix gets married to Dr. Foote, because they would have been the only single characters otherwise, and everyone lives happily ever after.
The story has a strong sense of place, and I liked watching the slow modernization of the town, with politics influencing people’s lives strongly now that World War I is on the horizon. But despite its good moments, this book is dragged down by a hero who left me cold and a secondary character who left me boiling mad, which combined to create a lukewarm read. There are other Pamela Morsi romances I plan to seek out, but I can’t recommend The Runabout.