The Bull Rider's Return
The Bull Rider’s Return, the final volume of Joan Kilby’s Starr Brothers of Montana series, features a down-on-her-luck waitress and the bull rider with who turns her life around.
Reno native Kelly Reid has one focus in her life – her six-year-old son, Ricky, who has a congenital heart defect that needs surgical correction, which Kelly can’t afford. When rodeo star and recent grand prize winner Cody Starr walks into her diner, she can smell trouble radiating right off of his handsome body. He encounters Ricky, who had been sleeping in the back room, notes the boy’s paleness and blue lips, and enquires about his health. Kelly tells him the truth; unfortunately at the same time her boss returns, notices Ricky’s presence, and fires Kelly for letting Ricky sleep in his back room. Cody responds by giving her all of his prize money plus the winnings of his last gambling lucky streak as a tip ($65k all told) – all the money Kelly needs to fix her son’s heart.
Cody is nothing if not complicated. Irresponsible and impulsive, he’s living in the family’s big log house in Sweetheart, Montana. Between days on the circuit, he’s a gambling addict who has a long history of fear of commitment – the money he’d given Kelly, for instance, was the cash he’d been saving to get off the circuit and buy his own ranch. He knows his family won’t believe that he did something altruistic with his prize money, so he simply doesn’t tell them what he did with the money and starts planning for the next season on the circuit.
Two months later, Ricky has had a successful operation, and Kelly brings him across two state lines to the Copper Mountain Rodeo to find the man who helped save his life. The only thing she knows about Cody is his name and his status, and he’s less than pleased when word leaks out about his charitable behavior after Kelly gossips to the wrong person. As the rodeo and its attendant festival continues on, Kelly and Cody’s romance continues apace, but when the heated possibility of committing to Kelly causes Cody to panic and an accident puts his career in doubt, will they find true love or be separated for good?
The Bull Rider’s Return has one big problem – its extremely immature hero. Cody’s impulsive, hot-headed, and childish behavior is balanced out by his honorable and noble nature, and he’s one of those ‘I’m the worst child in my family, therefore I will never ever earn the love of a fine woman!’ kind of heroes. He’s full of self-loathing for most of the first half of the book, and his response to that is to be taciturn and remote with Kelly. Much of their relationship involves Kelly calmly explaining things to Cody while he returns fire with dour-voiced “I guess so”s. It almost feels like it’s Kelly’s job to train Cody up into being an adult for most of the novel, a position no woman wants to be in. This hot-and-coldness combined with Cody’s self-pity is written off as his being a stereotypical cowboy, which is irritating to say the least.
Kelly, meanwhile, is stuck playing the part of the scold for chunks of the novel, forever pep-talking to Cody as she tries to raise him over the hurdle of his low self-esteem and wringing her hands about her own abandonment issues. And yet on the other end of the spectrum she uproots her son – hale and hearty only two months after having the hole in his heart repaired – from his life in Nevada and plunks him into Montana to follow Cody. And what does she do during their most trying period? Threaten to do it again! Ricky, meanwhile, shrugs about being uprooted from Nevada – surely there was someone beyond his mother with whom he was friends and would deeply miss – but at least he acts like an actual kid would for a decent part of the novel.
Kelly and Cody have tough childhoods in common, and they both love Ricky, but aside from their teasing banter and some mildly erotic sex it feels like Kelly is taking care of a grumpy adolescent as well as her son for much of the book.
The best parts of the novel involve the rodeo and Cody’s family life. The rich setting of the event, the roar of the crowd and the smell of the popcorn in the air – that, Kilby gets perfectly right. The book could’ve used more of this and just a hair less of Cody’s monotonous, endless insecurity.