The Man from Stone Creek
I have more than a few Linda Lael Miller novels on my favorites list. Since her name is in a bigger font than the title of this book, it is probably a safe bet to say that she shows up on many people’s favorites lists. It is disappointing that The Man from Stone Creek will not be added to mine.
Sam O’Ballivan has ridden into Haven, Arizona to replace the schoolteacher, but it is really a front, for he is an undercover Ranger working to catch some baddies. His first order of business is fishing the current schoolteacher out of the well and trying to scare some manners and commonsense into a young hellion named Terran, who seems to be the ringleader of the schoolyard bullies. Terran isn’t impressed, or at least tries not to be. He tells Mr. SOB that his sister is not going to cotton to Terran being abused. Sam is so scared he invites himself over to chat with sister Maddie Chancelor that evening.
Maddie is doing the best she can to raise her brother while being Stone Creek’s postmaster and running the mercantile. Terran is all the family she has left since their parents died years before and she is a touch blind to the fact he is growing up, among a few other things. Needless to say, Sam and Maddie clash when they first meet.
The cover Sam has chosen doesn’t work terribly well since he doesn’t look like a teacher and is told so repeatedly; it almost draws more attention to him than helping him fit in. And the man is almost perfect. He is always helping strays (be they people or animals), gives money to the poor, helps out whores, protects the weak, feeds the hungry, and doesn’t want to kill the bad guys in cold blood because, gosh darnit, they deserve a fair trial (even while trying to kill him). Maddie is a better character but the Big Surprise that concerns her and hits us from out of left field toward the end of the story didn’t seem to make sense. It doesn’t add anything significant to the character and it just seems tossed in to an already over flowing pot.
One aspect of Sam’s character kept me from buying in to the “Sam is Perfect” viewpoint, and it is repeatedly thrown at the reader: he falls for Maddie almost immediately but is “kind of” promised to another woman. It is 1903 and the woman, whom he has known since they were kids, is now thirty. She is pretty and loves him, and has turned away other marriage offers because they have an “understanding.” And he loves her – as a sister. Call me crazy but the whole thing screamed “selfish jerk,” not “nice guy doing the right thing.” And we won’t even get into the, “he hasn’t been with a woman in a while” thing, meaning that while she was sitting at home waiting for him, he was sleeping around when he felt like it. I resented his dealings with his intended and she wasn’t even the heroine. And how this whole issue is resolved made me want to scream.
The Man from Stone Creek has every clichéd character you can think of and sort of reminded me of HBO’s Deadwood – but without the cussing, sex, nudity, well fleshed out evil bad guys, and entertainment. Worse, it focuses on catching the bad guys – at the expense of the romance. Sam and Maddie spend far too much time apart, and the HEA seemed rushed and tacked on at the end. I’m not ready to give up on Linda Lael Miller, but I her next book must be better than this, and it would almost have to be better because it certainly couldn’t be much worse.