Where the Horses Run
This latest effort by Kaki Warner is a little bit of a departure from her previous books as the majority of this novel takes place in England rather than the American West, but the west does not entirely disappear as a majority of the characters are Heartbreak Creek residents traveling to England. These characters from Heartbreak Creek figure prominently in the story, so for those who have devoured all of Warner’s books, revisiting old friends makes this book even better. It is always satisfying to find out what happens to beloved characters once their story has been told, and I enjoyed reading about Angus and Maddie from Colorado Dawn and Thomas Redstone (who figures throughout most of her books). But it is the hero from this book that breaks the mold.
Rayford Jessup is not, at first glance, the typical romance novel hero. He is not wealthy, a huge alpha male, or arrogant, and his appearance is described as “well favored” rather than drop dead gorgeous. A former lawman who was injured in a shootout, Rafe has been drifting with no real purpose in his life. He has no home and not much in the way of visible means of support. What does separate him from the pack is his affinity with horses. A chance meeting with Angus Wallace, former Viscount Ashby and now the Earl of Kirkwell, changes his life for the better. Ash wants to build a strong stable of horses in Colorado and he ends up hiring Rafe to travel with him to England to help choose some horses to breed with his American stock. Rafe is also tasked with keeping Cheyenne Dog Soldier Thomas Redstone in check as he joins the traveling party headed across the pond. While on the ship heading across the Atlantic, the Heartbreak Creek party becomes acquainted with the Cathcarts.
Mr. Cathcart is an Englishman who made his fortune in mining, but is in danger of losing his new fortune through bad investment decisions. His daughter Josephine is beautiful and has the manners of a lady, but when her titled beau deserted her when she became pregnant, her marriage prospects to a respectable gentleman dropped considerably. Mr. Cathcart needs an influx of funds and he needs them yesterday. When Josephine refuses to marry an elderly neighbor in exchange for new cash, Mr. Cathcart contrives to find a wealthy American who has no knowledge of Josephine’s illegitimate son. He tells Josephine that they are traveling to America to purchase a new augur for his mines, but she knows what his real purpose is and is determined to thwart him. Josephine meets Rafe on the trip home when they are traveling on the same ship. Ash has heard of Mr. Cathcart’s stables and is interested in purchasing some of his stock. When he discovers that his wife Maddie is pregnant, he decides to take her on to Scotland and appoints Rafe to travel to the Cathcart estate to look over the horses. Josephine has a horse named Pembroke’s Pride who is the best horse in their stable, but he was injured in a race and now refuses to cross water. It doesn’t take long for Rafe to understand that the horse is not the only one in need of saving; Josephine and her son need a hero as well.
While neither Rafe or Josephine are truly ordinary people, they are much closer to ordinary than we typically find in an American/British romance. Rafe is a directionless drifter and Josephine’s new money places her in a precarious social situation in class conscious 19th century England. I like that Warner chose her main characters out of the common mold. Rafe is just a darling. His calm manner as a type of “horse whisperer” carries over into his interactions with people and it is hard not to just love him to death. By British standards, the Cathcarts occupy that tenuous social rung below the aristocracy, but above the working class, but even so their wealth is something that Rafe has never experienced in his life. To him, Josephine is beyond his reach as his male psyche cannot abide the thought he would not be able to support her in the manner to which she is accustomed. The main obstacle to their romance is her perceived unattainability.
Josephine is equally likeable as a heroine and has just as much depth to her as Rafe. Kaki Warner has done a great job of writing two very well fleshed out characters. Josephine’s father is also an obstacle as he has much greater plans for his daughter – and a penniless American simply will not do. He is also an ill-tempered, conniving man who would just as soon toss Rafe off his property, but cannot afford to anger the Earl of Kirkwell. His character is also extremely believable and well written. Another obstacle to their HEA arrives in the form of the father of Josie’s illegitimate child. While his inclusion was not exactly contrived, I did not feel it was absolutely necessary to introduce this element to the story. It was an interesting development, but it just felt a little like piling on. However, that is the only criticism I found in this book – and the reason it just missed DIK status for me.
Warner fans will be pleased with the latest in the Heartbreak Creek storyline, but readers need not have read all of the previous books to enjoy this one. It works well as a standalone. I look forward to the next story by Kaki Warner.