You Had Me at Cowboy
Jennie Marts continues her Cowboys of Creedence series, about the James brothers of Colorado, with You Had me at Cowboy, the story of middle brother Mason’s romance.
Tessa Kane, reporter at large for Colorado In-Depth magazine, is looking for her next big scoop when she’s stood up by her date to former hockey star Rockford James’ pre-wedding party. Living close to the breadline, thanks to her grandmother having been swindled out of all of her (and Tess’) money by phone scammers, Tessa is under threat of being fired unless she can score some juicy, in-depth exclusives on Rockford.
Mason James is a long-suffering, mature dude who’s been taking care of the family ranch while his older brother Rockford has been gallivanting around with the Colorado Summit hockey team. Once the notorious bad boy of the Summits, Rock has settled down and is marrying Quinn Rivers (their relationship is covered in book one, Caught up in a Cowboy) in a hastily put together ceremony, leaving Mason – much to his chagrin – as the target of every matchmaking granny at the wedding. Low-key Mason has always felt like he’s lingered in Rockford’s shadow; aware that Rock could only follow his dreams if Mason bound himself to helping their mother and taking care of the place, he’s stayed quietly in the background, feeling ordinary next to his extraordinary brother. When what his aunt incorrectly assumes is the ice sculpture of a penis (It’s supposed to be a hockey stick and two pucks), starts melting all over the floor, he goes to find a bucket – and bumps into Tessa, who’s been in the supply closet trying to figure out how to get to the wedding without her plus one, her bird-poop-stained shirt stripped off, trying to squash her chest into a far too-small borrowed replacment. She immediately sees Mason as her ticket into Rock’s world, but doesn’t know the sexy cowboy is Rock’s brother until they get talking.
There are definite sparks bouncing between Tessa and Mason, and since they’re dateless they choose to hang out together during the reception, sharing flirtation and a dance and a kiss. But Tessa lies about what she does for a living, and then tries to deal with the aftermath, staying stranded in her car because she doesn’t have the money for a hotel or to even get down the mountain until she produces her article. Her luck changes when she and Mason bump into one another again and things get more intense – and she desperately tries to conceal her identity as his family continues to rant about the evils of the media. She and Mason bond in more than one way, but what will she do when he discovers the truth about her?
Extremely light is a good way to describe the first half of You Had Me at Cowboy; then things get abruptly serious, and we go from jokes about Tessa’s double-Ds to the revelation of serious childhood traumas. That doesn’t mean that it’s a bad story, but there’s a bit of a split going on here between what’s supposed to be serious and what isn’t. It’s goofy and gentle, and does a good job of making you care about the main characters while also providing some ridiculous events for them to survive together. Things get really dark, and then careen back towards light humor and it all wraps up with a too-overdone Big Misunderstanding that turns out just as you imagine it will.
Tess is a walking disaster and pretty helpless for someone who’s supposed to be a fearless reporter. She sometimes shows a little spine and nerve, especially toward the end of the book, and I could relate to her yearning to belong, but her need to disappear into Mason’s family was almost uncomfortable; she forgets about her grandmother for a chunk of the book and when she resurfaces to reinject comedy into the proceedings it doesn’t really work. I liked the subplot that involved her fostering a stray dog she nicknames Dewey (after the Dewey Decimal System). Decent person though she is, I couldn’t help but be frustrated by her inability to just speak the truth.
Mason is a nice guy who loves ranching and he’s been looking forever for a woman who might love him back. He’s caretaker and a wonderful guy.
The romance is pleasant and tender, but it’s burdened by the weight of Tessa’s lie. Tessa spends a lot of time being dragged through the dirt for her misdeeds, and it’s something she only deserves part of the time.
But the book’s biggest problem is its loss of tonal control; it can’t decide if it wants to be a heartwarming story about a woman, her deep emotional trauma and the guy and dog who help her build roots – or the kind of story where Our Heroine gets bird poop on her and hides in broom closets. The first half of the book and everything to do with Tessa’s grandmother stand firmly at odds with Mason rescuing Tessa and Tessa rescuing Dewey, and the three of them trying to struggle through life together. The romance itself works and keeps the reader engaged, but other elements yank you right out of the book.
Big chunks of the story work beautifully, and there’s a lovely big romantic gesture from Tessa at the end of the book that is sweet and compelling. Some of the humor is really funny. But You Had Me at Cowboy suffers from being neither flesh nor fowl, and for all of its good points, I can’t really recommend it.