Setting: Post-Civil War Texas
Never Love a Cowboy is the kind of book that makes me wonder why I’m not more familiar with Lorraine Heath’s name. Why is everyone buying that latest glossy big-name hardback when they could be reading this little jewel? Between these inexpensive green paper covers is a book with more emotional depth than anything I’ve read in a long time.
Harrison Bainbridge is one of a trio of exiled British noblemen who find themselves in the dusty little frontier town of Fortune, Texas. He is a charming clothes-horse with a gift for poker, but beneath his well-groomed exterior lies a man who believes that he is incapable of love. He was gravely abused by his mother, and always felt that his father, an earl, had no interest in him except as a spare heir. He feels he has nothing to offer a woman but sex.
Jessye Kane is a nice girl, but she was raised in her widowed father’s saloon and has no reputation to speak of. In her foolish youth, she was led astray by a sweet-talking man, an affair that led to a shatteringly painful experience, one that still haunts her with regret. She longs for love but wants never to find herself in a man’s power again. She intends to raise a little money and be entirely independent, and hopes that her need to be loved will go away on its own.
These characters were first introduced in A Rogue in Texas, a book I haven’t read, and so we do not see the opening chapters of their relationship. By the time we meet them, they’ve already reached an impasse. Jessye longs for Harry’s love but cannot trust him. Harrison wants to sleep with her but is incapable of offering the one thing that would win her – his love. The way we’re dropped into the middle of this already-existing relationship is a touch confusing but, once we know who all the players are, it’s very effective. It gives immediacy to the sexual frustration, resentment and need that hums between Harry and Jessye from the very first chapter.
In the first half of the book, Harry and his friend Kit (one of the Brits) plan on making a fortune driving Texas cattle to eastern markets, and they talk Jessye into investing in the scheme. She agrees to become Kit’s partner, but pencils Harry out of the deal because, as she makes clear, he’s an untrustworthy scoundrel. Over the next several months Harry and Jessye work closely together. Harry learns about the deep wounds in Jessye’s spirit, and Jessye learns that Harry might not be the scoundrel she’d assumed, and begins to suspect that her mistrust cuts him deep. Before long Jessye and Harry are firmly and unmistakably in love, but their insecurities still keep them apart. It takes a very skilled writer to make this kind of subtle internal conflict work because it shows both characters at a disadvantage – it focuses on their faults, their hurts, the things they hate about themselves.
At mid-point in the book, something so catastrophic happens that I can’t tell you what it is. I’m sorry – I know that’s unsatisfactory. But it’s shocking, and you just have to read it. It changes every aspect of the relationship between our protagonists. And at it’s at this point that Never Love a Cowboy goes from being a pretty darn good book to a masterpiece. I liked the first two hundred pages; I was absolutely riveted to the last two hundred.
At first I was a little unhappy with Harry. Why is it that at so many romance heroes cannot commit because they’re victims of abuse? I’m tired of seeing the emotional wounds of child abuse used simply as an excuse to keep a hero single until he falls in love, at which point he easily casts his dark doubts aside. Soon I realized that this novel probes the question more deeply. Harry’s personality and the mask he wears to protect himself, ring true. Slowly, over the course of the book, Jessye learns his true nature, and so do we. We see the complex man emerge from behind the facade of the casual cheat and rake who, as Jessye says, “can’t stay faithful to the top card on the deck if the one on the bottom is better looking.”
Never Love a Cowboy is a story of pain and healing. The hurts these two people have suffered are significant and, because of them, they are not always very nice folks. They are certainly not always very nice to each other. But they plumb the depths of their despair together and eventually discover that they have the power to heal one another – not to alter the painful past, but to give one another solace and redemption. It’s a remarkably good book.