If you read western romances and love them, you’ll probably like this one too - there’s plenty of recognizable scenery to make you feel right at home.
Hallie Ryan has been scrimping frantically, trying save her family’s Arizona Territory ranch. Just before her father died several months earlier, he made her promise to keep Eden’s Canyon thriving and look after her younger brother, Ben.
This was not very kind of Pa, since Hallie’s seventeen-year-old brother is a gambling wastrel “determined to get himself shot or thrown in jail” and, unbeknownst to Hallie, her father’s gambling debts have left Eden’s Canyon mortgaged to the hilt.
That’s why, when she discovers that Ben has taken half her hoarded money, she hitches up the wagon and heads to town, hoping to get there before he loses it in a card game.
Hallie arrives just in time to see a stranger save a drunken Ben from being shot. At first his rescuer, Jack Dakota, thinks Hallie is Ben’s brother because of the leather britches and battered hat she habitually wears. But discovering that Hallie is a woman doesn’t stop him from asking for her help. Everyone hereabouts says that Hallie knows everything about ranching and Jack could use some expert advice.
Jack, a career gambler (naturally - what’s a western without ham-handed irony?) has come to town to collect his eight-year-old son and make a home for them on the ranch he’s just bought - Eden’s Canyon.
Hallie’s reaction is predictably juvenile; she’s furious that Jack would dare to buy the land that “belongs” to her. When he discovers the truth of the situation, Jack offers to make Hallie his partner - he’ll supply the money and she’ll teach him how to ranch. Hallie thanks Jack for this generous offer by calling him names and taking a swing at him.
Hallie’s going to stick around, though. She’ll act like she’s still the boss and sooner or later Jack will get tired of the hard work and stroll into the sunset. Her perpetual baleful glare does not, however, stop her from noticing the way Jack’s shirt stretches tautly over his muscular back and shoulders.
This book simply never comes to life and it’s not difficult to figure out why. The situation is utterly predictable and the story unfolds just as you think it will. Hallie is the kind of two-dimensional heroine who appears regularly in western romances. Why this grim, self-righteous depiction of frontier womanhood is so compelling to romance writers is beyond me. But all she needs is the love of a good man. And a sense of humor transplant.
We have no idea why Hallie falls for Jack, except maybe he’s the first attractive non-relative who’s ever visited Eden’s Canyon, but one minute she can’t wait to see his dust and the next she’s dreaming that he’ll settle down at Eden’s Canyon for good. There are no transitions, we don’t see any evidence of a mind or heart at work. This is a romance novel, durn it, of course she falls in love with him.
Jack is a more likable character, but with no more depth. His heroism consists mostly of not gambling away the ranch and getting Hallie into a dress. Naturally, he’ll love her no matter what she wears and he respects her abilities - at least, that’s just what we’re told. What we see is him teasing and prodding the huffy, pig-headed Hallie, then getting nervous because he wants more from her than he’s ever wanted from a woman before. Why? Nobody seems to think it’s important for us to see that. This is a romance, partner, of course he loves her.
Because Jack has some social skills, Hallie finds out that all her neighbors don’t hate her and look down on her, but since all of them are cardboard stereotypes it’s difficult for their opinions to mean much.
By the time I got to the end, I was almost comatose with déjà vu. Never mind Arizona - this western takes place in the Familiar Territory.
-- Judi McKee