Have you ever read a book that leaves you feeling like you’ve missed something? That is the reaction I have to The Loner. Throughout the entire book, history and past mistakes are alluded to and used as the reason for all the events taking place, yet the whole picture never quite comes together to make everything clear.
Tom McBride, hated patriarch of the Circle M ranch, is dying. With his second wife Clare at his side, he sends out letters calling his children home. Clare despises Tom and all his children. She does want to bed one son, Tanner and even tries to seduce the oldest son, Stone.
The Loner is Stone’s story. Stone is a bitter man who has turned to gambling as a way to solve his problems. He resents Clare for taking his mother’s place and feels she is the reason he and his brother fought so long ago, causing Stone to leave his home. He has just hit bottom when he receives his father’s letter and he returns to the Circle M for the money.
But instead Stone meets his past, Annie Chapin. Stone and Annie were secretly engaged when they were younger but their romance was shattered on the night Stone left. They had an argument that left them both distrustful and disillusioned.
Exactly what happened during that argument is explained to the reader in bits and pieces and I never really understood it, but it was clear it had an impact on both characters.
Annie is now running the only boarding house in town and Stone decides to stay there rather than on the ranch with his father. Annie has built something of a life for herself in the last few years, but feels unfulfilled and is on her way to bankruptcy. They are drawn to each other despite the hard feelings of the past.
How they reconcile their differences while Tom is on his deathbed is the bulk of the story. They are quick to feel the lust and passion but slow to admit to the love. Why they love each other is a question I still ask myself. Stone is cynical and hard, making him not easy to like, and even when he softens at the end, I am not sure I care.
Annie never fully develops as a strong heroine, although there are hints of a person whom one might come to like. She shows some strength in running the boarding house and taking in those who need her. She cares for “her family”, a housekeeper with a wayward teenage daughter and a used up cowhand no one else wanted to hire.
Annie was difficult to figure out because her character wavered in her characteristics from scene to scene. One minute she decides to save the business by playing poker in the saloon showing strength and assertiveness. The next minute, she is packing up and leaving after Stone hurts her feelings, which seems childish and lacking in courage. Stone takes exception to both actions, with very predictable results.
The three siblings are underdeveloped. They are introduced as though we know them and their backgrounds. All three have spouses with apparent good relationships, but how and why are never detailed. One brother is a half-breed sheriff who no one knew about until he showed up. Now he is one of the heirs and seems to be accepted by the other siblings. Since The Loner is part of the “Secret Fires” series, they may have books of their own, but this book certainly does not do them justice.
The biggest problem with the book is the author’s style of writing. There are innuendos and past secrets hinted at throughout the story. It takes forever, it seems, to reveal these secrets and once revealed, my reaction was to wonder why there was a big mystery about anything.
One of the secrets centers around the death of Stone’s mother followed by Tom’s marriage to Clare shortly after. Clare is a mean-spirited person whom the author feels compelled to defend with a story about her horrible past. Frankly, she is unlikable and one hopes she comes to a bad end. By the time all these secrets are revealed and Tom dies, I was thankful the book was over!
I don’t often come away from a book feeling this disillusioned but The Loner left me with emptiness and a sense that I had wasted my time.