My husband is starting to get a little bit disgruntled with the number of Linda Lael Miller books I read. (“Cowboys again? Why do you want to read about men who are cows?” he grumbled this time. What a wit he is.) But honestly, there’s something so warm and cheery about Miller’s books, and returning to her work is a guaranteed pick-me-up. For me, she’s the romance equivalent of Charles de Lint, who I read when I’m after an easy-to-read fantasy novel full of friendly characters and low-stakes plots, or Haruki Murakami, who’s my mainstream literature version of the same. Sometimes you just kind of want a book where nothing much happens.
Even so, I’ve tried to stagger my Miller reading a little bit just so that you guys don’t have to deal with a blog that’s basically all cowboys, all the time (um, that said, I may have two more of these books coming up in the near future…). Hence why I’m reviewing An Outlaw’s Christmas in February. But hey, this book’s a two-in-one, so on average I’m reading in a seasonally appropriate manner.
Miller’s perhaps best known for her McKettrick family heroes and heroines, and although she’s given us plenty of present-day romances involving the wealthy owners of the Triple M ranch, with her Christmas specials she tends to step back in time to the McKettrick great-grandparents. Her previous McKettrick family Christmas special gave us the story of the impoverished Dara Rose and sheriff Clay and their marriage of convenience; this year’s brings us that of schoolteacher Piper St James (cousin to Dara Rose) and newly arrived marshall Sawyer McKettrick (cousin to Clay. Oh, the tidiness of these family trees!).
Things between the two start quite literally with a bang, as Sawyer is shot immediately upon his arrival in town. Piper finds him facedown in the snow and drags him into her humble shack to tend his wounds. But given the ultra-conservative small town setting, it’s not long before the news spreads about Piper’s hosting a man in her single-bedroom home, and she fears that her reputation will be tarnished beyond repair. Sawyer apparently feels the same, so wham, we have our marriage of convenience (from memory, a similar thing happens in the previous Christmas special). But although the two are determined to pretend that their marriage is nothing more than The Right Thing To Do, there’s no denying the attraction between them. Cue the Barry White music and Sawyer teaching Piper his worldly bedroom ways (yep, Piper might be a blushing, never-been-kissed virgin, but Sawyer knows what’s up).
I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of the marriage-first-love-later trope, and here I didn’t quite buy the reasoning behind it. But then, perhaps it’s because I wasn’t raised in a country with puritan origins, so I don’t quite grok the true nature of the scandal here. Even so, I enjoyed the simple, sweet romance between Piper and Sawyer, and the general goodheartedness of the stories that people these pages (but a warning for those of you who, like me, are tired of precocious children called Maddie: there’s one in this book!). Also props for Piper’s sentiments about guns: “these were modern times, for heaven’s sake, and they were not the Old West but the new one.” Indeed.
McKettrick’s Luck is the second of the two stories bundled into this volume, and though set in the present day, there’s some thematic overlap with the presence of random blow-ins toting guns and trying to off the hero–in this case Jesse McKettrick, a party-boy who’s turned his back on the McKettrick business empire in order to play pro poker. (And if his five million in winnings is any indication, he’s pretty good at it, too). Apparently back-room high-stakes poker in small-town Arizona is not a way to make friends. Who’d’ve thought?
Anyway, Jesse might have a great poker face when it’s game-on, but there’s one person who’s bringing out all of his tells, and that’s Cheyenne Bridges (despite the name she’s not a bridge player, unfortunately, just another poker-playin’ lass). A would-be property mogul who’s worked her way up from nothing, Cheyenne’s back in town with dollar signs in her eyes: her boss has told her that if she doesn’t manage to buy up Jesse’s portion of the McKettrick property, Cheyenne will be out of a job. And with a paraplegic brother and a struggling mother to look after, Cheyenne really needs that cash.
Though a slim read coming in at just over two hundred pages, McKettrick’s Luck is filled with all of the stuff you expect from a Miller novel: greasy diner food, horse rides across huge properties, good-natured teasing between family members, terrible fashion and hilarious names. (I suppose that after a hundred or so novels it must be tough to avoid repeating names without resorting to the outlandish. Also, side-note: there are pregnant women everywhere in these books. Marriage, then wham, baby nine months later.)
Though I enjoyed the tension between Cheyenne and Jesse, I wasn’t quite on board with the plot involving Cheyenne’s sleazy boss and the subsequent decisions that she makes about her work–I didn’t feel that the motivation was quite there, and that a lot of time was spent using other characters to try to force Cheyenne’s hand in a decision that I didn’t really feel that she’d ever make in the first place. The machinations around, for example, Cheyenne’s boss and Jesse’s former fling (sorry for the ambiguity, but I’m trying to avoid spoilers for those who care about such things) felt a little like retrospective, fill-in-the-gaps plotting to me.
I did enjoy, however, the subplot involving Cheyenne’s younger brother, which reminded me a lot of a similar subplot in Forever and a Day by Jill Shalvis, and watching Cheyenne slowly begin to see her brother not as a disabled person, but as a person full-stop. There’s some growth in Cheyenne’s relationship with her mother as well, which I thought was quite nicely handled given the book’s short length. In addition to the plots revolving around the main characters, Miller also gives us little snippets of town and family life that help round things out and will no doubt be picked up in subsequent volumes: the “ghost” sightings, for example, were a fun little inclusion. Bonus points for the horse called Ponyboy (presumably after the protagonist in SE Hinton’s The Outsiders) and the business with the McKettrick woman keeping their names when they marry. Finally, heroines after my own heart!
In all, this is a warm and cheery volume, and a nice addition to growing my Linda Lael Miller library.
With thanks to Harlequin Australia for the review copy
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