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cowboyCowboy with a Cause, by Carla Cassidy, is a Harlequin Romantic Suspense from 2012.

This is a situation I’ve come across before: The landlady and the tenant. It’s an economical way to introduce two strangers and keep them in close company. It also comes with built in appeal and challenge. The man is something of a free spirit (otherwise he wouldn’t show up looking to rent), so being able to capture him is a prize. Who doesn’t want to be the woman that makes a man settle down? On the other hand, letting yourself love a free spirit is risky – he moved on before, and he may move on again.

There are other aspects of the landlady and tenant situation that appeal to me. Even if she is renting out of financial necessity or some other need, she has significant power in the relationship. She chooses whether or not to rent to the tenant, and sets the rules of their initial business relationship. At its worst, this is still a stronger female role than many other situations leading to romance. The tenant, meanwhile, is relatively ordinary. Billionaires and dukes rarely want to rent a room (though I’m sure there are examples of both.)

This hero is particularly ordinary. Like the pizza serving Cowboy Cafe, he is a cowboy in name only – Adam is part owner of the family ranch where he grew up. As the story opens, he’s recovering from a brush with alcoholism after a car crash killed his sister, and also dealing with a brother in jail for attempted murder. Despite this back story, he’s relatively flat and there’s something missing. He’s thirty-three, and despite being a decent fellow, never seems to have dated. There’s no passing reference to casual girlfriends, but nothing to suggest he’s a virgin either. His appeal seems to be limited to a buff body, handyman skills, and general decency, but those are rare enough that his bachelor status is a mystery.

Melanie has lots of back story. She blew this cowboy town years ago, moved to New York, and became a successful Broadway dancer. In an unusual but pleasant twist, she had an active social life, including living with a boyfriend for several months. She moved back to assist her mother in her last few months, then stayed. What Melanie had assumed were the aches and pains of dancing turned out to be a nerve disorder that cost her the use of a leg. Now confined to a wheelchair, she’s depressed and a recluse in her mother’s old house.

Melanie’s appearance and disability are nicely described from Adam’s point of view. When she answers the door, he visually appraises her, and his description ends with him noting that he cannot tell how tall she is as she is in a wheelchair. In other words, the wheelchair is not part of the description of her – it’s incidental to another aspect of her appearance.

Their opening conversation has them ‘speaking the same language,’ always a sign that this is the ‘right romantic couple.’

She used her arms to move herself backward and then gestured for him to step into the foyer. “Adam Benson,” she mused, her eyes narrowed as her gaze held his. “I heard you were a drunk.” Adam took a step back, stunned by her unexpected words. “I was,” he admitted with painful honesty. “But I’m not drinking anymore. And the rumors I heard about you were that you’re a sour, rude and cranky woman. The verdict is still out on that.

TouchĂ©. And they’re off. An accidental meeting with him wearing only a towel and her in a nightgown helps. The obstacles are all on her part. She’s hesitant to fall for a man in transition, and not sure she should be getting involved with anyone, given what she believes is her useless crippled state. Adam is all sunny optimism about her future and the possibility of a relationship. His “can do” spirit seemed a little out of place, given his background, and she seemed to cheer up quite readily. I’m tempted to dismiss this as all too easy, except that sometimes a good relationship can make you feel quite differently about yourself. I know you shouldn’t rely on other people to cheer you up, but sometimes they do.

Despite her depression, she’s one of those strong female characters I like to see. She’s the landlady, she’s the one with the active sex life, and she seduces him. Once in bed, he’s still hesitant. “I don’t want to hurt you.” “Unless you intend to eat my foot, there’s no way you’re going to hurt me. … don’t treat me like an invalid. Treat me like the fully functioning woman that I am.” This is rather at odds with her usual outlook. I’m not sure if her line is a flaw in characterization or an early sign of her more positive outlook. Perhaps it’s just that there’s nothing quite like a playful romp in sheets to lift one’s mood and confidence.

In another unusual aspect, but consistent with the characters, he’s not prepared with a condom, but she’s on the pill. I know, not as safe, but sex is always risky, and after story after story where the hero has a pocketful of condoms I appreciated the novelty and the more adventurous and dangerous approach here.

Adam’s courtship behaviour occasionally borders on creepy. He adds a wheelchair ramp and an alarm system to her house, without her permission. However, some one is actually stalking her and plotting to kill her, so he’s somewhat justified. To complicate matters in both the suspense and romance plots, at times Melanie is unsure of her own mental state. For example, when some pictures in the house are broken, she and Adam both suspect she had some sort of episode as a side effect of her various medications.

As one might expect in a romance-suspense, the climax is the hero rushing to rescue the heroine. After all, that’s what heroes do, and he has to tell her that he loves her and she loves him. In this case, the climax works out a little differently and the big realization is different. Still Happily Ever After, of course, but nicely consistent with characterization and and plotting.

Adam is under-developed, and some situations resolve a little too easily, but there’s a lot to like here: a strong female figure, good handling of disability, some touches of sexual heat, and some moments of brutality that make the suspense plot darker than I was expecting. There are clumsy references to what I assume are prequels and sequels, but I’m keen to check and see if other work from this author has the strong female characterization.

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