This is my fourth review of a Donna Alward book, having previously enjoyed Sleigh Ride with the Rancher (2012), A Family for the Rugged Rancher (2011), and Hired by the Cowboy (2006) (and I’ve got another one in the ‘to read’ pile). As you can guess, I’m partial to her work, and not just because she lives in the same town as me, or uses Canadian locations: I like her approach. Everything I’ve read so far has been a sweet romance with a little realism, featuring slightly wounded but more-or-less strong characters who share a mutual attraction.
Her Lone Cowboy is along the same lines. Lily is a twenty-seven year old high school teacher, but has avoided any intimacy since a bad relationship when she herself was in high school. Wait a minute – ten years and she’s still avoiding relationships and nursing her broken heart? From a high school relationship? Despite the social environment of university? Yes, it’s hard to recover from a broken heart, and it’s a nasty wound, but this is bordering on pathological.
Noah’s a farmer who went into the military, and he seems even more innocent than Lily, which would be a refreshing change from the stock male hero who ‘has always casually enjoyed female company’ if it were not so hard to believe. He’s handsome, well spoken, financially secure, and his literal and figurative scars are recent. (The injuries are handled realistically and respectfully, with acknowledgements to a Canadian Forces doctor and the Wounded Warriors organization.)
The characters have huge holes in their past, and while a few are eventually filled in, it’s too little, too late, to make the characters believable. The circumstances that bring Lily and Noah together are reasonable, but the instant physical attraction, and the six week period from meeting to wedding plans, is fast for people who have sworn off relationships. However, these characters do have other aspects I expect and appreciate from Alward: The hero is not a billionaire, just a real nice guy, the heroine is self-sufficient and not intimidated by a grumpy soldier, and the relationship is mutually beneficial. It’s just the gaps in the past and the first sight attraction that don’t ring true.
As for the sweet approach (no sex), in this case it seemed at odds with the characters thoughts and the situation.
“I mean, you’re only here for a short time, and I’m not looking for anything romantic, so why don’t we just agree to keep it light? We might as well have fun.”
Yet, even as she said it, she kept feeling the way his chest had been wide and strong beneath her hands this afternoon … She didn’t want entanglements, but she did want him. … hot and heavy was exactly what had been running through her mind.
This seems like the set up for a plot where the summer fling becomes something deeper, not the plot of aging virgins timidly edging into a relationship. There are a couple of deliciously erotic scenes that stress the casual physical intimacy of relationships – she measures him for a tuxedo, he helps her out of a dress when a zipper sticks – which, though enjoyable on their own, do not proceed to anything but yearning and end up seeming out of place with a couple that collapse into tears and fears whenever they manage a kiss.
There is also one particularly jarring note, which I am tempted to blame on an editor, or at least sloppy editing. The story is set in Canada, and refers to several Canadian cities, yet a pair of Toronto teens who wanted to marry in secret went to Las Vegas. Really? All that expense, passports, packing, and leaving town, when they could have slipped into City Hall (3 locations) on a lunch break? The Las Vegas episode is dramatic and flashy, but out of place with the comfortable grounded realism of having characters visit Pincher Creek and drive on Highway 22 (The Cowboy Trail).
Alward writes well, and this book, one of four set in the fictional Alberta town of Larch Valley, has all her usual touches, including a strong female character. However, perhaps because I had higher expectations, I was disappointed by the awkward moments. Or maybe I was just sexually frustrated by the long slow tease of their relationship. The bubble bath rating is Strawberry Milkshake (that’s high praise: it’s sweet, cleansing, long lasting, and a little frustrating because it smells delicious but you cannot drink it).