Stranded With the Rancher (2014), by Janice Maynard, is the first of several books in the multi-author series Texas Cattleman’s Club: After the Storm, which is part of the larger Texas Cattleman’s Club series. There are advantages to single author and multi-author series, for both readers and writers, but sometimes they remind me of old comic books, where characters are introduced for no reason other than to promote different stories. That happens in the first few pages of Stranded, and the climactic scene takes place at the wedding of the hero’s brother, under distracting circumstances.
Stranded is from Harlequin’s Desire imprint, for “contemporary, sensual, conflict-driven romances that feature strong-but-vulnerable alpha heroes and dynamic heroines who want love—and more! Reads that are always powerful, passionate and provocative.” Sensual means sexually driven plot, at least in the case of Stranded. I’ve nothing against sex, but making it the key element of attraction is risky in both fiction and real life.
Drew and Beth are neighbours. He comes from money, and runs the family’s horse ranch, catering to the elite. She comes from the wrong side of town, but a few years ago she bought the land next door, and ekes out a living selling organic produce at a roadside stand. He routinely visits to complain about her presence, and one afternoon a tornado hits during his visit. They both shelter in her cellar, and are trapped there until the next morning. That experience brings them together, and since her house is badly damaged while his is untouched, he invites her to stay with him, which keeps them together. They’ve been lusting after each other for a while, so the proximity promptly leads to lots of well written sex.
Drew believes, for reasons not entirely clear, that he has found the woman of his dreams. Beth is enjoying herself, but does not expect the good times to last, because her life has been hard. She feels the arrival of her ne’er-do-well brother will hasten the end of the affair, especially if he reveals how she got the money to buy the land.
There are several reasons why this story did not work for me. In addition to the other story distractions and the sexually driven plot, the romance takes place against a backdrop of natural disaster, with awkward moments like our couple making out while volunteering at an emergency shelter. I found it unrealistic that they were both attracted to the other but neither had acted on it before the tornado hit. However, my biggest disappointment was Beth.
She starts out seeming to be the strong and independent woman I like to see. She survived a terrible childhood (an increasingly common problem for romance heroes and heroines) and got a scholarship to university, where she majored in math and minored in marketing. She’s also had a couple of relationships. So far, so good. However, her relationship with a much older man led to him giving her a substantial amount of money, which she used to buy the farm. She feels that Drew might believe she’s a gold digger, after his billions.
What troubles me is not that she accepted the money, but that she feels ashamed about it, and that she apparently has no further connection with her benefactor (as if she was bought, instead of given a gift). To make matters worse, the initial conflict – her possession of the little farm, important to her and annoying to Drew – is resolved by her giving the land to Drew, as a wedding gift. Her education and her land no longer matter, because all she wants to do is be Drew’s wife and have his babies.
With only a few tweaks, Beth could have been a much stronger character. Instead, in the end she’s not much different from the nurse heroines of 1970s romances, happy to have a man rescue them from career girl oblivion. As for Drew, he’s rich, handsome, and virile, but I’m not sure what his vulnerability is, or what makes him heroic apart from being rich, handsome, and virile. Call me fussy, but I expect more from my fictional heroes than inherited power and the ability to wield it. The Happy Ever After is she gives up everything, and he gets everything, and that doesn’t seem very happy to me.