Montana Wife by Jillian Hart
The Particulars: Historical western romance, Harlequin Historical, 2004, Out of Print, Available Digitally!
Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: Hart is mostly known for her inspirationals these days, but I autobuy her secular work. I picked this one up at a used bookstore many moons ago after enjoying some of her others.
Review: Rayna Ludgrin has just buried her husband. The love of her life, he dropped dead working in the fields, and now she's a widow with two young sons to raise. Compounding this tragedy, her husband wasn't forthcoming with her about the state of their finances. A widow sitting on prime land, it doesn't take long for the vultures to start circling.
Coming to her aid is one of her neighbors, Daniel Lindsey. He genuinely wants to help her out, to repay the kindness her husband showed to him when he first moved to Montana. Growing up knowing nothing but hardship, Daniel is a loner. However the more time he spends around Rayna, and marvels at her determination and strength, the more he's sunk. When more tragedy strikes, a marriage of convenience seems the only logical answer.
Hart excels at writing angst, and she lays it on pretty thick with this story. That said, it's all (sadly) believable angst. Everything that befalls Rayna in the first half of this story rings amazingly true. These were hardships any newly-single woman would have faced, especially living out in the middle-flippin' nowhere, in still largely untamed country. She marries Daniel because, well, her other choices suck. But she also knows that Daniel is a good man. He'll do right by her and her boys. That said, she passionately loved her first husband. And the guy hasn't been dead all that long. To say she's torn about this marriage, even if it is an "arrangement," is putting it mildly.
Daniel is a fantastic hero. One of those strong, silent types with a deeply wounded and vulnerable core. He admires Rayna, is attracted to her, and marrying her does give him a chance at owning some prime land. But he's also doing it for her two young sons. So that they'll never know the hardship that he had to endure as a child. He's a admirable man. A good, solid man. A man I wanted to run away with before it was all said and done.
All this being said, this story isn't perfect (and oh, how it kills me to say that!). Namely, there are some inconsistencies. Daniel starts out a bit wounded Alpha - one who doesn't think much of women. Yet by the time he marries Rayna, he's gooey Beta, reminiscing about how as a child he wanted some kindly woman to adopt him and be his mother. So which is it? On the bright side, at least he doesn't tar and feather Rayna with the All Women Are Needy And Selfish brush.
There are also a couple of secondary characters who aren't consistently employed in this story, and sort of flit in and out when the author conveniently needs a plot device. Namely, Rayna's youngest boy (in contrast, I adored the older boy) and the villain. It's the villain that gives me the most pause - especially his actions at the end that come out of left field (and are never explained!) after he's largely "off page" during the entire second half.
For her part, I liked Rayna. She's a good example of a "strong" heroine who isn't annoyingly feisty or brain-dead. But man, while I understood that she was still mourning her Dead Hubby, she says some things to Daniel that just about ripped my heart out. It's these emotional moments that really made this book sing for me. I bled for both of these characters, even as I wanted to reach through the pages and smack 'em around a bit.
What I'm left with is....a book I wish I could grade higher. I think I would have chopped back the first half of this story, and given readers more of the second half after the couple has married. Still, I found this to be a very enjoyable read. It's emotional, it's angst-y, and Hart does a very nice job delivering the western homesteading vibe, while not glossing over the history.
Final Grade = B