The Rebel Rancher by Donna Alward was for me. The second book in a connected duet about cowboy cousins raised as brothers is really breathtaking in a lot of ways. It's honest. It's heart-felt. And even if the author does make a choice during the latter half that normally drives me bonkers, it totally works.
Tyson "Ty" Diamond was adopted by his aunt and uncle after his junkie mother abandoned him on their doorstep. Even though they raised him like their son, loved him, Ty and Uncle Virgil had a tendency to butt heads. So Ty took off for the rodeo circuit and the estrangement has been hanging over the family ranch, Diamondback, ever since. Ty doesn't know how to bridge the gap, and then his cousin (see The Last Real Cowboy) calls him home after Virgil has a stroke.
Clara Ferguson is Virgil's home nurse, and also the first resident of Butterfly House (again, see The Last Real Cowboy), a home that helps women leaving abusive relationships to get back on their feet. Jackson did a real number on her, and two years later Clara is still picking up the pieces. She's making strides, and then in waltzes Ty - who scares the hell out of her. He's sexy. He's charming. He's the consummate flirt. In other words, he's Trouble with a capital T. But she can't seem to stay away from him, and in turn, Ty cannot stay away from her.
What I loved about this book was the honesty of it. Ty is an actor. A guy hiding behind a playboy facade because it's easier than showing anyone, or dealing with, his pain. Clara is still gun-shy, for good reason, and is working towards a life where she isn't afraid all the time. While she knows she should stay away from Ty, she can't - and in turn he's drawn to Clara because she sees everything. She takes one look at him and knows, deep down, he's not the man that he wants everyone to think he is. He's kind, gentle, and in a lot of ways he's still that scared little boy whose mother dumped him off on her brother. These two are so perfect for each other it's hard to think of one without the other.
Every choice the author makes in this story is just right. There's sweetness mixed with sadness. There's grief mixed with the joy. Even a plot device that shows up during the later chapters, one that normally annoys the heck out of me (start spoiler/ One Night Of Passion And Whoopsie! I'm Preggers! /end spoiler) totally works here. Yes, it's there to get the characters to finally admit their feelings - but without it? These two would have left things unsaid. That's just the type of people they are. Not stubborn so much as wounded and wanting to do what they think is the right thing.
Those final moments of the story where the characters have to admit to each other how they truly feel could have been a bit more drawn out for me, but that's most likely just me being selfish. This was a really great story, emotionally charged with just the right amount of angst without being overblown. It's a romance about two scared people who become less scared after finding each other. It's a romance about a couple that fits, perfectly. It's not possible to think of one of them without the other. For that reason, I'm glad they found each other, and I'm glad they both stopped being scared.
Final Grade = A-