Her Rancher Rescuer by Donna Alward marks the author's debut with Harlequin American. It is a move to a new line within the category universe that makes a lot of sense. Alward's playground of choice for category are ranchers and cowboys, and this transition also marks the sixth, and final book, in her Cadence Creek Cowboys series, which up until this point lived over at Harlequin Romance. Alward has written many books I've enjoyed, and even a few books I haven't liked all that much, but Her Rancher Rescuer is a new high. I loved this book. It's a I Read It In One Sitting book. It's a I Stayed Up Late To Finish It Because I Couldn't Put It Down book. It's a When I Woke Up In The Morning I Wanted To Read It All Over Again book.
The theme of this book is don't make assumptions because you'll just look like an ass. Our heroine is Amy Wilson, the resident Good Time Girl in tiny Cadence Creek. Amy is a girl who keeps looking for love in all the wrong places. She's dated a lot of guys, most of them frogs, and when you live in a small town? Yeah, gossip. It's poor Amy, can't find a man. Poor Amy, just like her Mama who is still smarting over the fact that her husband left to get a quart of milk and never came back.
Given that it's a small town, and she works for a local florist, Amy's at a wedding for a former Alward couple. That's when a former hero opens his big fat mouth, says something rather hurtful, and Amy overhears. Amy doesn't have feelings for this guy (in fact she was trying to play matchmaker for him and his heroine!), but when someone says you're the last person on Earth they'd want to be with? It's humiliating. Riding to her rescue is Jack Shepard. These opening moments, of Amy hiding in the ladies' room and Jack coming in after her are brilliant. He's essentially, at first, a Harlequin Presents hero. He's sexy as sin, smart, funny, charming, filthy rich and genuinely likes Amy as a person. They spend some time together (not like that!), Amy is charmed, but quickly returns back to her normal life. Hey, Jack lives in Montana, Amy lives in Canada. He may have family in Cadence Creek, but this is a guy that isn't sticking around.
That is until he finds himself in a jam. He comes back to town for the holidays and shares with Amy that his place in Montana is a working ranch, but also a corporate retreat. His right hand woman? The one who basically runs the office there? Just broke her pelvis and is down for the count, just in time for a new group of arrivals to show up. Amy then has a light bulb moment. She has realized that if she wants a life she needs to get the hell out of Dodge. She's thinking she wants to go to college and study hospitality, but she'd love to test the waters first. Plus she helps out a lot with the "business stuff" at the flower shop. She thinks she can handle it. Jack, even though he is powerfully attracted to her and naturally isn't a relationship kind of guy, says yes. So Amy is off to Montana for a few weeks and Jack has to figure out a way to keep things strictly professional between them.
What makes this story so fantastic is the gut-wrenching, sucker-punch heft to the emotional baggage. Jack is, like I mentioned, on the surface a Harlequin Presents-like hero. He was a former championship caliber skier until a knee injury shattered his Olympic dreams. He channeled that energy into starting his own sporting goods company, which has proven to be wildly successful. Now moving on to a new challenge he buys a failing ranch in Montana and decides to host corporate retreats. You know, those trips where CEOs can take their underlings and they all work on "team building" exercises together. Jack is a man who cannot sit still, flitting from one challenge to the next. And why do you think that is? Ding, ding, ding! Yep, a woman. A woman he couldn't save because it turns out - she didn't want to be saved. Jack is a fixer with a White Knight Complex.
Amy is a woman ready to grow up. She's tired of being stuck, and that's what has happened to her in Cadence Creek. She knows if she ever wants to be happy that she needs to grab the bull by the horns, take the initiative. The problem is that she's attracted to Jack and he's not making things easy on her - yep, he's pursuing her. The fly in the ointment, he may be attracted and he may be pursuing, but that doesn't mean he is emotionally ready. Because once our couple hits the sheets? Jack realizes that what he has with Amy, what he feels with Amy, demands permanence, and it scares the shit out of him.
For her part, Amy knows how she feels about Jack - but an adult lifetime looking for love in all those wrong places, of being "poor Amy" from Cadence Creek? This is a girl who isn't going to settle for crumbs. Yes, Jack is scared - but you know what? That doesn't mean she should have to settle and she's not going to. Amy is tired of trying to fit square pegs into round holes. She loves Jack, but if he's too scared and unwilling to change? That's not her problem. She can't make him do anything, he has to want to do it. And if he loves her? He'll do it in a hot minute. So Amy does what all great romance heroines should always do - she doesn't settle. She says goodbye.
However, this is a romance novel, so we know these two will eventually find their way together because they need to be together. It's the emotionally charged moments, the dialogue that rips your guts out, that make this story so great. I've been a lucky reader of late and read some pretty good stories, but this one was pure magic for me from start to finish. I loved every moment of it.
Final Grade = A