Cheryl St. John is my go-to "comfort read author" and I've enjoyed stories by Sherri Shackelford in the past - so Cowboy Creek Christmas had a leg up on most of my TBR pile right out the gate. Final verdict? While not without charm, I didn't love this. I might have to officially declare myself broken.
Mistletoe Reunion by Cheryl St. John kicks things off with a reunited romance. Marlys Boyd has moved to Cowboy Creek, Kansas to set up her own medical practice - but it's been a challenge. Not only is she a woman doctor in an era when all female doctors were suspect - she practices, for that time period, alternative medicine. Herbal remedies instead of bleeding an already sick patient, for example. She decides that advertising in the local newspaper would be a smart way to drum up some business, but gets a shock when she meets the editor. It's Sam Mason, the former fiancé she threw over in order to attend medical school.
After the busted engagement, Sam married another and had a son, August. When his wife died in childbirth, Sam left the boy with his mother to raise while he was off fighting in the Civil War. He later wrote about his experiences in a well-received book, which has led him to Cowboy Creek to start his own newspaper. He feels no ill-will towards Marlys, but is still flabbergasted all the same when he finds out she's the new lady doctor everyone's been talking about.
I'll be blunt: St. John writes Competence Porn. And in a genre that can sometimes fall down the Oh Come On Now Too Stupid To Live Rabbit Hole, her gentle romances featuring exceedingly practical characters can read like a breath of fresh air. Marlys is calm, efficient, and very good at her job. Sam's masculine pride took a hit when Marlys broke off their engagement, but over the course of the story, he understands why she did it. Asking her to not be a doctor would be like asking her to stop breathing. He didn't entirely understand it then, but he "gets" it now that they've been reunited. These are characters who think things through, don't make rash decisions, but given their past history (Marlys dumping him once before, the fact that "most men" would demand a woman stop working upon marriage etc.) makes things complicated.
Where this story failed to engage me was in the execution - which honestly could be chalked up to a It's Me, Not You thing. This is a "return" to Cowboy Creek. There were three books before this one, so St. John's story is filled with many past couples and characters. I wanted much more focus on the Marlys and Sam reunion and didn't really give a flying hoot about the past couples. But for readers who have read the other books in the series? They probably won't mind and will love the homey, holiday sweetness of the setting. In many, many ways this read a lot like a small town contemporary to me. Just, you know, set in post-Civil War Kansas.
Grade = B-
I fell right into Mistletoe Bride by Sherri Shackelford and barely came up for air while reading it. Beatrix Haas had the misfortune of getting pregnant by a man who claimed to love her, but threw her over for another woman. Now disowned by her domineering father, and her older sisters unwilling to go against their own husbands to take her in - her minister in Austria arranges for her to marry his distant cousin in Cowboy Creek. She's in labor when she arrives in Kansas and there are immediate complications. The midwife calls for town blacksmith Colton Werner, the only person close by who understands German. Beatrix speaks some English, but in her delirium she has slipped into her native tongue. When she finds out her intended, the former town sheriff, is dead and that her baby will be born a bastard, she's frantic. Driven by her plight, and his own guilt, Colton tells the dying woman he'll marry her on the spot. Which he does. The pastor shows up and they exchange vows before the baby boy makes his appearance.
So we all know what happens next. Beatrix miraculously survives and now Colton has a wife and child. He's got a haunted past and she's carrying the baggage of her family estrangement. It's a gentle, sweet romance between two people who don't think they're "good enough." I also liked that Shackelford doesn't gloss over anti-immigrant sentiment, and in fact the Austrian Beatrix has some trouble with a prominent German family thanks to lingering hostilities stemming from the Austro-Prussian War (seriously, when was the last time you read that in a romance?)
Unfortunately it all gets a bit rushed at the end. There's a turn of events with Beatrix's father that felt tacked on to me - and the bit with the German family comes to a rushed conclusion that I'm not sure I totally buy. But the romance itself was very nice and I enjoyed these characters. Also, yippee - blacksmith hero!
Grade = B-
These stories are cozy holiday reads featuring inspirational themes somewhere in the mid-range level of my own personal God Stuff scale (not overly preachy, but expect a fair amount of Christian talk/faith observance/themes). I feel like both of these authors have written more compelling stories, but these aren't "bad" by any stretch of the imagination and if you've enjoyed the Cowboy Creek series up to this point, this book will likely be a surefire winner.
Final Grade = B-