Jared's Runaway Woman by Judith Stacy
The Particulars: Historical western romance, Harlequin Historical #801, 2006, Out of Print, Available Digitally
Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: I tend to like Judith Stacy more often than not - plus hello? Harlequin Historical. A western. Of course it's in my TBR.
The Review: I'm not going to lie - this book is problematic in a major way but what it gets right it REALLY gets right - and I literally inhaled this baby in one sitting. As in I started it very late at night thinking "a chapter or two before bed" and there I was around 1:30AM finally finishing the last chapter and too wired from my gorging at the book trough to go to sleep until around 2:30AM. Given the sad state of my reading mojo, heck yeah this one is getting a decent final grade from me.
Jared Mason is the oldest brother in a New Money family that made their fortune in construction. All the brothers are in the business, including the one closest to Jared's age - Clark. Clark met his wife, Beth, while he was in Virginia on a job. They fell in love, got married - and then tragedy struck. Clark died in an accident. Beth shipped his body and belongings home to his family in New York and then poof! Vanished. Nearly five years later, Jared's mother finally decides to go through Clark's things and finds a half-finished letter. Beth had just found out she was pregnant! She vanished after Clark's death, and Amelia wants her grandchild. Pinkertons are hired and the trail leads to Crystal Springs, Colorado. Jared puts a job in Maine on hold and heads to Colorado, determined to find his brother's widow and his niece and/or nephew.
Kinsey Templeton has been running for five years, working menial jobs and doing her best to care for her son, Sam, alone. After years of looking over her shoulder she's landed in Crystal Springs - working two jobs to make ends meet. She likes it in town and Sam is happy. Still, she tries to check every stage and train that rolls into town - something that has gotten trickier of late since the town is booming. That's when she spies Jared Mason and she knows that her luck as run out.
Jared never met his brother's wife, so while Jared and Kinsey don't have a shared history, I would still classify this as an Enemies to Lovers story. They're at cross purposes. Kinsey, like most mothers, will fight until her last dying breath to protect her son - and that includes protection from the Mason family. Jared will do anything to bring his nephew home, into the family fold, so the child can claim his birthright. At first blush, he wants Kinsey to come back to New York as well - the Masons will take care of her - and is shocked when she outright refuses to the point of belligerence. She's determined they stay, and Jared is determined that Sam goes back to New York. The first half of this book is basically the hero and heroine waging war against each other with 5-year-old Sam caught in the middle.
So yeah, it's not exactly pleasant even though the author does have a light touch and God bless her, Kinsey ain't no pushover. She's a heroine who will fight dirty.
It gets better in the second half, which is where this story really sings. For one thing, earlier in the proceedings, the author throws in a really well done twist. Then we finally get to the moment where Kinsey and Jared come to an uneasy truce. This involves him staying in town, getting roped in to building a new church (the old one burned down), the various small town dramas that fill out some nicely done secondary story lines, getting to know his nephew...and Kinsey. There's an immediate attraction between Kinsey and Jared bordering on Insta-Lust, but instead of jumping into bed right away, the author unfolds it as a slow burn with an undercurrent of tension that sizzles between them throughout the story (aside from the tension involving Sam). I believed in this romance.
But what makes this story, what truly makes it, is that this is a romance where the men (remember those secondary story lines I alluded to?) make sacrifices for the women. Given the "small town" vibe of this setting and romance, the role reversals in this story read like a breath of fresh air (OK, so the book was published over 10 years ago - but you know what I mean). Naturally Kinsey and Jared have kept some things private - Kinsey, her reasons for not wanting the Masons near Sam ; Jared, the reason behind his determination to bring Clark's son home to New York. The resolution for Kinsey in this one aspect is dealt with, but it doesn't have a stinging air of finality - which I did want. But that said? Given Jared's declaration of his feelings for her, and those sacrifices I mentioned, I would have overlooked a tacked on serial killer subplot or a martian beaming down from outer space. So it's hard to quibble over the lack of spoon-feeding in that one instance.
No, it's not perfect. You've got two grown adults at war with each other and a child in the middle. It's only Stacy's light touch that keeps this from being totally unpalatable. But for readers who can persevere (and "the twist" certainly helped propel me forward!), the second half was a joy to read.
Final Grade = B