My rating: 3 of 5 stars
*This is a TBRChallenge review, there will be spoilers, I don't spoil everything but enough, because I treat these reviews as a bookclub discussion.
“I’m the man the army is going to pay five hundred dollars for dragging you back to Fort Leavenworth,” the horseman said.
Rufus spit. “Bounty hunter.”
This month's TBRChallenge prompt was After the War, this takes place after the American Civil War in 1871. It can be a little hard sometimes to gauge how much a prompt will fit the book I pick out from my tbr by synopsis but I guessed that our hero Bret was a bounty hunter in some way shape or form because of the Civil War, and I was right. The After the War-ness of this story doesn't constantly beat you over the head but the actions that most characters take are because of the war. Bret's family live in Missouri and while they don't slam the door in his face, they still try to punish him for the “traitor” they feel he is because he fought for the Union. His childhood sweetheart, Mary broke off their engagement and married his younger brother Will, and they emotionally beat down on him by making him feel guilty for the death of his other brother Albert who fought for the Confederates. He becomes a bounty hunter so that he can send money back to the farm to help them rebuild.
Only yards away a stranger sat his horse. With the late morning sun behind them, both man and beast were dark shadows with golden halos.
The story starts right away with Bret coming upon Hassie as she buries her husband with the help of one of his sons. Bret's there to take the son in for stealing money and a horse from the army and when the son tries to draw on him, Bret ends up killing the son right in front of Hassie. Hassie is one of the most unlucky, luckiest women. When she was eight she fell from climbing a tree and got noose-d by a wire holding up a branch (yeah, I tried imagining it to not much success) and while a doctor was in the park to help her from bleeding out from how deep the wire cut into her neck, she lost the ability to speak without incredible pain. Her father ends up dying and when her mother who came from money but ran away to marry the help, tries to return to her family, they slam the door in her face. So the mother answers an ad looking for a wife and they travel to Missouri. There, Hassie's mother dies and the stepfather essentially sells her to a very old farmer who ends up pickling himself on his own still production and that's when Bret comes upon her.
Hat pulled down over dark hair, fine wool coat hanging almost to his knees, gloves, boots, everything but his hard face was hidden under winter clothing.
Can we take a moment to appreciate this descriptive sentence? This sentence and the image it invokes in my mind is why I read westerns, lol. Anyway, Hassie gets lucky because Bret is an honest to god decent human being and when he sees the state of her farm and larder, decides that he can't in good conscious leave her there. He brings her to town and when it looks like she'll be safely settled at the local hotel as their new maid, he takes off to his next bounty. Except, his horse's shoeing starts to come off (there's a quick hint at his problems at home with him immediately thinking his brother Will had sabotaged them) and he has to turn back to town. There Hassie slams into him as she's running from the muscle of Sally's, the local whorehouse. The innkeepers sold her to Sally. Bret steely sets things to rights and decides to take Hassie with him as he plans on placing her with friends he has in Nebraska.
The deaths and decisions of others had changed her life in an instant many times before, but never for the better. Maybe this time would be different.
So now we have a road romance, Bret, Hassie, Bret's horses Jasper and Packie, and Hassie's entourage of a less than prime horseflesh Brownie and the growly but can bite to save your life Yellow Dog, who Bret renames Gunner. At this time, Hassie is still wary of Bret but you can see the trust growing. Bret guesses Hassie's age to be anywhere between mid-twenties to thirties but the reader doesn't know it yet. Hassie is, obviously, in her head a lot and has one of those personalities as roll with the punches and still joyfully in awe of the world around her. She communicates with Bret with chalk and a slate and then later sign language as she teaches him, so there's conversation there to bond them. But this is definitely heavier in the actions show the development between the two. I don't know if it was because Hassie couldn't speak and this naturally kept a distance between her and others or/and her twirl in the fields personality but she came off very young to me. The story actually took the time to develop the foundation between these two, I can see some readers getting very antsy as they have to wait for around the late 50% mark to get to the more obvious stuff but I was happy because of how young Hassie read to me and I struggled with attributing deeper adult romantic love feelings to her.
Sometime in the last weeks his original urge to crush the wide-eyed eagerness and softness out of her and make her acknowledge life’s grim realities and unfairness had changed. The joy with which she approached the most simple things had wormed its way inside him and lightened the darkness.
When they get to Nebraska and his friends, Bret starts to already get uncomfortable with the idea of marrying Hassie off to a bachelor in the area. There Hassie learns of Bret's childhood sweetheart and gets told about his rich family, how they are snobs, and that Bret will probably never love anyone as much as he did this woman. It's meant as a kind warning because of how it's becoming clear that Hassie is turning eyes on him but Bret gets his own issues with seeing a local widower paw at Hassie and even though he can't define it, he's finally feeling like he's starting to feel again and agrees to taking Hassie with him for the rest of summer and bounty hunting before he goes home.
An argument with a woman who couldn’t argue back should be easy to win, but that was part of the problem. She’d probably never won an argument in her life. Never been able to make one.
They start their trail life and bounty hunting around 40% and this is where the story sits down to focus more on them and Bret's character opens up more. His nightmares of the war, his feelings on his family, and how serious he doesn't seem to want to acknowledge how vindictive his brother Will is getting towards him. There's some bounty hunting action and descriptions of the land to add some of that western flair, too.
“We cannot marry for a hotel room,” Hassie wrote.
A little before the half-way mark, they stop in a town with a hotel owner that won't let Hassie stay there (there's only one room/bed!) and so, tired, cold, and probably a little bit of lying to himself as to real reasons why, Bret decides they should marry. He claims it's only for the summer and they'll get it annulled later. Romance readers everywhere: wink wink “Sure.” wink wink. We also learn that Hassie is 26 yrs old and Bret 31yrs. They marry and through Bret's thoughts you can see the hold that his childhood sweetheart had over him is slipping further away, which Yay! I haven't really mentioned all the sweet and make you melt things that Bret does for Hassie but here's a little thought from him: He could have found some other place to spend the night. The preacher would have let them stay in the church— dry but not warm—and not good enough. She’d had so little in her life and still ran at the sun with her arms open and smiled more often than not, even if the smile wasn’t always real. She hummed doing menial work, picked wildflowers and wrapped them around the neck of that sorry dog who had better get his ass back here soon if he wanted breakfast. She deserved what little he could give her. More.
I am simply goo for quiet, strong, teasing, grumpy caring heroes, Bret has these in spades, plus a cowboy hat and he asks Hassie to teach him sign language.
Pretending he’d never asked was probably her idea of an easy way to say no. She’d take up her independent life in Missouri with nine hundred and fifty dollars in the bank and wait for some man to come along who had some magical something that made her want to marry him.
What kind of magic she needed was beyond him. If that kiss hadn’t affected her the way it had him, she was one hell of an actress, and he still felt vaguely unsettled over it. A kiss was just a kiss, not a life-changing event. So why did he have an uneasy feeling his life had changed back there by the creek?
Around 60% Hassie is starting to feel like she loves Bret and really, without fanfare, he asks her if she wants to make this marriage for real. It all at once didn't feel like enough fireworks going off and really sweet. The above quote is Bret getting adorably grumpy and twitchy that Hassie didn't immediately say yes and had to think about it. Hassie has the warning and ghost of Bret's childhood sweetheart in her mind but she, obviously, decides to say take a leap because of her love of him.
“You have the most beautiful laugh. It runs up and down my spine, shivers over my skin, and makes me want to grab hold of you like a mad man. You have no idea....”
But we still have 40% to go, you say? Glad you caught that. While Hassie is cleaning, hanging up her clothes in the bushes, their camp gets sprung on by five men and while Bret furiously signs for Hassie to run and hide, our intrepid heroine, who previously could only shut her eyes as she shot, grabs a shot gun. Bret ends up getting shot in the leg and shoulder, but three baddies die with two shackled to a tree, one of which was shot by Hassie, she also killed one of the three. Bret tells her to head to town for help but she refuses to leave him and with him passed out on Brownie, gets him to town and help. This experience obviously solidifies the love between the two and even though he hasn't said the words yet, when Bret tells Hassie that his brother Will married his childhood sweetheart and the home he stays at in the winter will have them staying there and Hassie throws out that she'll just go back to her old farm because she doesn't want to stay in the same house as the old sweetheart and Bret answers with a quick “Like hell you will.” you feel the reason why he says this so angrily, with just the right amount of desperation.
“So what happened?” he said. “You decided you couldn’t do me one better and figured you’d embarrass us all by bringing home some Irish tart in dirty trousers?”
Bret forgot barely healed wounds and drove his right fist into Will’s face, pain searing
Bret's still healing, has a limp and a cane, but ooh boy are some of his family members still aholes. His mother and younger sister Caroline are the only ones nice to Hassie while Bret's father is still trying to live like the war never happened and his brother Will is a complete DICK. I guess I can forgive Bret for trying to make it work with his family because family and all but, seriously, that dad and bro were really working hard to be over-the-top. The farm seems to finally be recovering from the war, which is what Bret said he'd send the bounty hunting money back to do, but when he says he's done hunting, his dad and bro throw a fit. It's a bitter pill to swallow with Bret still healing from almost dying and seeing the new hot water taps in the house, the race horses his dad has bought, and the loan he learns his dad took out with thinking Bret would help pay it. Hassie does the best she can on getting Bret to see the truth of the situation and can't believe it when Bret says his dad offered to sell him some land and they can live close and farm. When DICK Will tries to rape Hassie for “payback” because Will thinks Bret had his wife first due to the childhood sweethearts thing, Bret finally listens to Hassie and realizes they can't stay in the house. This sets off a whole plan for Hassie to stay in town while Bret checks out land around to buy but Hassie is done trying to convince him that she doesn't want to live within a hundred mile radius of Will and she takes her money out of the bank and sneaks away with only a letter to Bret and his sister Caroline. When Bret comes back and finds Hassie gone, his world comes crashing down and when he learns about his father trying to take money out of his bank account he is finally done and worried out of his mind because Hassie is pregnant and only has her less than stellar horse Brownie and the growly Gunner with her, sets out on her trail.
“I think this moment right now is worth every day of the years wandering in the wilderness it took to get here.”
Turns out Hassie went back to the Colorado town where Bret had to heal from his gun shot wounds and she gained friends. When Bret finally meets up with her, it's with, again, not much fanfare that he agrees that she was right and they decide to stay there and live. This was published in 2014, so not really old but I kept thinking about how this story was a journey, I mean, just think back to where we started and all the physical and emotional lengths the characters traveled. I don't know if it was the western setting with it's wide open spaces, gun slinging moments, or the nature of our two leads but there was slow, steady, and lack of loud moments telling of a story that I appreciated. Hassie's younger feeling for the majority of the first half, hurt some of the romance for me but Bret's little thoughts and actions hit nicely in the heart at times. When Bret thought Hassie chased anger, sorrow, bitterness. What he felt wasn’t love as he had once defined it. It was— more? I felt it and believed it, which is probably one of my most complaints in romance, not believing or feeling the emotional development between characters. If you're not an antsy reader, the time and care has payoff. The epilogue was adorable af and my version had a little illustration of a Gunner puppy, which caught me by surprise and made this crazy dog lady's eyes water. A happy ending I felt.