Rating: 4.5 stars
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FBI Agent Joshua Chastain spent three years undercover in one of the worst gangs in Chicago. He made it out alive, but just barely. Half dead from the heroine addiction forced upon him, Josh is plagued by nightmares of the terrible things he was forced to witness and do in order to protect his cover and ultimately capture the bad guys. But he is now a shell of the man he once was, and hoping to help in his recovery, his mother sends him to his Uncle Tucker’s horse ranch in New Mexico, a place he used to visit as a child.
When Josh arrives, Tucker can hardly believe what has happened to the young man he used to know as so vibrant and full of life. It is clear that he is almost broken, but Tucker hopes that the fresh air and change of scenery will help Josh slowly regain his health and vitality. Ranch foreman Eli Kelly spends his life training and rehabilitating horses, and he recognizes the signs of damage in Josh. Eli finds himself drawn to the young man, and his patience and caring soon help aid in Josh’s recovery.
Before long, Josh and Eli begin to share more than friendship and a relationship slowly blooms between them. But Josh’s past still haunts him, leaving him feeling unworthy of Eli’s love. Even with therapy, Josh is having trouble moving past his life in the gang. And when tragedy strikes, Josh may push Eli away, just as they need each other most.
I am a huge fan of Speedwell’s writing and she does so many things incredibly well in this story. First off, Speedwell really knows how to create a broken hero and show us both his vulnerabilities as well as his hopes for redemption. If any of you have read and enjoyed Speedwell’s Finding Zach (which is just excellent so get on that if you haven’t), you will recognize many of the same emotions here in Josh. This is a man who has been to hell and just barely survived. He is emaciated, having just come off rehab for the forced heroine addiction. He is guilt ridden and mentally devastated at the things he had to do for his job. And he no longer sees anything of value in himself, despite the fact that his actions led directly the break up of a serious drug ring. Speedwell really takes us on a journey with Josh as he begins the book as a broken man and slowly finds himself among the beauty of the desert and the company of those on the ranch. The slow build of his relationship with Eli works just perfectly and as I reader I was thrilled to see them make it work together. It is an emotional ride and one that is handled quite well.
Speedwell also does an amazing job portraying life on the ranch. She provides wonderful detail on training the horses, the inner workings of the ranch, and life in the Southwest. The aspects of the story dealing with the horses are especially well done, and if you are a fan of the animals this book is sure to strike a chord in you. The story weaves a nice parallel between the ranch, where they care for and rehabilitate injured or abused horses, and Josh himself as he undergoes his own recovery. There are times where I felt the connections were a bit too heavy handed. A little more subtlety would have helped, but overall I liked the way the nurturing environments worked for both man and beast.
I did have a few quibbles here, though nothing major. First off, it was making me a bit crazy the first half of the book trying to understand why Josh was not in witness protection after being undercover, how he could use his real name and tell everyone who he was when the bad guys would certainly be after him. This is eventually addressed well, but really not until about halfway through the story, and in the meantime I found it distracting every time he’d tell someone about his past. I wish it had been clarified earlier. Second, despite the fact that I think these guys needed a slow build, I think the book could have been tightened up through the middle, just to keep things moving along with a bit more energy at times. And lastly, I will admit I found Josh’s behavior toward the end frustrating. I was thrilled that Speedwell didn’t fall into the ending I had expected, but I still couldn’t help but be annoyed at Josh’s self doubt that just seemed to be right there on the edge of big misunderstanding territory. Not that we don’t understand exactly why Josh is so messed up, but for some reason I still wanted to scream at him a few times when he is being so obtuse.
But overall this is another wonderful story from Speedwell. It is a great journey for Josh, and Eli is such a fabulous character in his own right. I found myself rooting for these guys to make it together and for Josh to finally heal from his past. The setting is just lovely and we get wonderful details on the ranch, the horses, and the beautiful desert. I really liked this one and would definitely recommend it.
Cover art: Ok, this one is beautiful, with the incredibly sexy Nicko Morales as the cover model. He fits Josh’s looks just perfectly, right down to the tattoos. Very nice!