It is 1860 and Robby Riverton is living his dream as an actor in New York City. But when he witnesses a murder involving a local crime boss, Robby knows he has to go on the run. He flees to St. Louis where he catches a wagon train headed to Santa Fe. His wagon mate, Rowena, is mail order bride bound for the same location. When Rowena takes off and the bad guys catch up with the wagon train, Robby sees no other choice than to dress up and pretend to be Rowena to throw off his pursuers. He is an actor after all, and he figures he can ditch the disguise and continue heading west from Santa Fe. But unfortunately, the family of Rowena’s intended shows up to collect her just as the gangsters start to get suspicious about what Rowena knows. Seeing no other option, Robby continues his charade, heading to Crabtree Ranch to pretend to be Rowena while he figures out what to do next.
Trace Crabtree got out of the town of Flat Bottom as soon as he could, entering the army as a sharp shooter. But after he was injured, Trace returned home and he is now the sheriff in town. It doesn’t take Trace any time at all to realize that Rowena is really a man, nor much longer to realize that Robby has the same interest in men that Trace does. When Robby confides in Trace about his predicament, Trace decides the best bet is for Robby to lay low at the family ranch pretending to be Rowena while they wait for the Marshals to show up and try to throw off the bad guys in the meantime.
Robby is strong willed and doesn’t back down easily, and when he sees the conditions at the ranch, particularly the way the women are treated, he is determined to help out. Robby stirs things up, challenging the family patriarch and shaking up things for them all in the best of ways. Robby and Trace continue to spend time together secretly, letting their attraction grow into a physical relationship, as well as an emotional one. But Robby is still in danger as the gangsters haven’t given up their search, the Crabtrees still think he is a woman, and poor Clovis is expecting to marry Rowena. And even if he can make it out with his life, Robby’s future lies in San Francisco and Trace is clear he is not interested in joining him there. The men have fallen for one another, but with so many obstacles in their way, a future together may be impossible.
So this story is light and fun and somewhat over the top. You just have to go with the somewhat crazy set up here. I did find it a bit challenging to believe that with 1860s technology and law enforcement, these gangsters managed to track Robby from New York to St. Louis and then Santa Fe out of all the thousands of places he could have gone, not to mention then catch up with his particular wagon train. Or that the Marshals, having no way of knowing who Robby was or that he witnessed the murder, would be out seeking him by name to testify against the gangsters. So it feels a bit implausible, and honestly, a lot of the story is over-the-top, but it is a fun romp and a nice easy read. I particularly liked the way Robby sweeps in like a fairy godmother, taking the beleaguered Crabtree wives under his wing and shaking things up for the better for them and the entire clan. It was fun to see their shock when Robby stands up to Pa-Pa and somehow gets his way for the benefit of all of them. And don’t worry, poor Clovis does get his happy ending as well.
I didn’t quite feel the connection between Trace and Robby as strongly as I had hoped, however. Things just felt a little light and on the surface, and the super fast way things turn around between them at the end didn’t give me enough time to really feel the strength of their bond. I did like that Trace knows from the start Robby is a man, and so while everyone else is in the dark, their relationship is based on their real connection and not the lies. But I never felt quite as invested in them as I wanted, or as I was in the larger story.
Again, this story felt like a bit of a light romp with the over-the-top nature of some of the goings on. And that worked for me for the most part, but at times I felt like the story didn’t quite settle on a tone between campy and serious. Nevertheless, I did find this one fun and amusing with a really creative premise that kept me engaged throughout the book.