Leaving his North Carolina hometown broke Ryder’s heart right down the middle—one half mourning the life he left behind and the other half pining for Salvatore, the love of his life. But there was nothing else Ryder could have done when he learned he was going to be a father. So he left the small town for the big city to try to provide for his new family. It didn’t take long for the mother of his child to fall out of the picture; it took slightly longer for Ryder to get caught up on shady gambling activity that turned sour over the years. When tragedy strikes his family suddenly, Ryder is now returning home to North Carolina as a broken man. What he does not expect is to find Salvatore back in town, much less that they might have a chance to salvage their relationship.
For Salvatore, seeing Ryder after so many years is a jolt to the system. On the one hand, he knows it is foolhardy to try starting anything with his former flame. On the other hand, the heart wants what it wants. Offering Ryder a job on his farm will lighten the load on everyone, but Sal recognizes the ulterior motives at play as well: he wants Ryder back. When Luke, an old flame of Sal’s shows up in town, however, things turn interesting. Unlike the cold reception Sal offers Luke, Ryder and the rest of their gang are a bit more friendly. Sal is worried his ex is up to more of the same illicit activity that drove them apart in the first place…but if Ryder is willing to give the man a chance, maybe Sal can, too.
Things come to a head when Ryder’s demons from the city find his North Carolina home and start raising hell. The only question is whether or not Ryder will succumb to them.
Based on the blurb for the book, I knew this was going to be some mix of western and thriller. The opening lines of this story evoked my deep sympathy and immediate interest: Ryder Christensen’s mind raced as he stared at the photo collage above the opulent coffin holding his daughter, Gabriella. I expected a certain amount of mystery and a few close calls—both of which are clear and present in the story, but they are deeply flawed by sloppy story crafting. Ryder and Sal are likeable enough, but I never felt very deeply connected to them. Luke, the ex boyfriend, is problematic because his role is so patently obvious, I could not fathom how Sal did not figure it out when they were dating.
The text is riddled with errors that betray the author’s carelessness with continuity and timeline. The following three annoyed me so much, I actually stopped reading and flipped around the book to make sure I hadn’t missed anything—and I hadn’t.
- In Chapter 9, Sal warns Ryder about Luke: “That guy is bad news.” Sal released a breath. “He and I went out for a while when I was in the city. I don’t know the full extent of what he’s involved with, but I doubt it was legal.” Later, in chapter 13, Sal is talking to his brother Jason about why Sal is annoyed that Ryder isn’t totally shutting Luke out: “I told him that Luke was manipulative and that we broke up when I found out about his drug problem.” Sal saying Luke is “bad news” and maybe does stuff that is not legal is not the same as telling Ryder that Luke is involved with drugs.
- Loan sharks contact Ryder demanding Ryder meet them at certain times to discuss further payments. In one case, Ryder is commanded to go to a cafe at 3 pm, but Ryder is supposed to work until 4 pm. Ryder thinks his boss “could deny his request to leave early, but that would just mean that Ryder would skip his shower.” Call me picky, but it seems farcical to think just skipping a shower will somehow mitigate being over an hour late to meet your loan shark. The other case? The loan shark tells Ryder to meet him at noon; the rest of the chapter, Ryder is making arrangements to be at the location at ten in the morning. The on-page text says 12 noon, yet there are several references in that same chapter to how inconvenient and suspicious it is for the meeting to take place at ten in the morning.
- The timeline after Ryder gets roughed up is just wrong. The run in happens in chapter 18, Ryder gets taken to the hospital and we know he’s only been unconscious for a couple hours. Sal takes him home. Chapter 19 starts “the next day Ryder wakes up.” Ryder and Sal proceed to faff about Sal’s room when a law enforcement officer comes by with some information about the crime scene where Ryder was found—and Ryder says “they found [a drug] in my blood last week.” Except the drug was found in Ryder’s blood the day before—while he was in the hospital, after having been beaten.
Suffice to say, the book has a multitude of glaring continuity errors. In a book that is more like a thriller that takes place on a farm rather than a western with undercurrents of a thriller, it grates on my nerves that the author has failed so spectacularly to maintain consistency. These careless mistakes didn’t hinder my understanding of the plot, but coupled style errors like describing a character as being “prone” when they are actually supine or misuse of “contingent upon” put a huge damper on my enjoyment of the story.
Apart from the technical errors, the nuts and bolts of the plot itself weren’t too bad. This story had the feel of a thriller that happened to take place on a horse ranch. This meant there were several scenes that took place in a farm setting. If nothing else, I appreciated how clearly Borino visualized and described these farm scenes. Sal and Ryder grew up on farms and the tasks they undertake and the way the activities are presented to the reader gave me clear mental pictures of what the characters were doing. These are also the scenes Ryder and Sal get to be their most intimate. While there is not much physical action on page, there is a fair amount of kissing and the characters offering personal thoughts about what their burgeoning emotions may mean—and how seriously to take them. I was not overly fond of Borino’s use of third-person prose peppered with first-person thoughts, but it did add more dimension and depth to the character’s actions.
The overarching plot revolved around Ryder and his gambling. On the whole, I thought Borino missed the chance to capitalize on this concept. For example, there is a scene where Luke and Sal are discussing Luke’s strange appearance in Sal’s neck of the woods. Sal wants to make sure Luke doesn’t get any ideas about going after Ryder and mentions Luke’s lifestyle (not entirely legal, see comments above) could be an issue for Ryder. Luke accuses Sal of not trusting Ryder…but there is no development on that theme. We have copious evidence that Sal can trust Ryder not to be tempted into a relationship with Luke. Conversely, we have zero evidence Ryder is struggling to control his gambling, so there may not be a huge problem with Ryder being friends with (possible drug addict) Luke. Nevertheless, the whole story is moved along thanks to Ryder and his gambling addiction and it serves to tie all the characters in the story together, even if it’s not obvious at first.
There is a pretty significant side-story involving Salvatore’s brother, Jason. Jason suffered an equestrian accident years ago that has left him susceptible to seizures. This was an area where Borino did a better job connecting with me as a reader. There is a scene where Sal discovers Jason has been using marijuana to manage his pain and the discussion that ensues pits the brothers “against” each other. The arguments on both sides are well put by the two characters and, like this kind of discussion would likely go in real life, remains largely unresolved. I liked having this touch of diversity in the book and it helps us form a more rounded picture of Sal.
As for the ending…the best I can say is that it ties everything together, but in the most bizarre way. Borino gets carried away ramping up the action at the expense of making any damn sense. Law enforcement officers ask cryptic favors of Ryder, who learns he is going to participate in a sting operation in the car, on the way to the sting. Worse? When the officer tells Ryder to put the recording device on his chest and tape it there, Ryder says “thought these clipped to the outside of clothing.” And the officer replies “then the criminals would know they were being recorded.” The one interesting thing is what happens with Sal and Ryder’s friend Cat. Here is the one character where Borino gets it more or less right, even if it’s a huge task to suspend disbelief that no one among her friends (Sal, Jason, Ryder included) have any inkling what she’s capable of.
Overall, this book was mediocre at best. Ryder’s trying to rebuild his life in the wake of losing his daughter, only to find out his gambling vice runs much deeper than he ever thought. With that kind of a thriller set-up, keeping facts straight is imperative to build tension and Borino fails to do this. The role of some characters is too obvious, the role of others too obtuse. I wasn’t reading this, gripping the edge of my seat, desperate to find out more…I was reading to find mistake after mistake, going back to previous pages and confirming that, yup, these are mistakes.