Narrator: Matthew Shaw
Length: 7 hours, 34 minutes
Having worked his way up from nothing, Robbie Riverton is finally hitting his stride on the stages of New York. Fame is so close, he can almost taste it. But Robbie has to sacrifice it all when he inadvertently bears witness to a local criminal organization, the Bowry Boys, committing a murder. Hopping on the first wagon train heading west and just disappearing seems like the better option—better than staying in the city and being murdered himself. With any luck, his pursuers will lose interest or assume he’s left for good and Robbie can quietly return to his city.
His hopes are dashed when the pernicious pursuers come pounding after the wagon train. Stuck in in the worst possible of situations, Robbie assumes the discarded clothing, name, and manners of a fellow passenger who recently peeled off the wagon train—a passenger named Rowena. Miraculously, the rouse works on the road and he’s able to continue his journey. One thing is clear, though. The Bowry Boys won’t give up on their search for a man named Robbie Riverton, not for time or distance. To stay alive, Robbie has to maintain the fiction that he is Rowena…a mail order bride for one of the Crabtree sons.
After his mother abandoned the family years ago, Trace Crabtree tried to be forgiving of his father’s rough edges. But the constant authoritarian attitude and inflexibility drove Trace to seek adventure by joining the army. While he didn’t mind the fighting, when he was put out of commission with a shot to the leg, Trace embraced the role of Sherrif in the town of Flatbottom, New Mexico. It’s close enough to stay in touch with his family, but far enough to lead the quiet life he now yearns for…and just the right distance from a wagon train stop to provide him a means for his, well, more personal needs.
When Trace catches sight of a group of nere-do-wells from out of town accosting a beautiful woman from the wagon train, Trace is compelled to step in. She stirs in him feelings he’s never felt for a woman before—and she’s bold as brass in the face of her would-be attackers. His heart sinks when he realizes this is the mail order bride Trace’s meddling father has arranged for Trace’s younger brother, Clovis. But his heart right bottoms out when he realizes this stunning woman is actually a man. Not one to jump into anything with a hot head, Trace gives the disguised man a chance to explain himself. Trace knows letting this young actor take refuge with the Crabtrees just might open the door to a world of hurt for him and his family, but he’s not about to let such a desperate man die for witnessing a crime.
This story was simply delightful. The premise is so simple, but the way Easton works it made it a lot of fun to read. First, I very much enjoyed the intentional and unintentional deciet. Robbie does not become Rowena with any mind to actually take her place, he’s just trying to not get killed himself. The way he gets roped into continuing the charade far longer than he ever intended was well planned; it felt like the *right* thing for Robbie to do rather than just something to add artificial drama to the plot. Easton explores and substantiates this obligatory charade on many fronts. First, Trace learns almost immediately that Rowena is actually Robbie…and we watch Trace puts in the leg work to corroborate Robbie’s story about being a witness to murder. Then, the reasons for Robbie have to maintain the Rowena fiction are compelling: if “Rowena” disappears, the gang will know it was their mark in disguise and come back to finish the job; there’s no harm in Robbie pretending to be “Rowena” for a few days while the dust settles; when the dust doesn’t settle, it’s probably safer for Robbie to continue being “Rowena” with the Crabtrees.
Quite apart from simply crafting a series of reasons and events that helped me believe Robbie’s best chance was to keep up the Rowena act, I liked the characters themselves, too. Robbie and Trace are, naturally, quite compelling. First, there is an amazing amount of depth poured into Robbie. I admit that the first chapter where we’re introduced to him as the New York actor he was, I was a bit put off by how uppity he seemed. As he goes through the motions of figuring out if he can stay in NY (he can’t) and if there is real danger to his person (there is), he started to blossom as a more dimensional character. By the time he’s reached Flatbottom disguised as Rowena and the scene where Trace realizes Rowena is a man, I was fully rooting for everything to work out for Robbie. Of course, there is a lot more to learn about Robbie after this and the way we get juxtapositions of what “Rowena” would do versus who Robbie really is were fun insights. There were also occassional reminders that Robbie is just playing a part…note that if you are interested in gender expression and sexual orientation themes, this book is not geared towards exploring that.
Moving on to Trace…he gets introduced well after Robbie (the whole set-up with witnessing the murder and hopping on the wagon train take up a good few chapters) so I felt less familiar with him. Regardless, there are consistent references to his past such as his being in the army, being lazy—which is a delighful notion in a sea of go-getters, even if Trace’s actions reveal that he has plenty of get-up-and-go when he’s fighting for the man in his life. For a period piece, I appreciated how “modern” his sensibilities are and was pleased that he had some flaws. Apart from being lazy (or maybe because of it?), Trace doesn’t try too hard to change his patriarchal-minded father even though it’s one of the reasons he’s decided to live apart from the rest of the Crabtrees (who work and live on a big ranch).
In a sense, I supposes the Rowena persona Robbie assumes sort of acts like Snow White…this unassuming person who comes into an established family and is determined to make things better, but not make the family feel bad about how they’d always done things. I was surprised to see Rowena work her way into the family and as much as I enjoyed seeing how the Crabtree family grew more egalitarian under her careful influence, it also built up some serious stakes for when the truth eventually came out.
There is virtually nothing I didn’t like about this story. One small thing that I wish has been better explained was how Trace’s refusal to get married was viewed by 1860 soceity. My inner self was pleased as punch that everyone just accepted this man did not want to marry…but in the context of the times, I don’t know who realistic that would have been—or that no one in his family ever put a fine point on it (i.e., no jokes or hints or looks or anything to indicate they even realized Trace was attracted to men). This works just fine for the story, but it did leave me wondering why everyone else bought it. The only other “huh” I had was with the ending…make no mistake it’s a people-pleaser ending through and through. But I wondered about the balance of Robbie’s and Trace’s wants since there was a bit of high drama surrounding the “does he stay or does he leave” (and yes, the “he” is intentionally ambiguous here).
Finally, the reading. Matthew Shaw provided the narration. I’ll admit, this is my very first audio book and I’ve always been curious/worried how sex scenes would sound when read aloud in a, well, hot voice. My fears were for naught because everything about the narration was delightful. Shaw has a rich, deep voice and it suited this western-setting story perfectly. His representation of Robbie, Trace, and Rowena were delighful and believable. The drawls he put into Trace’s speech made me FEEL like Trace was lazier than he actually seems to be. I loved how Shaw’s Clovis said “shyaddup” and “yup.” Paw-paw Crabtree’s rough, patriarchal tendencies were expertly tempered with a higher pitched old-man voice…I think would have liked the father character a whole lot less if I’d just been reading him versus listening to him. There were two or three places where I wondered about the pronunciation of a couple words, but apart from that, the audio aspect of the book was just lovely.
This review is part of our Reading Challenge Month for Self-Published Book Week! Leave a relevant comment below and you will be entered to win one of the great prize packs of self-published books donated by some very generous authors. Commenters will also be entered to win our amazing grand prize sponsored by Dreamspinner Press (a Kindle Fire filled with Dreamspun Desires/Beyond books, plus a 3-month subscription!). You can get more information on our Challenge Month here, and more details on Self-Published Book Week here, including a list of all the books in this week’s prize.