winter cowboy audio coverStory Rating: 4 stars
Audio Rating: 4.5 stars

Narrator: Sean Crisden
Length: 6 hours, 21 minutes

Audiobook Buy Links: Amazon/Audible | iBooks
Book Buy Links: Amazon | iBooks

When Micah was nineteen, he made a mistake. That night he fought with his father over being gay, slept with Daniel for the first time, told him he loved him, and was told he was too young to know what love was. So Micah got out of bed, got dressed, grabbed they keys to his boyfriend’s car, and went for a drive with his best friends. One stupid decision, one moment he could never take back left one of Micah’s friends dead and the other in a coma, his leg lost and half of his face burned by the fire. His boyfriend’s car was totaled and Micah’s life was over. Daniel demand he leave Whisper Ridge and never look back … and Micah went.

It’s been nine years. After a year in prison and eight years rebuilding himself as a person, Micah gets a call from his sister who needs his help. She and her son are trying to leave the cult her husband has trapped them in and she needs her brother. But when Micah comes, it’s so much worse than he could have imagined. He finds his sister pregnant, with a five-year-old son in shock, a gun in her hands, and her husband dead, Micah can only think of getting the three of them somewhere safe. And safe has always been, will always be, Whisper Ridge.

Winter Cowboy, the first in the Whisper Ridge, Wyoming series, has all the usual tropes I expected: opposites attract, rich boyfriend/poor boyfriend, misunderstandings, meddling families, first loves and forgiveness, and so many more. What I didn’t expect was to have two bitter and hurt characters circling each other like angry cats, resentful and self-destructive, all open wounds and so very broken.

Micah’s arc seems to be an obvious one. He made a mistake and ran away from it, and now he’s back to pay the price. But … why? Micah, Isaac, and Chris were best friends. Young, foolish kids who thought they would be immortal, and the accident — and it was an accident — was no one’s fault. Isaac died, Chris was maimed, and Micah went to prison, if only for a year. Now, back in the small town where he grew up, Micah is so ready to be judged, to be held accountable, so that when he is shown kindness, he doesn’t know how to react. Having grown up in an abusive household, his aunt and uncle’s distrust and anger at him are more welcome, because he knows how to handle that. Chris forgiving him, asking him to forgive himself … he has no idea where to even start.

Daniel has held on to his anger for so very long. His boyfriend, the young man he hadn’t meant to fall in love with, destroyed his brother. And then, while working as an emergency room doctor in Chicago, Daniel was held at gunpoint for hours by an angry man who finally shot Daniel’s co-worker and then himself. Even though he’s seeing a counselor, Daniel is still holding on to all of it. To what he could have done differently, to how he’s the one at fault. If he hadn’t tried to talk the gunman down, maybe he wouldn’t have held his dying friend in his arms. If he hadn’t let Micah drive his car, his brother wouldn’t have had his life destroyed. If he hadn’t fallen in love with Micah, none of this would be hurting.

Daniel hides away from his family, burying himself in work, trying to identify as a man who has everything under control. Micah hides behind his “yeah, I’m a murderer” scowl while he tries, desperately, to protect his sister and nephew. He’d rather the town judge him than look at his sister, still dealing with her pregnancy, her traumatized son, and her own PTSD. When Daniel and Micah come together, it isn’t romance and flowers. Instead, it’s flying fists and angry words, it’s denial and fear and loss. And the author sells it well. So well, in fact, that when the two of them finally do come together, drowning in the memories of an old love, it feels … too easy. Like they’re both deciding to sweep a great deal under the rug, just so they don’t have to feel those things anymore.

While I enjoyed this book for the bitter, darker flavor of the angst and drama, I wasn’t a giant fan of the cult’s story line. Tying up Micah and Daniel’s emotions into a romantic bow felt a bit rushed, but the cult storyline, which took up the last chapter, felt like it belonged in a different book. And it’s resolution felt too convenient, too pat, and was the weakest part of the story, for me. The epilogue was cute, though, and while I”m not a fan of epilogues in general, this one felt like it matched the story; it was more of an update on everyone’s lives, and it was nice to see everyone healing.

I was fortunate enough to get the audiobook version of this story to review. It was performed by Sean Crisden, who was a new narrator for me, but now that I’ve heard him read, I’ll be keeping an eye out for him in the future. He had a way of getting into the emotional headspace of two unhappy, self-destructive, and wounded characters — especially Micah’s — without going too far. The voice cracks, the roughened voices from trying not to cry, the anger and rage during the confrontations… He did such a good job with this book.

If you’re interested in angst, healing, second chances, and forgiveness, I do recommend this book. However, it is somewhat on the darker side of things and isn’t a fluffy or sweet read. There are also mentions of domestic abuse and references to a suicide attempt by a side character, but the scenes are handled well, and aren’t there simply to shock, but instead to show the different ways people cope with pain and trauma. (I also appreciated how the author had several characters mention either receiving counseling or therapy, or already being active in their own mental therapy, especially given the sensitive nature of some of the suffering the characters were enduring.)

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