FIRE AND ICE (Wild at Heart) by Mary Connealy / Bethany House Publishers, October 2015 – 3.5 Stars
Blurb: Bailey Wilde is one of the best new ranchers in the West. She’s been living disguised as a man for a while, but when Gage Coulter comes to drive her off her homestead, he quickly realizes he’s dealing with a woman–a very tough, very intriguing woman at that. Gage is an honest man, but he didn’t make his fortune being weak. He won’t break the law, but he’ll push as hard as he can within it. Five thousand acres of his best range land is lost to him because Bailey’s homestead is located right across the only suitable entrance to a canyon full of lush grass. Gage has to regain access to his land–and he’s got to go through Bailey to do it. Spending a winter alone has a way of making a person crave some human contact. In a moment of weakness, Bailey agrees to a wild plan Gage concocts. Can these two independent, life-toughened homesteaders loosen up enough to earn each other’s respect–and maybe find love in the process?
Review: Along with her two younger sisters, Bailey Wilde masqueraded as a man and served in the Civil War to please their obsessed, half-crazed father. Now, in 1866, she’s moved West and homesteaded 160 acres at the mouth of a Rocky Mountain canyon filled with lush grass for her cattle. The ability to claim the land comes as a benefit of her war-time, military service as long as nobody learns she’s female. This creates more than one problem since her claim actually doesn’t include the canyon or the grass, only the approach. The land she needs for her livestock is owned by Gage Coulter and since he also requires the grazing, he’ll deal as harshly as necessary with one stubborn nester. Much to Gage’s shock, the young man who gives him heartburn isn’t one and their struggles are just beginning especially after Gage uses dynamite to construct a new trail into the canyon.
After a harsh winter, Bailey will do anything to have the grass she desperately needs to save her herd of cattle. When Gage arrives in the spring with a proposal of marriage, she considers it. He needs a wife. She needs the grass. Besides his “cowboys” or “hands” know she’s a woman and if word leaks out, she could lose her homestead. Earlier in the series, Connealy made the facts of gender-based discrimination quite clear. While Bailey isn’t sure that a marriage of convenience will succeed, she hedges her bets by telling Gage that if she isn’t happy, she’ll leave and she wants the canyon signed over to her on their wedding day.
Trapped by the lie that he told his mother – i.e. that he’s married and happy – Gage reluctantly agrees to her conditions. With their vows barely said, he and Bailey plan to head for his ranch to prepare for his mother’s visit, but she arrives sooner than expected. Mama Colter loves her son and is nearly as obsessed with him as Bailey’s father is with her older brother. Their parents aren’t the only problem that Bailey and Gage face as they try to build a relationship. Cattle rustling and murder attempts only increase the tension.
This inspirational New Adult romance entertains without preaching, one of Connealy’s gifts as a polished writer. The characters will undoubtedly engage readers, but the story does have a few drawbacks. The biggest issue is that the book really doesn’t stand alone. In order to understand the complicated Wilde sisters, readers should have read the first two books in the trilogy. In addition it takes quite a while for readers to learn the year the story takes place. The location isn’t clear either – beyond being somewhere the snow is hip-high on a tall horse from late October to April, or springtime. Since the Rockies extend more than 3,000 miles, the novel could take place anywhere from northern New Mexico to British Columbia, although it becomes clear the setting is definitely in the U.S. It’s also in reach of a cattle drive from Texas since Gage brought his cattle from there.
Hmm, there’s another mystery or unanswered question. The thumbnail descriptions of the continuing characters don’t add depth to the ensemble cast. While Bailey’s father browbeat his daughters into joining the military because of their brother’s death, the reader doesn’t learn enough about Jimmy or his relationship with his sisters. For the most part, Connealy ties up the loose ends in the series and it’s a lighthearted romp through the Old West with the occasional hint that there could be something more. It doesn’t touch the heights or depths of the writing talent that Connealy displayed in my favorite of her books, The Husband Tree.
Review provided by Shannon Kennedy for her column Shannon’s Space in the May 2016 edition of The Book Breeze.