Dear. Ms. Thomas,
This is the second novel of yours I’ve read and I’m just as, if not more, impressed. Realistic setting, believable characters, conflict that is centered on the hero and heroine and, I can’t believe I’m saying this, two young children I adored. I think I need to go take my temperature after writing that last bit.
Amy Olson’s back is to the wall when Matt Cartwright drives into her life. Appearing out of the blue one morning, with a stock trailer behind his fancy fig, she can’t imagine why he’s at her ranch. Unless he’s another person her dead husband owed money to. But if so, why has he brought three mares with him?
No one has wanted to board horses with her since her husband’s last purchase, the cutting horse with the impressive pedigree, went loco and kicked Ben in the chest. With no income, no job, a mortgage on the ranch, two young daughters and still saddled with Ben’s remaining gambling debts, her only hope is to get some training in order to obtain a job. What she’s going to do with Son of Sunshine, she has no idea. And now here’s a good looking cowboy showing up for goodness knows why.
Matt Cartwright quickly adds up the clues which equal a woman in need. But though he sympathizes with the shocking news that her husband is dead, he’s not about to let her out of the debt Ben owes him. $30,000 or stud services for his three mares from the stallion still in her barn. But when Amy tells him that the stallion caused Ben’s death, Matt knows that the breeding isn’t going to be as quick, or easy, as he’d hoped.
With no way to pay the debt, Amy grudgingly allows Matt to stay and work with the horse, trying to determine if SOS is a killer or just got spooked. In the meantime, she’s not above a little push and shove to get Matt to help look after her girls while she takes classes.
Amy’s past experience in marriage doesn’t make her want to rush into a second one, while Matt’s experience with a gold digger out for his father’s oil wealth has left him wary of needy females. She’s outraged at the thought that he thinks she’s after his money, while he’s hiding a secret that could end any feelings they have before they’ve barely begun.
Amy’s marriage hadn’t been good in a long time and she’s been a widow for five months so she can appreciate a good looking man who can fill out a pair of Wranglers. Matt likes what he sees too even if Amy isn’t the type who would normally appeal to him. But I like that neither goes tongue tied at the sight of the other. Amy still doesn’t think Matt’s idea to work with SOS is feasible while he hates the thought of having to stick around to get what’s owed him.
Yet, slowly but surely, Matt begins to see the hard worker Amy is, to admire her concrete plans to pay off Ben’s debts and build a secure future for herself and her daughters. He’s impressed that her neighbors check him out to be sure he’s okay and becomes defensive of her when a town bully slanders Amy’s name.
Against all hope, Amy watches as Matt works with SOS, bringing the stallion around and getting him to the point where perhaps she can sell the horse and pay off most of her debts. He’s a hardworking man, unlike the gambler she married or the dreamer her mother fell for. And he’s willing to lie about liking her cooking.
To his surprise, Matt discovers he’s good with kids. Well, he more or less has to learn when he’s roped into being a baby-sitter while Amy attends classes. And it’s these scenes which delighted me. Nothing feels hokey or forced. Matt still has moments when Lily and Rose ‘spin his end around.’ Times when he’s not quite sure how to deal with these two pint sized females but the trip watching him do it is funny and touching. And no kiddie lisping! Oh, thank you for that.
After starting a pot of coffee, Matt helped himself to a bowl of Wheaties. Halfway through his breakfast, Lily, with her blond curls sticking up in every direction, shuffled into the room, clutching a pink blanket and sucking her thumb. She paused next to Matt’s chair and studied him with her mother’s big brown eyes.
"Mornin’, Lily," he said.
The thumb popped out. "Mornin’," she mimicked, then popped the thumb back into her mouth.
"Ready for breakfast?"
The toddler moved to her high chair and waited to be hoisted up. Matt attempted to loosen the tray, but the task was beyond his cowboy capabilities. Admitting defeat, he laid the chair flat on the floor and slid Lily in feetfirst, then righted the seat. Her blanket was in the way of the safety buckle, so he grabbed it-‘big mistake. The kid let out a wail that threatened to wake her dead relatives sleeping up the hill.
Matt improvised by flinging the blanket over Lily’s head, then snapping the buckle closed. When he went to tug the blanket off her, Lily shouted, "No!"
Now what? He knew zilch about two-year-olds. Did you offer them a choice of foods for breakfast or dump the cereal on the tray? "What do you want to eat, Lily?"
A muffled "Churos" answered back.
"Cheerios I can do, kid." He retrieved the cereal box from the pantry and poured a pile on the tray. Then he found the pink cup with the lid he’d seen the little girl use at mealtimes and filled it with milk. When Lily tugged the blanket off her head, her hair crackled with electricity. "Dig in." He shoveled a spoonful of soggy Wheaties into his mouth.
The toddler frowned, her eyes shifting to Matt, then to the cereal. "You have to stop sucking your thumb to eat, Lily."
She sucked the digit harder. Amy’s voice-‘her sharp tone signaling that Rose wasn’t cooperating-‘carried into the kitchen. "Sounds like Mommy’s in a baaad mood, kiddo. I’d eat if I were you."
The threat went unheeded. The little twerp’s cheeks continued to puff in and out as she sucked her thumb and rubbed the corner of the blanket against her nose.
They were at an impasse.
Amused by the child’s stubbornness, he picked up a Cheerio from the tray and aimed it at her mouth. "Catch," he said. The cereal ricocheted off her nose and her eyes crossed. "Strike one," he muttered, picking up another Cheerio. "Catch." This time the oat ring pinged off her forehead. The kid’s lips twitched.
"Try to catch the Cheerio in your mouth." Matt missed her mouth and the Cheerio landed in her hair. Lily giggled.
He got caught up in the game and began firing Cheerios in quick succession, which earned him a belly laugh from Lily. When her thumb slid out of her mouth, Matt landed a piece of cereal on her tongue. Lily’s eyes rounded, then she closed her mouth and chewed. As soon as she swallowed, she said, "Again," and opened her mouth.
Matt praised her while he tossed Cheerios. She’d finished half the cereal on the tray when Amy waltzed into the room. Her stunned gaze switched between Matt and her daughter, who had Cheerios stuck in her hair. "What are you doing? She’s not a dog you throw treats to."
"I wanna play." Rose climbed onto the chair across from Matt, leaned over the table and opened her mouth.
"Rose, stop. You know better. Obviously Mr. Cartwright does not."
They were back to Mr. Cartwright again? "Sorry," Matt muttered, wondering if Amy intended to spank him-‘now that had possibilities. He admired her backside as she popped a waffle into the toaster. She must have sensed his scrutiny because she glanced over her shoulder and caught him focusing on her fanny. Despite the pretty blush suffusing her cheeks, her eyes flashed a warning. He grinned. "No harm in looking."
"Looking at what, Mr. Matt?" Rose asked.
Your mother’s enticing derriÃ¨re.
"Never mind. Rose, fetch the syrup bottle." Amy waltzed past the high chair and snatched Lily’s blanket. Not a sound of protest from the pipsqueak. Mothers made everything seem easy.
And he deals with bathroom oops and bath time hairstyling with shampoo. At first he might not be thrilled with suddenly being Mr. Mom, but Matt’s a natural at it.
There’s a peripheral villain in the story who is quickly defanged but most of the conflict centers on Matt and Amy. Most of their reasons for mistrust go back to their own lives and experiences and are nothing that a quick talk would eliminate.
I do have some qualms about Matt’s secret. When he finally tells Amy, she tries to ease him mind about it. Yes, he might not have been the only person who could have taken advantage of her husband. And if Matt hadn’t, then they would never have met. But he was raised better and he did. Plus I’m not sure that I’m persuaded that he’s convinced to let the matter drop. But once he does, I like that Amy holds her ground and makes sure that he’s not proposing to her out of pity or a sense of responsibility.
So, mark this day down as one for the ages. Jayne adores two toddlers in a romance novel. Maybe I’m being sucked into Harlequin’s baby centered world at long last? Hmmmm. Nah, I think it’s just Rose and Lily who charmed me in this charming story. B