Forever / January 28, 2014 / $8.00 print, $7.99 digital
Aubrey Madison is starting over. Leaving Los Angeles and everything behind except the scars of her ruined past, Bree sets out for cowboy country. Now she has a new home, a new job—and a new worry: the ruggedly sexy rancher who makes her long for things she shouldn't . . .
Rough and tumble cattleman Max Jameson has broken wild stallions and faced angry bulls. Yet the redheaded city cupcake who turned up at the High Heather Ranch might be his undoing. Bree has a plan to rescue the ranch from foreclosure that's just crazy enough to work. But will Max gamble his future on a beautiful stranger?
In Laura Drake's Nothing Sweeter, Aubrey Madison is a mess. Her city life and city desk job blew up in her face and she’s looking for a new start. I’ve often wondered what happens when people on the run enter witness protection—if they do what they’ve always done, aren’t they sitting ducks for nefarious felons to find them? No fear of that with Aubrey, because she’s done prison time for her part in a financial felony and she has the internal and external scars to prove it. Nope, Bree (a new name for a new life) has a better idea. She thinks back to her days as a “horse-crazy kid” when she swapped free riding lessons for grooming duties at a local boarding stable. It could work as a fall-back plan:
She’d lose herself in physical labor and horses. They’d been the anchors that had gotten her through puberty. Maybe they’d help her sort out the mess she’d made of her life.
Cattleman Max hires Bree and she settles in at the High Heather Ranch. Like cowboys of western lore, she’s taciturn and minds her own business. But eventually she and Max travel into town together and they share bits and pieces of their personal lives with the caution of two hedgehogs coming together. Revealing snippets emerge, like Max’s dad wasn’t comfortable with Wyatt, Max’s gay younger brother, and Bree’s dad took off while Bree’s mother was giving birth to her. They’re two wounded people who gingerly and sparingly expose their vulnerable pasts. Interestingly, Max shares his thoughts through the medium of quotes,
“If wishes were horses, every man would ride.”
“Why are you always spouting quotes?”
He realized he’d spoken out loud. From the acid tone, she was still miffed.
“Mary Poole said, ‘The next best thing to being clever is being able to quote someone who is.’”
Does Max remind you of another quiet reserved cowboy who likes to toy with words—maybe even hide behind quips and sallies? I’m thinking of Duncan, of Linda Howard’s Duncan’s Bride. More than the language similarities, these two cowboys fall for women with brains and beauty who won’t settle for less than a full partnership.
Bree’s financial background has her casting about for innovative ideas that will pull Max’s ranch out of financial straits. Everyone knows the studs of the ranching world are professional bull-riders. What does a bull-rider need? A steady supply of testosterone laden bulls—but Bree’s solution takes the supply chain one step further, proposing that their partnership focus on cows, not bulls,
“We wouldn’t even need to sell all your stock. The breed of bull doesn’t matter, only that he bucks. We’d just inseminate your bucking cows with semen from retired PBR Champion Bulls.”
“Well, yeah. We’d have better odds of producing good buckers if both parents like to buck, see?”
It’s hard to resist toying with some of these virile nouns and verbs, isn’t it? All that semen and reproductive bucking talk. But this is serious stuff: Max doesn’t want a partnership that might endanger the legacy of the family ranch and Bree is never going to be a silent stupid partner again—she wants some skin in the game or she’ll invest her money elsewhere. Where’s the love?
With grownups, love and work can sometimes go hand in hand, but in the conservative world of ranching, there’s some bred in the bone attitudes working against that—or at least, that’s what Max has the honesty to consider:
He’d nixed Bree’s ideas at first because it had come from a woman. When had he turned into his father—discounting women for anything more than their obvious charms?
Max doesn’t just have misconceptions to dump about the role of women, his fall-back comments about his gay brother aren’t cutting the mustard either. Something very enjoyable about Nothing Sweeter is the ability of Max and Bree to good-humoredly call each other on their shit. Like when Max says that Wyatt’s boyfriend will have a fit if Wyatt develops blisters and calluses, Bree doesn’t let him hide behind his 'that’s the way we are' excuse
“...I love my brother.”
“But it isn’t loving if it hurts.” She smiled to soften her words. “Can’t you see on his face that those jabs hit home?”
Despite some of these types of conversations, Nothing Sweeter is first and foremost a romance. The scent of competition, leather, horse, and human is a lethal aphrodisiac for two lonely people and all the walls tumble down at High Heather’s first rodeo event. Bree takes one whiff of Max’s cowboy cologne and,
With a groan, she grabbed his lapels and fused her mouth to his. No gentle kiss was this. She nibbled his lips, demanding admittance. His ragged breath thrilled her, and his hat fell off as she tangled her fingers in his hair.
He slowed her in his lazy way, taking his time as his tongue delved. This man did nothing in halves, and everything else faded as she basked in his sharp focus.
Looks like Bree has wrangled herself a cowboy with slow hands and an easy touch! But Max is more than a roll in the hay and Bree has more to offer than her beauty and brains.
Max’s home, his family ranch, is more of an albatross than a steady anchor when the story begins. His relationship with his father was troubled and he loves, but doesn’t really understand or accept, his brother’s desire to be an informed and intelligent partner in the family operation. It takes an outsider, a wounded woman who is instinctively looking to recreate the happy hours spent as a teenage groom, to force Max to reexamine what’s really important to him: it’s people, not property.
Bree’s goals change too, particularly when her relationship with Max hits some rough spots. She finally realizes that she doesn’t have to accept anything less than a home and some happiness to go with it. Max and Bree go through hell to reach their HEA, but it’s worth it in the end. As Winston Churchill once said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Nothing Sweeter serves up a sweet reward for a hero and heroine who are willing to persevere.
Learn more or pre-order a copy of Nothing Sweeter by Laura Drake, available January 28, 2014: