I am late for this month’s TBR Challenge, but the lovely SLWendy is very forgiving, so here’s my contribution, such as it is.
I grabbed this one from my TBR shelves pretty much on the way out the door and with very little forethought–all I checked was that it fit with this month’s theme (old school: ten years or older).
It does, in spades; Boots & Badges is a one-author anthology published in 1999 by Silhouette. All four of the short stories are part of Ms Lee’s successful Conard County series.
Here’s the (melodramatic and inaccurate) blurb from my print copy:
When one woman seeks refuge in the small Wyoming town, four resourceful residents are drawn into the suspense that shadows this desperate stranger’s life.
A dedicated doctor. A courageous nurse. A valiant schoolteacher. A dauntless deputy.
As they all come in contact with this woman on the run, they find themselves entwined in a mystery, touched by unexpected love…and participants in the grandest wedding Conard County has ever seen.
The book is barely 298 pages long, which means that the stories are very short indeed, and I must say that they do suffer from it, in the form a too much telling with very little showing. There are also a number of too-traditional tropes in play that bothered me. That, coupled with very short time spans–some of them less than two weeks–made the romances very difficult to believe for me. In other words, this is not a happy review.
The plot thread that connects the story is the disappearance of one Alicia Dreyfuss, neé Barstow. Once a resident of Conard County, she had left a few years ago and made her name as a model of some note in Minneapolis. A few days before the first story starts, she had disappeared from her very wealthy husband’s house. A couple of days after that, he was served with divorce papers.
“Loving You Is Easy”
The dedicated doctor is Adam Roth, a fairly recent transplant to the county. Originally from Los Angeles, where we are told he had a fairly successful career, he moved to Conard County to practice a more traditional and caring type of medicine–as another character puts it, he even “makes house calls, for gosh sake” (and that is a quote).
Our heroine is Melody Dreyfuss, who has driven all the way from Minneapolis to find her missing sister-in-law, Alicia. Unfortunately, Melody didn’t realize that the mild discomfort she was feeling at the beginning of the trip was actually the flu. Pretty much upon arrival to Conard County, she lands in the hospital for twenty four hours, with a case of dehydration.
Melody, we learn in a couple of pages, has a tragic secret that means she’ll never marry, and she has been told all her life, by her much older half-brother Harold, that she’s too stupid to live. Her guardian since she was twelve, Harold has had plenty of time to indoctrinate and isolate Melody, as abusers do. When he married Alicia a couple of years earlier, the two women became fairly close friends–what with living in the same house and, as Harold worked to isolate Alicia as well, having almost no one else to interact with.
Some of the things Melody calls herself stupid for are at most carelessness, at worst recklessness. As Adam points out, there are plenty of people who, never having been dehydrated, don’t realize how quickly a combination of vomiting and diarrhea, coupled with not enough fluid intake, can knock you out for a loop. Packing a couple of suitcases and taking off, with little planning, to look for someone in the one place they’ve talked to you about with fondness and nostalgia, doesn’t seem too outrageous to me when you have plenty of money for incidentals, and no job or other responsibilities to tie you down to a schedule.
What did seem stupid to me, particularly at twenty five, was to go to the house of this man you met two days ago (as a patient to boot), to have dinner and a movie, and end up having sex for the first time in your life. Particularly when you are a virgin not by choice, but because you are convinced (see tragic secret above) that no one can want you, sexually or in any other way.
Then again, I also thought it pretty stupid that after three nights of sex in a week, Adam was ready to move to Minneapolis–because of course he couldn’t even consider asking Melody to leave all the comforts of the city to live in this backwater town with him.
But of course, not only does Melody have a couple of orgasms her first time out the gate, but all her hangups and misgivings are gone without being actually, truly, directly, addressed. In the same way, just as she only needed two dates to fall in love with Adam, she only needs one week of wandering through Conard City to know she can be happy living here (doing what, exactly?), so of course she’ll hear nothing about Adam relocating.
Harold, what Harold?
“Where Love Lives”
Our courageous nurse is Carol Tate. The daughter of Nathan Tate, long time sheriff of Conard County, Carol has more or less resigned herself to spinsterhood. Most young men leave for the cities in search for better jobs and brighter futures, but her brief stint in college was enough time away from home for Carol. She’s back home to stay, alone if she must.
Tom McKay, currently a long distance truck driver, once a Pro Bowl winning quarterback, is found on a ditch, beaten pretty badly. Taken to the hospital to recover, Tom talks to the sheriff about the assault. Apparently two thugs we keen enough to learn the identity and whereabouts of the woman Tom had played Good Samaritan for, a day or so earlier, to point a gun to his head while trying to beat answers out of him.
It soon becomes clear to everyone that the woman was Alicia Dreyfuss, who is still missing this many days later. Carol, who was BBF with Alicia back in the day, feels very charitable towards Tom after she learns of his kindness, and brings him a steak dinner to the hospital as thanks. For his part, Tom feels a fairly strong pull towards the pretty nurse.
To no one’s surprise, Tom comes back as soon as his hauling schedule allows him. His outward reason is that he wants to find the thugs who beat him, and since they are looking for Alicia, finding her should eventually lead to them. Inviting Carol to dinner–to thank her for the steak dinner–and inveigling her to help him search for Alicia around the county are just things that…happen.
After all, Tom has a cheating ex-wife, so of course now he cannot trust anyone (ever!) for the long haul; and Carol, having been seduced and left behind at nineteen, won’t let herself trust, or fall for, anyone who doesn’t put down roots.
Then, there’s all the small town, daughter-of-the-sheriff shenanigans; the fact that he’s lived ‘in the fast lane’ (because quarterback! ex-wife! money!) while she’s barely left town; there’s even some noise over the fact that she’s twenty four while he’s thirty five.
Of course, after a handful of…well, only one is a date, the rest can be summed up as “few hours spent together,” over the span of three weeks or so, they have frantic sex. A few hours later, they make love (and much is made over the difference), then confess their love for each other and become engaged.
Conflict, what conflict?
“You Loving Me”
Our courageous schoolteacher is one Hope Litton. Born in Conard City, once upon a time she married a cowboy. Divorced a few years later, she continues to live in the same house where she was born. The cost of living being what it is, though, relying solely on a country teacher’s salary won’t do, so she rents out rooms to help make ends meet. Now in her early thirties, Hope is fully prepared to spend the rest of her life single.
Vic Towers is an ex-cop who is now making a living as a PI. He’s been hired by Harold Dreyfuss to find his wayward wife (raise your hand if you saw that one coming!), because he (Harold) is just so worried for Alicia. It’s been well over a month now, and no signs of her anywhere–even the car she took, and which Harold reported stolen, has not been seen again.
When Vic arrives in Conard City, he has to devise a cover story in a hurry–no way people in this very small town, with its closely knit community, will give him any information if they learn he’s a PI. After all, Alicia has a history of telling horrible lies about Harold, and if she’s there, would have probably set the entire population of the county against him by now.
How Vic, after so many years as a cop and then PI, doesn’t see all the holes in that story…
At any rate, Vic spreads about that he’s writing a book about Small Town USA, and that he’ll be staying for a few weeks doing some research. Naturally, renting a room at Hope’s makes more sense than staying at the motel just outside town (how?). Naturally as well, it turns out that Hope was one of Alicia’s favorite teachers in high school. (Happy coincidences abound, no?)
Vic feels pretty shitty about lying to all these nice people about why he’s in town, particularly his sweet, pretty landlady. Not shitty enough to come clean, but enough to actually listen to subtext and finally question Harold’s story.
Never does the path to true love and happiness run smoothly though. Fast, yes, but what’s true love without a tragic, or at the very least troubled, past?
Vic had been married, but after a few years his wife Julia could not take the constant worry of his job any longer, and had left him. She was pregnant with their first child, but he felt he couldn’t in good conscience fight Julia over it, and quitting the force was pretty much never a choice as far as he was concerned. Then he was shot while struggling with a suspect, and the shock was too much for Julia; it triggered a miscarriage, and she died from complications while Vic was still in the hospital. Cue guilt and the resolve never go get involved again.
Besides, how could he make a living in Conard County? It’s not like there are lots of job opportunities for a half blind ex-cop.
Which of course means that Vic and Hope find themselves in bed before you can blink.
This in turn leads Hope to remember all the worst episodes of her marriage (because of course that’s what you do when having fun). Weighing all the possible pain an affair with Vic may bring, makes Hope promptly decides to put an end to the hanky-panky. Soon. After a few more orgasms, definitely.
In the end, and because of a conspicuous lack of common sense, Hope overhears Vic talking to Harold, and things end when she pretty much gives him the boot for being a lying shit. Not that it matters, because before the day is out, Vic has a) come clean with the sheriff, and received a job offer, b) decided to stay in Harold’s employ for the time being, so no one else (potentially less scrupulous) might be hired to find Alicia, c) take the job with Conard County’s police department once Alicia is safe, and d) to continue sexing Hope up until she forgives him and agrees to marry him.
Which happens within oh, half an hour of his showing back up at her house.
Lies? What lies?
“Learning To Live Again”
To no one’s surprise, our dauntless deputy is one Virgil “Beau” Beauregard. After all, he is the one who took Melody to the hospital when she collapsed with dehydration; the one who found Tom barely conscious after being beaten, and the one who pointed Vic towards Hope’s house.
Any guesses as to who the heroine is, or who finds her?
Indeed, Alicia Dreyfuss is missing no more.
When Beau finds her in the ‘stolen’ car in a ditch, she’s in pretty poor shape. As Melody thought, Alicia has little to no money, and has basically lived out of her car, driving around aimlessly on back roads in and around Conard County. Sleep deprived, scared and depressed, she has no reserves left.
We are told that she’s been missing for three weeks at this point, and yet she still has a bruise on her check from the last time Harold hit her. (Excuse me while I make all sorts of disbelieving noises over here–unless she had a broken cheekbone, I don’t see how a bruise would last three full weeks, let alone be still angry green.)
Alicia is very scared of Harold, and would rather continue running, but Beau doesn’t give her a choice; she’s going to Conard City. His concession to her fear is that, instead of taking her to the sheriff’s office, he offers to hide her in his house. Once there, he calls Nate Tate to come and talk to her. Once she admits to both officers that Harold hit her, and not just the one time, both men are convinced they have the means to stop him from harassing Alicia.
She, not having a dick, is a lot less sanguine about things.
In the meantime, and after barely an hour’s acquaintance, Beau is already having to remind his heart that he has sworn off relationships–even with beautiful damsels in distress.
Because, you see, it just so happens that Beau also has an ex-wife who cheated on him, and married into money as soon as the divorce was final.
No one saw that one coming, right?
And we are all equally surprised that Alicia, who is still sporting that big, bad, green bruise on her face, has to remind herself that she has no business finding Beau attractive–“a Conard County man,” to be precise. (Yes, that’s another quote.)
Since we all know where this is going, I’ll spare you the recap.
I mentioned earlier that all these stories suffer from the short word count. Ms Lee’s voice, which I usually enjoy, really doesn’t shine in any of them. This happens–some authors write great novels and meh, or even shitty, shorter stories, and vice versa. The book was still a fairly quick read–I started it while waiting to board a plane, and finished it before landing, despite a number of interruptions.
However, the too-traditional tropes I mentioned at the beginning annoyed me quite a bit.
All of the heroines are in love pretty much at first sight. All of them want a family–and apparently the only way to have a family is by having a husband first. Adoption as a single parent? Fostering? Neither even crosses their minds.
And of course, dog forbid they would simply want sex with a man they find attractive. No, they have to have deep feelings and agonize over the certain pain they’ll go through, because of course they will have sex with him, and of course he won’t stay, and of course they’ll grieve/pine.
Add the telling and the absurd resolutions to all the oh so terrible conflicts between each couple…
Well, while there is nothing truly offensive about any of the stories or the writing itself, this book as a complete disappointment. Boots & Badges gets a 5.00 out of 10.