Should Have Been Her Child is the first book in Stella Bagwell’s new “Man of the West” series. Since I have a fondness for stories with law enforcement elements, I hoped this would be the start of an exciting new series. Perhaps it should have been . . . but now I know better.
Jess Hastings, the undersheriff of San Juan County, Texas, discovers a dead body on a remote part of the T Bar K ranch, which is owned by Russ Ketchum. But Jess has a more personal connection to someone else at the ranch, Russ’ sister, Victoria. Victoria and Jess were lovers five years ago until Jess asked her to leave Texas with him. Out of a sense of obligation to her father, Victoria refused to leave with Jess. He subsequently left the area, got married, had a daughter, got a divorce, and returned to San Juan County. Jess has full custody of his daughter, Katrina.
The investigation into the mysterious death forces Jess and Victoria to face each other again. It’s an interesting reunion. While wondering whether the death was accidental or caused by foul play, Victoria “tried not to notice his big hands or remember the pleasure they used to give her.” This occurs only a few paragraphs after she hears the news. Yeah, that would be my reaction, too.
Jess reciprocates with equally passionate (and equally inappropriate) thoughts, remembering how she felt “cupped in his hands.” In between their lust-filled memories and the occasional relevant question from Jess, these two spend the remainder of the conversation trading insults, such as Jess’ “I expect common courtesy from everyone. Including you Ketchums.” And from Victoria: “You’re despicable! You’re not fit to be this county’s undersheriff!”
Despite this mutual animosity and attraction, Jess doesn’t consider turning the case over to someone else, even though he is obviously less than objective. The interview concludes with Jess giving Victoria a passionate kiss, then storming away. Standard police procedure, I’m sure.
Thus ends chapter one.
Of course, there are several more plot developments: Jess investigates the death (though it’s not resolved in this book; watch for a sequel); Katrina catches scarlet fever and is nursed by Victoria (who is also a doctor); Jess and Victoria have sex and argue some more. She’s mad at Jess because he left when she rejected him. (Can you imagine — the nerve of that man!) Her reasoning: “I know that if you’d really wanted me, you wouldn’t have let me go. You wouldn’t have walked away. And you wouldn’t have waited four years to come back.”
Jess is mad at Victoria because she didn’t leave with him and therefore didn’t really love him. To make matters worse, she got exactly what she wanted when he had sex with her: “As long as Victoria Ketchum got what she wanted everything was wonderful in her eyes. But then how could he fault her for what just happened between them? Jess asked himself. He’d gotten what he wanted too, hadn’t he?” Yes, that one baffled me too, but the story’s conflict requires them both to be angry, so there you go.
While Jess and Victoria’s arguments are bad enough, their internalizing is worse. Here’s one of Jess’ romantic ideas about Victoria: “He’d thought nothing could ever get under his skin again. But he'd been wrong. Victoria was like a grub worm burrowing deeper and deeper inside him.” I think it’s good that he kept this sentimental comparison to himself.
Bottom line — Jess and Victoria spend a lot of time talking and bickering, but they don’t communicate. Because we never see beyond the surface of the characters, it’s hard to be interested. Their emotions swing back and forth between desire and distrust, so the ending seems like just another swing instead of a true resolution of their feelings and concerns.
With all of these problems, I can’t advise you to give Should Have Been Her Child a try. You’re likely to discover that you should have taken a pass.