Loving Mercy by Teresa Bodwell
(Zebra, $3.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8217-7815-3
Teresa Bodwell’s debut western romance has a lot going for it. First, Zebra is marketing it with its consumer friendly $3.99 debut author program. Second, while the plot is fairly conventional fare, Bodwell writes likable characters and keeps the story humming along. Lastly, there’s the cover. While it doesn’t fit the story (the hero is a former Confederate soldier turned gambler, not a cowboy) that doesn’t make it any less mouth-watering. Heck, I’d embrace more beefcake covers if they looked as good as this one!

Mercy Clarke is widow trying to support her younger sister and ailing father while keeping their Colorado cattle ranch afloat. In a calculated business risk, she decides to import Hereford bulls from England to breed with her cows. However, she had to borrow money from a neighboring rancher to buy them, and has to sell her cattle for a premium in Abilene, Kansas to pay him off in one lump sum.

After driving the cattle all the way from Colorado, Mercy is rewarded with a good price. She also meets up with Thad Buchanan, a former Confederate soldier traveling west by way of his poker playing skills. Having lost his parents, brothers, and family farm during the Civil War, he is desperate to get to Colorado and his only surviving family – his older sister, brother-in-law and nephews. The problem being that he needs a guide, and he can’t seem to find anyone in Abilene willing to take him. That is until he meets Mercy, who very reluctantly agrees to escort him.

Loving Mercy is largely a character driven story. The author does throw in some external conflict; most of it involving bad guys who want to relieve Mercy of her cattle earnings. This conflict is more a tool to keep the plot humming along, and provides some outside dangers for the characters to overcome. Honestly though, the real conflict in this tale is Mercy’s desire for independence, her guilt over her dead husband, and Thad’s desire to finally settle down.

Mercy’s first marriage was a love match, but life on the ranch was not easy. Mercy is really ahead of her time, an astute businesswoman who wants to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, because she’s a woman, the male dominated cattle industry won’t listen to her ideas, let alone admit she has brains. She’s determined to make a go of the ranch, and throws herself whole hog into it – and her marriage takes some hits because of her drive. There is also the fact that despite five years together, Mercy was unable to conceive, further driving a wedge between her and Nate.

Thad suffered greatly during the war, thanks in part to his injuries. While he was recovering, his father and brothers died in battle. Once home, his mother took ill and he eventually lost the family farm. He does not have happy memories, and wants to start fresh out west. What better way than reuniting with his sister and getting introduced to the widow she claims is perfect for him?

Everything hums along nicely until towards the end when Thad’s male ego gets in the way. He’s quite patient and understanding throughout most of the book, so for him to get indignant in the final chapters was a bit hard to swallow. The author does explain his way of thinking, and one can’t blame him for being angry, but it doesn’t make him any less of an ass. Also Mercy’s desire for independence starts to sound like a broken record after a spell. While one can certainly understand how a smart businesswoman in the 19th century wouldn’t want to defer to a man, it’s not until the very end that she realizes that true partnerships don’t mean giving up your own dreams.

Loving Mercy is certainly a fine debut, and Bodwell has a way with her characters. By the end I really began to think of Thad and Mercy as real people, and I especially liked the way the author pulls off the role reversal. Mercy is the more opinionated Alpha, while Thad is the more understanding Beta with Alpha leanings. Prickly rancher softening with true love is certainly nothing new as far as plots go, but when that prickly rancher is the heroine it makes for a nice spin. With a follow-up book planned for Mercy’s younger sister, here is hoping that Bodwell delivers on the promise that Loving Mercy offers to devotees of the neglected western romance genre.

--Wendy Crutcher

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