Rafe Hunter is the commander in charge of a garrison in the Oklahoma Indian Territory in 1889. He and his soldiers are charged with keeping the peace before and after a government-sanctioned land rush. A few weeks before the rush, they have been kept busy routing out people trying to claim land ahead of the official start date. Late in the day, he spots a scruffy boy hiding near a creek. When he tried to apprehend the boy, he discovers that he has a wildcat of a woman on his hands and she tries everything she can to get away from him.
Karissa Baxter is determined to stake a good claim for her brother, Clint and his very pregnant wife, Amanda. She has looked after her younger brother since her mother died and their gambler father dragged them from town to town, giving them no security at all. Clint had planned to ride in the land rush, but a broken leg has him sidelined in one of the border camps. Her instincts to help and protect him make her determined to do the rush for him and find a good homestead. Having had to scrap all of her life, she ignored the rule to wait.
Rafe realizes that he can't house her with the rest of the prisoners, who are all male, so he puts her in his quarters. Rather than realize Rafe is being a gentleman and trying to protect her, Karissa thinks he expects her to sleep with him. She decides to use this to her advantage. Thus starts the tug-of-war between a soldier from a wealthy, Eastern family and a woman who has always had to struggle to survive. The fireworks are exciting.
Even though Rafe is from a wealthy military family, he has an independent streak. He chose to work at the frontier and lives on his government salary. His best friend is Micah Whitfield, his second-in-command and half Indian. He has planned to follow the family pattern of marrying a woman chosen by his parents and is expecting to marry Vanessa after he finishes his duty. He has not spent much time with her, but assumes that they will manage to get along. What he hadn't planned on was how attracted he is to Karissa, even though she gives him endless trouble.
Karissa is also attracted to him, but assumes her low background would never make her an appropriate wife. She guards her heart with high walls and has a sense of pride that is almost her undoing. She is used to working around most men, but Rafe is definitely not most men. He meets her challenge for challenge.
Several of the secondary characters are vividly detailed. Micah is a good foil to Rafe's serious side. He is an excellent soldier, but he also has a sense of humor and fun. The two villains are particularly nasty. Harlan Billings is a disgruntled soldier who is both dishonest and manipulative. When he hooks up with Vanessa, the woman Rafe's parents have chosen for him, the trouble escalates. Vanessa is a mercenary character who expects to marry Rafe for his money and then go back East and return to her parties and other men. They are both the kinds of villains you love to hate.
An important part of this book is the story of the land rush. The "Sooners" who try to get in and find a claim before the official date, the mad rush once the signal is sounded, and the life and death struggles between people wanting the same claims are all dramatically described. It gives a picture of American history that is sometimes forgotten.
The growing relationship between Rafe and Karissa is fascinating to watch. My only frustration with the story was when Karissa overreacted to something Rafe must ask her in his line of duty. Her stubbornness goes on much longer than seems necessary. Everything else worked. Readers of Americana romances should not miss this one.
--B. Kathy Leitle