A Texas Christmas
by Jodi Thomas, Linda Broday, Phyliss Miranda, DeWanna Pace
(Zebra, $6.99, PG) ISBN 978-1-4201-1966-4
I’ve been a sucker for Christmas anthologies since the days of Signet Regency Christmas anthologies that included stories by talented authors such as Mary Balogh, Carla Kelly, and the late Edith Layton. Those days are over … so over. Now we’re saddled with anthologies that feature clunky, stale stories loosely shackled together by their seasonal theme. A Texas Christmas adds a variation on the theme: all four stories are set in Kasota Springs in the panhandle region of Texas in December 1887 with the complication of a massive snowstorm. It’s an interesting concept … the execution not so much. One story is sweet and romantic; the others don’t come close. As I said … so over.

A comment about the cover art: that good-looking hunk can’t be one of the book’s heroes. With that much skin showing beneath his unbuttoned shirt, frostbite would be a sure thing.

One Wish: A Christmas Story by Jodi Thomas is the only story I can recommend. Sam Thompson is a reclusive rancher who rarely ventures into town. “Thompsons kept to themselves and minded their own business.” He has a soft spot, however, for Maggie Allison, the little girl who shared her sandwich with him their first day in school, who now owns a mercantile in town.

Sam overhears some drunks talking about their plans to rob and sexually assault Maggie so he hangs around in order to protect her. When Maggie and Sam prevent the bad guys from carrying out their dastardly plans, they learn Maggie’s life may now be in jeopardy. The sheriff recommends that Maggie hide out at Sam’s ranch until the danger is past. Once there, she’ll learn Sam’s dark secret, and a Christmas wish will come true.

This is a sweet story about two lonely people finding love and happiness together. The Christmas theme is minimal, but the story doesn’t need much more than its two appealing characters.

Naughty or Nice by DeWanna Pace is the least successful story of the lot. James Elliott III is an eastern tenderfoot who’s searching for a rare pink bluebonnet. An absent-minded professor type, he gets caught in the sudden snowstorm. He’s rescued by Anna Ross and her dog Jack. (I mention Jack because he features far too prominently — and unnecessarily — into the story.) Anna runs a saloon in town and is generally not held in high repute. The two find shelter at a ranch house where a big Christmas party is being held. Everyone is snowbound, and truths will be revealed.

If James and Anna may seem like a mismatch, that’s because they are. James is a bore; Anna is a stereotypical bad girl with a heart of gold. There’s no sense that these are two people destined for each other. One of the big dilemmas confronting the characters is how they’ll manage not being able to get to the outhouse in the snowstorm. (I swear I’m not making this up.) As a romance, this story is a complete failure.

The Christmas Bell by Linda Broday is the story of rancher Sloan Sullivan and Tess Whitgrove, the daughter of the richest man in town who’s generally considered too snobbish to associate with people not of her social standing. Sloan’s mother always impressed upon him the necessity of sticking with his own type. Tess has accompanied a Christmas bell on the train from Boston to Texas; it’s her way of trying to show the townsfolk she’s a good, helpful person. When the train is stranded in the snowstorm, Sloan comes to the rescue of the passengers. Long-held opinions will be revised.

The central romance of this story is appealing, but the plot is burdened with too many over-used complications: the young woman about the give birth, over-cute orphans accompanied by a bad-tempered woman, elderly man with critical illness, suspected criminal. It all makes for a story that doesn’t rise above merely acceptable.

Away in the Manger by Phyliss Miranda is the final story. There are slight mentions of characters in the earlier stories, but it stands on its own. Randall Humphrey is the town’s blacksmith. His unreliable older half-brother Jim has been hired by an overbearing woman to bring her niece and children to town for Christmas. Jim dumps the three on the edge of town, and they trudge through the storm to reach Rand’s place. Rand has kept to himself since the death of his pregnant wife, but he can’t resist the lovely Sarah and the cute kids.

This story suffers from another dose of cute kids. Can they be any more adorable? The explanation of how Sarah got the kids is lacking in credibility but does establish her virtue and generosity of spirit. Frankly, it’s too much. This is another story that is merely acceptable.

One pretty good story, one pretty bad story, two so-so stories. That adds up to three hearts. It makes me nostalgic for those good old days, and I don’t mean Texas in 1887.

--Lesley Dunlap

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