My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts as I went with the book...
Margaret Madigan’s debut western historical romance, Gambling on the Outlaw (Nevada Bounty #1), was a pretty good read. I generally enjoy the tales of the Wild West and its wilder men, which was the reason why I requested for it. The story spins around a strong yet stubborn h, Beth and a wonderful H, Isaac and their quest for vengeance against a common enemy.
Beth is the widow of a gambler, Frank Caldwell but she comes from a well-off family. Her father was a doctor and trained her, albeit reluctantly, in his trade. But Beth had other ideas. When she met Frank at a young age, his blonde good-looks and charming ways swept her off her feet. She left her family to be with Frank. She travelled with him, learned gambling, and was even very good at it. They together made a life from events to events, gambling hard, sometimes losing but oftimes winning. When they landed in Palmer, Nevada and found this piece of land, Beth knew she’s ready to settle down. She wanted to make a home with Frank, who didn’t deny her wish. He even promised to leave gambling. Unfortunately, that dream didn’t come true. Frank was still gambling under cover. It’s a hard habit to break when you’re addicted to it.
Beth knew it but Frank would tell her to not to worry over it, and that led him to his death, one day when he was murdered while in another game. Beth feels guilty because she didn’t accompany him that day. She misses him very much. But being the widow of a gambler, it’s tough to get by where people judge you every day. They don’t know the extent of her involvement but Beth’s history is shady too, so she has become a social pariah of sort. People may not care about her, but they need her services. Though she has a place to live, Beth doesn’t have a steady income anymore, so she had to take up on midwifery to get by. In the year since Frank died, Beth has also taken in 3 ‘misfits’ much like herself; 3 women whom society has abandoned for one reason or the other. Daisy, a former prostitute, Lydia, a plain, bluestocking spinster, and Nellie, a Native American who was raped by a white man, then was beaten and abandoned pregnant. Now, they’re her family and she’d do anything for these women.
Beth could’ve led a life like this, be content, if not Clay Dearborn, a local cattle baron and her neighbor, hadn’t started pursuing her right after she became a widow. Clay is rich and wants to be even richer. He has an eye on her land that sides with his and would love to make it his own. Beth knew it very well. She had no particular liking for Clay, neither did she wanted to marry him. He wasn’t impolite, yet there was something about his demeanor made her to be cautious around him, even if it was handsome. So far, she’d played around his advances, not knowing what to do. On one hand, she can quit worrying about money if she marries him, on the other, he may not take her sisters in and she may lose her independence because Clay is a man who is used to get his way no matter what and wouldn’t want anything less than total submission to his demands.
One day, while leaving the latest birthing that she’d helped in, Beth eavesdrops on a few gathered men talking and hears of this outlaw who has murdered Clay’s brother and a few other people traveling in a carriage. He, the sheriff who is all but bought by him and the rest were talking as if they were sure this man, Isaac Collins, is guilty and couldn’t wait to string him up at the end of a noose. Beth doesn’t pay a lot of attentions to it, but feels sorry for this man because he probably wouldn’t have a chance to defend himself when Clay’s after him. But she didn’t know that just that night she’d meet this elusive Isaac Collins, as her stable no less, hiding away. Beth didn’t know it was him exactly, as, though Isaac worked for Clay as a ranch hand before this latest development, they had never crossed path. There was no formal intro of any kind. But Beth knew in her guts it was him. Isaac is darkly handsome to her fair looks and has this perpetual twinkle in his eyes that doesn’t look like something who’d cold-bloodedly kill people. Beth basically falls in lust with him right there and it doesn’t go without notice that the feeling is mutual. Later we learn that Isaac knew Beth well and saw her from afar. He’d harbored attraction for her (I think) for a while now. For Beth, it seemed she’s destined to fall for ‘bad boys’ because, though Isaac leaves in the morning, the thoughts of him won’t let her be.
The next day, the news is out that Isaac tried to kill Clay and failed. While everybody is still processing this, he turns up at Beth’s doorstep, wounded and bleeding copiously. Beth has already hinted about Isaac to her sisters. Daisy is most emphatic since she doesn’t make it a secret that she finds him attractive. But it was no secret that Beth has claimed a stake on him already. Lydia, on the other hand, has little trust in men due to her past, which is only hinted at in the story. She’s very suspicious of Isaac, more so since she believes him to be a murderer. She wants him out but because of Beth, she backs off. But Lydia makes it clear that she isn’t liking this situation at all. Beth only wanted for Isaac to have a chance to defend himself, but she was more afraid for Nelly because of what she’d suffered. Nelly proves to be made of sterner stuff and a stoic help as it’s her ministrations that brings Isaac around.
Isaac’s past remains vague throughout the story in the story excerpt for little of what we read from his monologues. He used to be a Civil War solider. When war ended, as any soldier, he couldn’t blend in with the general population. One can only imagine just how war can change a person, so Isaac never went back home. He’s a Southerner, who had a life back there with a family and a prosperous plantation. His mother was still living, as were the brothers he loved. But Isaac stayed back to eke out a lonely life. And to get by, he took up the job of a bounty hunter. He didn’t like it but he was good at killing... his ‘targets’. It should make him a dangerous man but Isaac has since left that life behind when he came into this town. But the memory of the adrenaline rush when he’d stalk and kill his ‘prey’ still haunts him. Isaac has no interest of going back there again. Besides, he had a score to settle with Clay, and if things went his way, this is where his legacy would end. With that plan, he started working for him. Isaac never liked the man, found him shady to say the least but he never thought he’d be the one trapped. Accused of doing something he’d never done. Isaac is completely innocent of the murders, and knew that Clay has framed him to exact revenge. For all he knew, Clay himself murdered those people to get his own evil plans in motion.
Isaac knew that he won’t find justice in this town where Clay basically runs everything. His words were law and the Sheriff his plaything. So he needed to exact his own vengeance killing the SOB, even if it meant his own demise. At least he’d have the satisfaction of knowing he’d relieved the world of the likes of Clay Dearborn. Isaac had known about Widow Caldwell when words got around about Clay’s plans about her, but he didn’t want a beautiful lady like her to be in that man’s clutches. Now, seeing her face to face though has given Isaac a purpose; an unwelcome, yet strong purpose. He may die but maybe his plan will see her safe and sound.
Beth and Isaac become pretty close in a very short time. They had attraction shimmering between them which neither wanted to deny. But acting on it was a difficult task. Beth was facing Lydia’s glares each day for harboring an outlaw, while Isaac knew once he’s well enough, he’d be out again to kill Deerborn. At the same time, the man in question puts more pressure on Beth, making it clear that he’d marry her no matter what it takes, knowing very well that Beth has no one to turn to. If that wasn’t bad enough, an old acquaintance of Frank’s and hers, one Silas Devol, drops by to inform her that Frank owned him a huge amount of money. Now that he’s dead, it’s Beth’s debt. No amount of pleading would work with a seasoned gambler like Devol; someone who’s used to with all sorts of shady dealings.
When one day, Devol’s men come to Beth’s home to give her a reminder about the debt, which was more about bullying her than anything, Isaac hears of it and comes out of the house to save her. Seeing him, the men leave Beth alone, but it also put them all in danger. What if the men talk around town? Clay will know without a doubt who is Beth harboring, which in turn will make her and her sisters guilty parties! Things start unraveling faster than they would’ve imagined though, when Clay and the Sheriff with their posse come to hunt down Isaac. Obviously news was circulating around town about Beth Caldwell harboring a man. In a hurry to dodge them, Beth had to help Isaac escape just only with the clothes on his back, giving him her horse Boreas for fast riding. After a thorough search when they find no one, the posse leaves, though Clay makes it clear that he’s going to make them pay. They also don’t hesitate to impart the information that it was Lydia who informed the Sheriff about Isaac.
But Beth would’ve known who had betrayed them even if the Sheriff hadn’t told them. Lydia had been acting odd ever since Isaac was brought into the house. She only waited to hear that he’s innocent. When she spied on him kissing Beth passionately, she thought it’d be better to step in. Well, Beth wouldn’t have it. She’s annoyed but there’s nothing to be done. She believes in Isaac’s innocence and would help him in any way possible, even though Lydia tries to defend herself by saying she thought she was doing it for the best. Nevertheless, though Beth’s head tells her it’s insane to follow him into the unknown, her heart won’t listen to it. They’d already send the posse in the opposite direction, so that should buy her some times. Then soon, she’s on her way to track down Isaac, hoping that Nelly’s horse Little Sister knows what she’s doing.
It wasn’t an easy task by any means, and Beth had to dodge a bounty hunter who was on her trail. That guy was in the posse but he was suspicious of Beth and returned to follow her. He was, of course, right. Beth lies to him about lying to the posse (oh boy!) because she need the money. After all, it was well-known that Clay has put a hefty sum on Isaac’s head; dead or alive. When, after setting a gruesome pace for a couple of days, even dodging the bounty hunter so that he doesn’t follow her any longer, Beth was about to give up, Little Sister made it known that she knows where to find Boreas… which meant Beth would also soon see her Isaac. She only hoped it wasn’t too late and that’s he’s not too angry to see her.
But Isaac was angry. He’d tried his best to get as far away as possible from Beth and her family so that no harm is done to them, yet here she is, dirty and ragged, returning his glare because he’s pissed that she put herself in danger. Well, after that, they have an argument, then, er, make up sex... I mean, I don’t know, after days of hard riding and no bath, sex would be the farthest thing from my mind but it seemed Isaac and Beth were very eager to resolve their problems and there was only one way for them to get to the point, bath can wait a while. I did wonder about how was it even possible without a decent bath but that’s just me talking. Ignore me! To be frank, I didn’t expect them to have sex just then. I knew they wanted to, but.......... It kinda took me off-guard and yes, I thought of those things I just wrote above. :/ Moving along... After that, there was only one thing for them to do; to acknowledge their feelings for each-other. Though Isaac was still conflicted about exacting his vengeance on Clay, he knew he cared for Beth too much. Even though he didn’t know if they could have a future together, he still couldn’t stand Beth to go ahead and marry him because she had no other choice.
But Beth, by the grace of fate, finds a goldmine hidden in the jungle. She even registers it when they get to the nearest town under her and her sisters’ names. She had a grand plan, where she can not only pay off Silas’ debts, but can also free Isaac’s name. She knew Clay and the Sheriff can’t say not to money, so that should be easy. If only, as they’ll find out soon. Clay was a wily bastard and would never give up so easily. And when they’re finally caught by Devol’s men, who have been trailing them, Beth knew their time for reckoning has come.
But Beth was more than frustrated about Isaac’s blind need for vengeance where his death is a big possibility. She couldn’t understand why he would want it when they can go somewhere else and live their lives together. She’d, of course, made provisions so that Lydia, Daisy and Nelly are not evicted from her land. It caused a few heated arguments between them. But I understood that Isaac didn’t want to be a hunted man for the rest of his life. As long as he has law after him and a bounty on his head, he can never rest easy. Beth didn’t get the whole of it but she also understood his need to be a free man once again.
The rest of the story was pretty suspenseful as both Isaac and Beth battle to make a stand against the evil. Daisy, Nelly and Lydia come to Isaac’s rescue when they needed it the most. Last but not the least was that one last poker game to win back Isaac’s freedom from Clay. It was mainly Beth’s idea to avoid bloodshed as all the men come face to face, guns pointed at one-another. With Devol as her surprising ally, Beth decides to play one last game, hoping that she still has her ‘skills’ to aid her through this so that she can save the man she loves, and leave this place alive.
Can’t say I understood a thing of that, most important, game of the story since I don’t know anything about gambling. So the whole thing basically went over my head. But that’s definitely not the author’s fault. I have to give it to her, the way she planned it to resolve all of Beth and Isaac’s problem in one sitting; even if it was long night and there was bloodshed in the end anyway. As I already said, I enjoyed the story but there’s one thing that bugged me; it was the dialogue. At times, Beth and Isaac’s voice felt too contemporary-like for my liking. It didn’t sound like a story set in post Civil War era. It may have been Beth’s too independent streak where her thoughts didn’t come off as a woman of that time, I don’t know. But it gave me pause a couple of times while I was reading.
Other than what stated above, it went rather well so I’m rounding up on 4 stars. Personally, looking forward to Daisy, Nelly and Lydia’s stories; especially Lydia. That girl needs someone to shower her with love so bad. *sigh*
I received this ARC, courtesy of Entangled Select, via netgalley which didn’t influence my review and rating in any way.