My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts as I went with the book...
I read Cantrell’s Bride by Suzanne Ferrell on sudden impulse. I just liked the blurb and off I went! I’m so glad to report that I wasn’t disappointed by either the storyline, its characters or the author’s writing style. All in all, this was the type I was probably looking for; a beautiful and homey little western escape.
This story talks about everyday folks, down to earth, full of flaws; basically, people you can relate to. The hero Nathan had a ranch, where he worked dusk till dawn all by himself, while the lovely heroine Laura came from a humble background. But together, they proved to be so much stronger, even when the beginning for them wasn’t as promising.
Laura, a spinster librarian somewhere in the Washington D.C., was finishing up her shift one late night when she’s faced with a life changing decision. She witnesses a murder of a very high profile senator. Worse, she also recognizes the murderer, a British guy named Nigel Blackwood. Even though, very stealthily, Laura moves away from the scene and escapes, in a hurry, she leaves behind her half-written manuscript of one of the numerous dime novels she has written under a male pseudonym. Sadly, the manuscript held her real identity. By the time she’s away from the library, Laura guessed that the murderer, who already detected someone’s presence, will have no trouble tracking her down.
Laura is an orphan and has been staying with her mean aunt and her lazy family ever since she lost her parents as a youngster. Being an only child and working to ‘earn her lodging’ at her aunt’s, Laura has toiled away like a slave, hours after hours, until she grew up and had the opportunity to escape in writing or working at the library or spending time with her best friend, Claudia. In this world, Laura has Claudia is the only one person who cares for Laura. She returns it and trusts her implicitly. So it was no wonder that she runs to Claudia’s rather than returning to her aunt’s.
With Claudia and her ever efficient valet’s help, Laura begins an escape plan as the police doesn’t take her claim seriously, brushing it aside as the blabbering of a ‘hysterical female’. Of course, I smelled something fishy there but for Laura, there’s only one option; to leave this place and go somewhere the killer can’t track her that easily. Claudia’s valet comes up with a rather farfetched plan of becoming a mail-order bride. Laura isn’t sure though. She has never considered herself a beauty, thanks to the meanies around like her aunt’s family, who had put a dent on Laura’s self-esteem by calling her ‘fat and ugly’ all her life. Right now, marrying a complete stranger sounds... unbelievable! Yet, her own life hangs in the balance. Moreover, if she stays here, Claudia and her servants’ lives might be in danger too. So, Laura gives into the unknown, hoping to start a new life, or so to speak.
Next, Laura is faced with an interview with the brother of the man she’s supposed to be marry. Though she’s nervous, when Neil saw how Laura is with his own kids, he immediately knew she’s the one for Nathan. Lord knew, he could use the care of a loving woman but most importantly, for his daughter, Rachel. In fact, Laura wasn’t told about Rachel until she’s married by proxy. Neil’s wife Beth is all sympathetic towards her brother-in-law. She’s also very glad to have Laura as a sister. It was on a chit-chat she let’s Laura know not only about Rachel but also Nathan’s earlier marriage that ended in disaster. Laura is a bit stunned cause she had no idea, not knowing Nathan had implicitly asked Neil to not tell his ‘new bride’ about Rachel before she travels to his ranch and have a chance to get a grip of things. Just why he said so, comes to light soon enough.
The story itself opens up with Nathan trying to talk to a small and dirty-looking girl who was just delivered by an old, destitute couple. According to them, his recently deceased ex-wife has left the girl with them, claiming she was his. They’re doing this ‘favor’ cause they were promised money. The couple turn out to be vipers, as a shocked Nathan discovers that the girl has been abused in some form and won’t let anyone come near her. He gets so angry that he chases the creeps away with his gun, threatening their lives if they ever come near her. To Nathan, it didn’t matter who that girl was, or even if she was his. The moment he set his eyes on that little girl with no name, who resembled him with her dark hair and blue eyes, she became his. And that’s all that mattered to Nathan. He even named her after his mother, wondering if she’d ever learn to trust again.
At first, I thought that Rachel has been with Nathan for about a year or so but when I re-checked the timeline, it has only been a couple of months. Nathan has tried his best to take care of her but Rachel doesn’t behave as a normal child. She has limited communication with other people, doesn’t talk or look at anyone straight in the eyes. Nathan’s patience paid off, now it seems that she only feels safe with him, the only person who can touch her or feed her. But Nathan can’t sit at home all day. He’s a busy man with many, many farm chores. He has very little help, unless from a few good friends he has left. Thanks to his ex-wife, who dazzled him with her beauty, only to turn out to be a greedy little slut, people always look at him and expect some juicy gossip. Poor guy was fooled well by that woman, who cheated on him behind his back and then ran away with another man. It humiliated Nathan so much that he has been emotionally scarred. Not only he thought he loved her but also, he has lost a lot of money while trying to keep her happy. Right now, Nathan has no romantic illusions left, neither does he have the time to contemplate on romance. He needs help and fast, yet so far, all his efforts with the governesses for Rachel have failed. No one wants to be with her more than a week or two, can’t stand her or understand her at all. One woman even went as far as to call poor girl possessed and walked out in the middle of one wintry night!
When Nathan doesn’t see a way out of his dilemma, his whimsical (and mysterious) best friend, Micah tells him to look for a mail-order bride. Make a deal with the woman to take care of his farm, make her stay for a while. After that, if she wants to go, she can. Nathan laughs at the notion at first but then, he’s too desperate. An all around help in the farm would be great. This is what drives him to advertise thru Neil.
Nathan and Laura’s meeting was rather... less-than-stellar. I was waiting for that moment cause Laura was looking for an older and/or elderly man. Instead, what she finds is a tall and muscular man, much younger than she had expected. And boy he’s so handsome that she begins to feel a little dizzy! How is it that she finds herself married to a man such as this? Old vulnerabilities rush in and Laura feels that only because of the proxy that it was possible. In another time and place, he probably won’t look at her twice. Oh, I felt for her. :(
On the other hand, it was fun to read Nathan’s reaction. He’s attracted to his ‘bride’ from the very first moment he lays his eyes on her. And it wasn’t even his long standing celibacy. His body’s reaction tells Nathan this doesn’t bode well. He certainly wasn’t looking for a pretty young woman with lush curves that was already driving him crazy. His vulnerabilities threaten too but Nathan won’t let any woman make him dance to her tune ever again. Not if he can help it. So he’s quite curt and cold from the beginning. Laura, who is rather hurt by the chilly welcome, finds the whole thing uncomfortable, to say the least.
At home, Laura tells Nathan that she knows of Rachel, something scares him a little. Would she run too? But she surprises him by telling Nathan that she’d like to meet her. Laura also assures Nathan that she isn’t scared of hard work cause that’s what she has done all her life. Farm work would keep her busy, helping her not dwell much on her handsome (and rude) somewhat husband. Oh but I could see the attraction from both sides and a very half-hearted attempt to keep it at bay! At first, Laura thinks that Nathan is... let’s say, not impressed by her looks, which is why he’s being so distant and curt. When he understands that this is what is bugging her, Nathan felt like laughing cause that was so far from the truth, he didn’t know what to do. In fact, his somewhat bride has just confessed that she wants the marriage to be in name only. How in the world is he going to stay celibate for the next 5 years (as contracted) while around her all day? As you can see, quite the dilemma! :p
It needed Laura only a few days to impress Nathan further. For one, Laura’s cooking is so good that Nathan thinks that’s the best he’s eaten in a while, maybe in all his life! From her assessment of the house, Laura knew she had her work cut out. Then she meets little Rachel, who also was in desperate need of motherly touch. Not only the house needed cleaning and a woman’s touch, the girl too, needed bath and some nice dresses. Laura knew she has to try and get to Rachel somehow. She also starts planning on working in the house, to make it look cozier, more like a ‘home’.
But it was when she heard of what really happened to Rachel from Nathan that she breaks down in tears. Nathan realized that maybe having her around wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Before that, he was contemplating letting her go. His body’s reactions scared the sh!t outta him for he thought history would repeat itself. Then he comes home one day to find Laura spoon-feeding Rachel and it stuns him completely. Rachel, who doesn’t let anyone get close, has already let Laura in! Laura informs Nathan that Rachel indeed can communicate; by the blinks of her eyes. All Nathan can do is to be amazed by his new wife’s smartness.
Laura’s dedication, efforts of making his house a ‘home’ and Rachel’s continued improvement was all it took for Nathan to make up his mind that he wants Laura to be with him... and not for only 5 years. They sure had tough times getting around each-other, Laura not knowing when Nathan would be ticked off and Nathan not knowing how to react in front of her without taking her in his arms and kissing her senseless. Heeh! Laura even got jealous of a widowed neighbor of an old friend, who, Nathan told her, has been helping him with the running the house, also helping his store food for the coming winter.
Day by day though, things begin to get better. I loved the talks and the planning of the coming harvest and food storage, the regular farm related activities that Nathan and Laura would have to do in order to keep it running. Laura meets that widow too, Sarah, who becomes a very good friend in no time. It was very apparent that Sarah had no ‘wicked intentions’ towards her handsome husband. Sarah’s sons too help Nathan in exchange of some food and coins to help keep her family going. With Sarah’s help, Laura begins learning the numerous, never-ending chores around the farm, including sewing so that she can make some drapes and pretty dresses for Rachel.
Rachel by now was eating with spoon, by herself. She has become much more communicative, though, of course, still has a long way to go. Each little progress would make Nathan and Laura emotional. At one point, Laura begins to realize that she doesn’t want to leave this place she has worked so hard to call a ‘home’, something she never had. She has made some great friends here, including the storekeeper, Sarah and her family. She loves Rachel to bits and knows leaving her would make her miserable. But most of all, she has come to care for Nathan. Though at first, she didn’t know how much Nathan wanted her, soon that was solved too. On a night, they finally end up consummating their marriage.
But the next morning proves to be a disaster. Though the night was a dream come true, the morning light brought back all of Laura’s fears that never went away. The fear of being tracked down by Blackwood and bring danger to her family. She has debated confessing to Nathan, and I wish she did earlier, but Laura thought she’d deal with it herself. Yet, a letter from Claudia shakes up her temporary bliss. Apparently, Blackwood has left Washington D.C. and headed towards her direction.
Indeed, Blackwood has been tracking Laura for months and has come up with trails gone cold. Bit by bit, it’s revealed that he’s a part of a conspiracy and his bosses aren’t happy that there’s a ‘lose end’ to their tight-knit plan. Now, if he fails to eliminate that ‘threat’, Nigel himself would become a lose end to eliminate, something he realizes well enough. When his man fails to give him any positive news, Blackwood gets rid of him and takes up on the task. This time, he’d hunt down that ‘fat, ugly’ librarian himself and show her just how angry she had made him!.
The reason why Nigel’s man wasn’t successful because no one called Laura by her maiden name any longer. She went by ‘Mrs. Cantrell’ as Nathan’s wife. And this gave her some times to settle down as a ‘wife’ in truth. To my frustration, Laura and Nathan don’t have sex for a while. They’re busy working at the farm, the harvest and stocking up the food store for the coming winter. Laura also does some improvement work around the small-town, as in working to build a school for the children, winning more friends and supporters. Very unsurprisingly (at least to me), then, she finds herself pregnant with Nathan’s baby. This changes any plan of leaving, for Laura would never do that to Nathan knowing what he went through with Rachel. When he learns of the baby, Nathan is in awe. He’s ever more determined to convince Laura that she needs to stay for them. That night, they begin their married life for real, as in, no more sleeping separately and denying themselves of the pleasure of being one another’s arms.
I LOVED that the next, Nathan surprises Laura by arranging a ceremony to reaffirm their vows to mark the first year anniversary. Laura is in tears by Nathan’s willingness to make their union as solid as possible. They certainly have become much more solid and steady as a family.
Nathan finds the letter written by Claudia and reads it secretly. He has already been suspecting that his stubborn wife has been hiding something from him. This letter confirms his fear. He’s annoyed that she won’t confide in him but Nathan wants Laura to come to him for help. In the meantime, he asks some friends to keep a lookout for a stranger hereabout looking for a woman of Laura’s description. He must know what’s going on, and as soon as possible, now that she’s pregnant and much more vulnerable.
Laura’s blissful days come to an end when one day, when she’s almost ready to give birth, Laura finds her nightmare in town. On the town’s general store, where she was shopping, she hears a voice that brings back horrid memories. Laura is reminded once again that she’s not supposed to be part of this little town but to run as fast and faraway as possible. Rachel was with her at that time. Laura wouldn’t even let any harm come to her family, so she makes a swift decision. A decision, I thought, was crazy but I also understood how her maternal instinct sort of went haywire at the knowledge of the killer finally reaching her heaven.
Laura leaves Rachel with Sarah’s family, heads back to the ranch, on foot if I might add, packs some stuff and starts a journey towards the mountain range just behind the ranch territory. She remembers Nathan talking about a cabin that he and Micah occupied when they went hunting etc. It seems that the threat and desperation gave Laura almost superhuman strength. But I’d rather she took a chance and confided in Nathan which would’ve saved them a lot of trouble. As Nathan hears of the news, he runs out after Laura instantly, somehow figuring where she’s headed to. After a tough journey he finds her in the cottage, all soaked up in the rain, cold and on the verge of a fever. Fear grips Nathan when there’s a possibility that he can lose his wife and child but he tries to remain calm and do whatever he can to help her. Soon, Laura goes into labor unconscious, still gripped by fever. And as the storm rages, she gives birth to a healthy and hungry baby boy.
Micah wasn’t a big character throughout, but from Nathan’s mentions of him a few times as a very good friend. Nevertheless, Nathan was eternally grateful to Micah for bringing Laura to his life and for his beautiful family. Micah always seemed to be coming and going on whim. He drops by again, as Nathan finds him knocking at the door. The baby has been born a few hours ago and the exhausted parents were taking a nap at the time. Micah tells Nathan that he has had a dream and came to warn him. Seeing Laura, Micah understood the woman in his dream wasn’t her as he initially thought to be. But he had a bad feeling about Nathan, so he had to find him. Laura feels that she needs to confide in Nathan. She tells him and Micah about her fear and what she’s been running from. Nathan and Micah then begin planning a ‘hunt’ of their own, for Nathan would do anything to keep his family safe, even if it means murder.
I enjoyed the last couple of chapters just as much as the rest. I really wanted this story continue, a few more chapters, when it ended. I was overjoyed for Nathan and Laura who finally had some peace in their life after everything was solved. Yet, it felt like Micah was supposed to get a story of his own. I really, truly hope the author will write his story soon for I found him really intriguing and would like to know more of the things that were hinted at. 4.5 stars and highly recommended!