The book is set in the Wyoming Territory in 1889. Chas O'Grady is a private detective, hired to look into reports of cattle rustlers in the area. He's a city boy, but he figures he'll do just fine...until he's nearly flattened by a stampede. He's saved by Danna Carpenter and doesn't react well to that. Danna assumes he's merely upset at being saved by a woman, but it's more than that. Four years ago, the woman Chas loved was killed, leaving him with paralyzing fear that other women in his life might be hurt. He left his parents and sister behind and did his best not to get to know any other women well, but he can't help but feel an immediate connection to Danna.
It isn't until later that he learns that Danna is actually the local marshal. Her husband, the previous marshal, had made her one of his deputies, and she had been made the new marshal after he was killed. Now, Danna is determined to find his killer and win the respect of the townspeople, but it's an uphill battle. No one will agree to be one of her deputies, so she's left to do her job all on her own.
Chas needs a job if he wants to blend in until his investigation is complete, but the only available job he's capable of doing is being one of Danna's deputies. Being Danna's deputy means possibly growing closer to a woman with a dangerous job, a woman he might have to watch die the way he watched the woman he loved die. Chas doesn't want to do that, but he has a job to do.
I originally heard about this book via a review over at Misadventures of Super Librarian. It's not something I would normally have read, because I tend to be leery of inspirational romance (well, Christian fiction in general, really) and because I'm not big on Wild West settings. I was reassured by Wendy's comment that the religious aspects of the book were pretty light, since I prefer not to feel like my recreational reading is preaching at me. I didn't immediately cave and buy the book, though, until I had a really crappy day. Some people buy chocolate or a tub of ice cream at such times. I buy a book. Actually, sometimes I buy ice cream or chocolate, but this particular bad day was a book kind of day.
I'm not comfortable with heavy-handed Christian fiction, but, just like Wendy said, the religious aspects of this book really are very light, lighter even than in Deeanne Gist's books (since I don't read a lot of inspirational romance, she's my best point of comparison). Chas's relationship with God was damaged by the death of a woman he loved. Also, in the instances where I might call on luck, Danna calls on God. Danna believes that God protects her, but she also has a “God helps those who help themselves” approach to life – she doesn't just sit around, waiting for God to make everything better, she goes out and tries to make things better on her own. That's pretty much it – the “God stuff” doesn't come up often, and, when it does, it feels like a natural part of the story and its characters.
So, now that I've mentioned the religious aspects, on to everything else. At first I found the romance to be the most lackluster part of the book. Chas and Danna kept thinking about how they felt an instant “connection” to each other, but I found myself more interested in the characters separately than as a potential couple. I kept reading because I liked Chas and Danna well enough individually, and because I found the story interesting. As the book progressed, however, the romance grew on me.
Chas and Danna's relationship never becomes what I'd call passionate, not even off-page passionate. They're definitely attracted to each other, but as far as heat and sexual tension go...yeah, this book isn't all that high on my list in that regard. What I loved about Chas and Danna's relationship and what made me root for them was what they accomplished for each other on a deeper emotional level.
The woman Chas used to love was pretty and delicate, but not the sort who did well in dangerous situations. From the instant Chas first met Danna, he viewed her from the same lens he viewed all other women – he wanted to keep her out of danger, because he was terrified she might die the way the woman he loved had. Every time he saw Danna in danger, instead of keeping his head, he reacted out of fear and usually made things worse for the both of them. I loved getting to see him learn to trust Danna's abilities. Unlike the first woman he loved, Danna could take care of herself. Just like anyone, she needed an ally to back her up from time to time, but she didn't need Chas to be her absolute and sole protector. It took him a while to get to the point where he recognized that, but he did get there.
I liked Chas, but I loved Danna. Danna is wonderful and capable (seriously capable - she's more likely to end up saving Chas than vice versa), doing her best to stay strong in the face of what seems like constant opposition. She has no one to stand beside her and support her – her best friend is a woman who is pregnant and depressed because she doesn't know if her husband is dead or alive or even if he murdered Danna's husband. Danna has a hard time reading others' emotions, so she thinks she's neither feminine nor attractive. Because she also doesn't talk much about how she feels, the people she cares about don't necessarily know about her doubts and fears and therefore can't help her deal with them. The more I read about Danna, the more I wanted things to work out for her.
Danna was strong enough that Chas didn't have to worry about her the same way he would have had to worry about the previous woman he loved, but she was fragile in other ways. Chas and Danna's romance clicked for me because I loved reading about Chas learning to respect Danna's abilities, and I loved reading about Danna slowly coming to realize that she didn't need to remake herself into society's image of what a lady needed to be in order to get Chas to love her. Chas loved and accepted Danna for who she was, and that just made me all kinds of happy.
Like I said, I mostly bought this book because I was having a bad day. It turned out to be an excellent choice. I may not be the target audience for inspirational romances, but I loved this book anyway. I consider it a keeper.
Remember how I said this book isn't the kind of thing I'd usually read? Well, that makes coming up with a read-alikes list a little more difficult than usual. I've done my best.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- Naked in Death (book) by J.D. Robb – Another heroine who doesn't think of herself as very feminine - before Eve meets Roarke, she thinks of herself primarily as a police lieutenant, rather than as a woman. This isn't an inspirational romance (be warned that this series includes on-page sex scenes and murders), but it might appeal to those looking for a similar sort of heroine. I've written about this book, as well as other books by this author.
- Rurouni Kenshin (manga) by Nobuhiro Watsuki; Rurouni Kenshin (anime TV series) - Another story with a heroine who isn't completely helpless (although she's nowhere near as awesome and capable as Danna, in my opinion) and a hero who has had a loved one die. Like Marrying Miss Marshal, this is a historical story, but in this case the setting is Japan during the early Meiji period (late 19th century - I forget if an exact date for the series was ever given). There is romance, although it's not the primary purpose of the story, action (including on-page bloodshed, so consider yourself warned), and even some humor.
- Tears of the Moon (book) by Nora Roberts - Again, not an inspirational romance. This is a contemporary romance, the second in a trilogy. Most of it might stand well enough on its own, but there's an overarching storyline (with slight supernatural aspects) that may not make much sense unless you read the books in order - if you'd like to do that, then begin with Jewels of the Sun. Tears of the Moon stars Shawn Gallagher, a songwriter and dreamer, and Brenna O'Toole, a tomboy who's secretly been in love with Shawn for years. Those who liked Danna might like Brenna.
- The Proper Wife (book) by Winnie Griggs - I wanted to include at least a one inspirational romance on this list, but that means including something I haven't actually read. From what I can tell, the religious aspects of this book are probably heavier than in Marrying Miss Marshal, but those who'd like another historical inspirational romance in which the heroine isn't a stereotypical proper female might want to try this.