Rating: 4 stars out of 5
If you love cowboys, than this is the anthology for you. From cowboy tv stars to those that ride bucking bulls and every permutation in between, these 8 stories will make you laugh, make you sigh, even reach for a fan or too but always make you remember why you love a cowboy.
Loose Riggin’ by Julia Talbot
Two Buckets and a Snakeskin Suit by Aaron Michaels
Torn by Sean Michael
Cowboy and Indian by Rob Rosen
Heart of Dixie by Mychael Black
Ready to Ride by Katherine Halle
White Hat/Black Hat by Kiernan Kelly
In the Pocket, a Roughstock story by BA Tortuga
I really enjoyed this anthology, especially because cowboys are a real weakness for me. Of special interest was the new story from BA Tortuga in her Roughstock series, I cannot get enough of those boys. It also introduced me to a series I hadn’t heard of, Mychael Black’s Hearth and Home series, so that was a plus too. Here in sequence as they appear are mini reviews of each story:
1. Loose Riggin‘ by Julia Talbot: 3.5 stars
One cowboy on the way up, one cowboy bull rider on the way down. Baron LeBlanc is a top bullrider at the end of his career. During one ride he injuries himself badly and an young bull rider, Arlen Deamus, offers to take care of him and become his traveling partner. I loved this story and thought the characters and the plot were full of promise. It is the perfect introduction for a longer story. Julia Talbot draws us in with her wonderful characters, great names and vivid descriptions but just as we are settling in, its over. As a short story, it ends so abruptly that it feels incomplete and the reader feels more than a little frustrated after investing emotionally in the story. I would love to see this author expand Baron and Arlen romance into a full length book. I will be first in line to pick it up.
2. Two Buckets and a Snakeskin Suit by Aaron Michaels: Rating 3.5 stars out of 5
While on vacation, Marcus and his sister Shelly attend camel races outside Las Vegas. Shelly is dying to meet an Australian cowboy and these camel races have more than their share of those. But when Marcus is hurt after he falls off a camel, he is the one who captures the attention of the only Aussie cowboy there. This was a cute little romance between a man talked into riding a camel by his sister and the Aussie cowboy who just happens to be a chiropractor who comes to his aid. Michaels did a nice job with presenting us with a well rounded character in Marcus and Shelly but I would have loved a little more back story on Vic. But it’s cute, hot, and has a realistic HFN.
3. Torn by Sean Michael: 5 stars for the heat alone
Pistol, an injured bull rider, returns home to his partner Bender and their ranch after a long 6 month absence on the rodeo circuit and shoulder surgery. He is unsure of his welcome after receiving an angry phone call from his partner following his injury. Bender’s love for Pistol is both the source of his anger and the one thing that will heal it. This is my second favorite story in the collection. Sean Michael gets everything right in this story. We get all the information we need about these two men and their long term relationship from Michael’s descriptions of their tense posture, their loving gestures and a dialog that telegraphs a well established intimacy at every level. Bender is tired of his lover’s injuries and this last one scared him badly. Pistol loves riding bulls and is frightened that his time as a bullrider is coming to an end. The situation is tense, hot, loving, angry, gentle, just everything you would expect from two scared people who love each other deeply and are faced with a serious situation. The ending is perfection, but then so is this short story. It doesn’t need to be longer, it doesn’t need any additional backstory. It ends where it should. Lovely. Here is a tease. Pistol is returning home after surgery unsure of his welcome:
He opened the door, pushed it open and stood, trying to keep them from the arm still in the sling. “Hey y’all, you happy to see me?”
“You should have called and let me know.” Bender waited for the dogs to have their hello, blue eyes on him like twin laser beams.
“I didn’t want you worrying. Jack needed his guest room back.” He’d been imposing. Not to mention, the man’s mother-in-law had come to help with the last few days of Mary Ellen’s pregnancy, and he’d wanted to come home. Bender told the dogs to “scatter,” and they did.
Before Pistol could say anything Bender was on him, mouth covering his in a kiss that smashed his lips against his teeth and totally stole his breath.
Oh. Oh, thank God. He pushed up into the kiss, damn near sobbing with relief.
4. Cowboy and Indian by Rob Rosen: 2 stars out of 5
Jed sees a poster for a fifty-dollar prize for the longest bronco buck advertised outside a saloon. He figures his horse Bessy needs a new saddle and aims to get it for her by riding in the rodeo. Along the way he runs into an Apache warrior, Taza, who wants to help his people. They make love, not war and end up with a future neither of them ever dreamed of. There are quite a number of things about this story that I have issues with, but the portrait of Taza, an Apache warrior, is the largest. Having a Native American character, especially in a historical story, can be a iffy element if not handled just right. For me, Taza just did not work. From his pidgin English which reminded me of the “Me, Tonto, you white man” variety to the fact that he drops trow for an unknown white man just after the awful Apache wars have ended….well it’s not just unrealistic but downright ridiculous. Here is their first interchange:
“Jed,” I told him, with a polite nod. “White man sounds so, well now, formal.”
With his free hand, he pounded his chest. “Taza,” he informed me. “In your language, means Apache warrior.”
I nodded my head. “Pleasure, Taza.”
And then he nodded, releasing the beast before sending it swinging. “You want to pleasure Taza?”
The only way that piece of dialog would work is in a Mel Brooks comedy. And it just goes further downhill from there. This is the one story I would skip over.
5. Heart of Dixie by Mychael Black: Rating 4 stars out of 5
Mack Sexton has been in love with his best friend and handyman Les Spencer for a long time. Les feels the same but neither man has acknowledged let alone acted on their feelings. Then one day everything changes. Heart of Dixie is a snapshot of a relationship that is part of a series called Hearth and Home by Mychael Black. I am unfamiliar with that series but got enough of a taste of it from this story that I will be scampering back to pick up the rest. Black develops the characters and setting to the point that it and both men feel real and the reader connects with them from the start. Mack’s sister, Kate, is a lively character in her own right and the interaction among the three of them comes across as long established and affectionate. Enjoyable and romantic. I loved this one.
6. Ready To Ride by Katherine Halle: 4 stars out of 5
Eric is an orthopedic surgeon volunteering his time with the Justin Sports Medicine program. Ben Greene is champion Saddle Bronc rider Eric has come to love. When Eric’s volunteer time with the rodeo comes to an end, Ben must travel on the circuit alone. And while neither man has talked about where their relationship is going, both love each other deeply. When Ben is receives a season-ending injury during a ride, Eric decides that, conversation or not, he is bringing his man home for good. I loved Halle’s characters and thought she got the character of Ben with his avoidance of “mushy talk” just right. While most of the story is seen through Eric’s eyes, Halle shows us that Ben’s actions telegraph his feelings perfectly to his lover and that words are not always necessary. This story has romance, cowboys and HEA in a nice short package.
7. White Hat/Black Hat by Kiernan Kelly: 4.25 stars out of 5
The time is 1968, the place Hollywood where a new TV western is getting ready to go into production. Two men, Dallas Frank and Stone Grant, arrive to audition for the two leads, Black Bart and Sheriff Carson Star, the White Hat/Black Hat title characters. To each man’s surprise and delight, they win the roles and secretly the love of each other. For the next forty years, they pretend to hate each other in public while continuing a love affair that has lasted as long as their show. Then their show is cancelled. What will they do now? Kelly gives us a terrific look back at old Hollywood and its outlook on homosexuality. Through small interludes we watch as Dallas (real name Joe Bob) and Stone Grant (real name Arvin Mason) settle into a long term relationship while playing the Hollywood game to protect the series and their reputation. The ending is rewarding, the relationship has a very authentic feel as does the times the men pass through. My third favorite story of the collection.
8. In the Pocket, a Roughstock story by BA Tortuga: 5 out of 5 stars
Sterling is a new bullfighter and he loves his job. He also loves working with his hero and fellow bullfighter, Coke Pharris. But rodeo clown Dillon Walsh is tired of the youngster drooling on his man and figures a little matchmaking is in order. When stock contractor Colby Tyburn asks for an introduction to Sterling, Dillon sees an opportunity and takes it, maneuvering Sterling into a date with the stock contractor. Colby Tyburn has been watching Sterling for some time and loves what he sees….a gorgeous energetic young man, all want and desire. Sparks fly at the first introduction but neither man expects the white hot sex to turn into something deeper and just perhaps, permanent. In the Pocket is a Roughstock story. So if the reader is familiar with the series, than you already know all about Coke Pharris and his rodeo clown lover, Dillon Walsh. They happen to be a favorite couple of mine so it is wonderful to see them make an appearance here. But the focus of the story is the young (and virginal) bullfighter, Sterling, and the older, more experienced man, Colby Tyburn, a roughstock contractor.
Sterling is a bouncy Tigger of a character. He is youthful, energetic to the extreme and has a bad case of hero worship when it comes to Coke Pharris. Unfortunately for Sterling, Coke is taken and Dillon is not happy that Sterling can’t keep his hands off his man. BA Tortuga paints the perfect portrait of innocent enthusiasm and lustful need all wrapped up in one young man who doesn’t seem to know what to do with it all. I just loved Sterling, he absolutely made me smile. Colby Tyburn could have come off as a predator but his appreciation for Sterling and all of his qualities, not just his physical traits, brings him back to a person the reader can relate to. Their sexual encounter is sexy, white hot, and ultimately very touching. It is not necessary to have read the other Roughstock stories, but it does help to round out the back history of the other men mentioned, however casually. There are over 17 stories in the Roughstock series, Coke and Dillon’s story is called Roughstock: And a Smile- Season One. I absolutely recommend them all. Here is a taste:
Nate (was) screaming his head off to get the bull’s attention. Joa landed, but luckily the Brazilian was ready, and they sort of strong-armed each other.
He flung Joa toward Pharris and put himself between the cowboy and Merry-Go-Round. He heard Coke grunt, but then he and Nate were busy playing a game of slap the bull on the nose, trading off as it went round and round. This was his favorite part, the fun part. They did their little dance, and he pulled his butt in, hearing the whoosh as two thousand pounds went by.
“Woohoo!” He grinned at the gate shut, jogging over to Pharris, who clapped him on the back.
He loved his life.
Cover illustration by BSClay is perfect in tone and design for this collection.