Books like this one are the reason why I love reading. There is nothing more exhilarating than finding a rare gem of a story that holds you captive from beginning to end, makes you smile so much your jaw hurts by the time you turn that last page, and leaves you so delightfully enthralled by the characters, you wish the story never ended. This book quite simply stole my heart.
Rowen is a young woman desperately in need of a wake-up call in life. For the past five years, she has been spiralling down an angry hole of self-destructive behaviour, rebelling against everything and everyone around her. But behind the provocative black clothes, the dark contact lenses and the black lipstick, hides a broken-hearted young girl whose life has hurt and disappointed her so badly, that she has convinced herself not to expect anything but further pain.
“Instead of trying to get to the bottom of why her daughter was floundering through life, she sent me off to ranch boot camp to “prove” myself worthy of art school.”
After being shipped off by her emotionless mother to a ranch in the middle of nowhere with the directive to prove herself as responsible, hardworking and worthy of trust, Rowen finds herself sticking out like a sore thumb in wholesome countryside Montana. But for the first time in her young life, instead of fingers being pointed at her and being labelled a freak, people are actually taking their time to get to know her and seeing past her appearance. From barely having a parent who never showed her any love to suddenly being part of a large family where small demonstrations of love are a daily occurrence, Rowen is truly out of her element.
“Every morning we get a chance to be different. A chance to change. A chance to be better. Your past is your past. Leave it there. Get on with the future part, honey.”
At this point I think there should be a drumroll or some trumpet playing somewhere because lo and behold, prepare your hearts for the divine Mr Jesse Walker! Jesse is the ranch owner’s son and he is nothing like the guys Rowen is normally attracted to. He is cheerful, positive, affectionate, he pays her compliments and asks nothing in return, and he seems to see the person she so desperately tries to hide. The more she pushes him away, the more he gently pursues her, with nothing more than kindness and understanding. And a heart-melting smile.
“Why don’t you want to know that I like you, Rowen? Why don’t you want me to tell you I’m so damn attracted to you, I almost don’t trust myself to be alone with you like we are right now? Why don’t you want to know that I care about you so much…?”
Once her walls start crumbling and one very delicious cowboy gets under her skin, Rowen begins her journey of self-discovery.
“…when I looked into those eyes of his that saw everything, those eyes that saw me, I knew the fight would be worth it. The struggle to let him in when I wanted to barricade the windows and lower the gates would be a battle I’d never regret fighting.”
What is possibly one of the most enchanting and heart-warming romances I have read in a very long time, this is as much of a love story as it is a beautifully written and flawlessly developed tale of finding oneself and accepting that life is not just a string of negatives. Rowen is a complex character – her past has made her emotionally weary and afraid to let herself accept affection from others. She is hungry for it, starved for even the smallest sliver of unconditional love, but she has also been programmed to believe that she is unworthy of the kind of love Jesse is offering her. She perceives him as a ray of sunshine that her hang-ups would only end up clouding, but she ultimately fights their connection because she sees herself as undeserving to be loved, something her mother had ingrained into her with continuous neglect and grave lack of positive affirmations.
“You think you deserve this. You think you deserve to be alone and suffer. You’ve convinced yourself you’re so worthless that you’ve gone to the extreme to punish yourself. You think you deserve a life of misery.”
We watch the romance between Jesse and Rowen take root, blossom, weather the storms, as this young woman finds herself and learns that every woman deserves to have a ‘Jesse’ in her life. There is something very special in the way Nicole Williams gives her characters ‘life’, it is evident that they come from her heart and she somehow makes us love even the most imperfect of them.
It has been two days since I finished reading this book and my heart is still bursting at the seams!! A stunning book with a positive message – it was just what I needed, it was totally not what I expected, and it was simply perfect.
“We all want to open up to someone, Rowen. The hard part is finding someone we trust enough to open up to. That person we’re not afraid to let into the darkest parts of our world.”
I was supposed to be meeting one of the ranch hands from Willow Springs in the parking lot. I couldn’t remember his name, just that it began with a J and was one hundred and ten percent a cowboy name. I was supposed to link up with some total stranger, a man who worked as a ranch hand, after driving across a couple state lines on a Greyhound bus … and this was the first step towards proving my responsibility to my mother?
Yeah, that was messed up.
Tilting my head back, I searched the sky, half expecting the buzzards to be circling.
Man, even the sky was different here. Too big and too blue. Where I came from, the sky was gray on most days and on the rare day the cloud cover did shift, the sky was never quite blue. Almost like it couldn’t let go of the gray that consumed it more days than not.
I was just about to close my eyes and take a quick siesta and let Mr. Ranch-Hand-With-A-Gritty-Cowboy-Name wait, when a figure passed by me.
On a typical day, I was passed by hundreds, if not thousands of people. Passed by, passed over, passed something … so I don’t know why this particular figure caught my attention, but it did. Leaning up, I shielded my eyes from the sun and watched this “figure” that I couldn’t ignore like I could the others. After a second, I understood why.
The guy was wearing positively the tightest, most painted-on pair of jeans I’d ever seen a guy slide into. And I came from a generation where it was socially acceptable for guys to sport skinny jeans.
However, this cowboy in what I could only assume were a pair of faded Wranglers, had just secured the sash and crown in the Tightest Pants in the Universe title.
“Excuse me, Sir?” Tight pant boy said, tapping the shoulder of the employee I’d snapped at. He waited for the employee to turn around and acknowledge him before continuing.
“Yes,” the employee said, shaking Cowboy’s hand when he extended it.
“Is this the bus that came up from Portland?” Cowboy Tight Pants asked, glancing up at the windows like he was looking for someone.
“Sure is. Last passenger just got off a few minutes ago.”
The cowboy’s back was to me, although his back wasn’t exactly what I zeroed in on. It had nothing to do with ogling, lusting, or wanting to run my hands all over it … I just couldn’t wrap my mind around how those stitches were holding strong with pants that were two sizes too small cupping those butt cheeks.
“Was there a young woman on board? A girl about my age?” cowboy asked.
“There were lots of young women on board, Son,” the employee replied, doing a better job of masking his sarcasm than I would have. “Do you have a description? Maybe a name?”
“I think she’s blonde, maybe strawberry blonde,” he began, tilting his neck to the side. “Petite, I’m guessing … I don’t know. I’ve only seen a picture of her that’s ten years old.”
My stomach fell a little.
“I’ve got her name right here,” the cowboy said, sliding a piece of paper out of his front pocket. I didn’t need to hear him say it, I already knew the name scratched down on that scrap of paper. “Rowen. Her name’s Rowen Sterling.”
My subconscious couldn’t decide what to curse first, so it mixed, matched and uttered a Shuk and a Fuit.
When my mom had told me I’d be getting a ride back to Willow Springs with a ranch hand whose name I’d forgotten, I’d pictured a scratching, spitting, old-timer like the town sheriff in one of those old westerns. Not some young, fit man who adhered to the tighter-the-better policy when it came to jeans selection.
I had yet to see his face, but from what I’d seen of his back, I already knew what to expect. And if I was a typical eighteen-year-old girl who liked the typical teenage girl things, I’m sure I’d be panting for an opportunity to catch a ride with Cowboy Montana in what I guessed was a big diesel truck that had four wheels in the back. I’d heard what those kinds of trucks were called, but couldn’t remember it. Where I came from, people didn’t need six tires when four did the job just fine.
Catching myself right before I let out a long sigh, I stood up and made my way over. No sense in stalling.
Stopping a few feet behind the vacuum-sealed ass, I cleared my throat. “Looking for Rowen Sterling?”
“Yeah,” Cowboy replied, turning my direction. “You know her?”
I gave a shrug. “Kind of.”
“Do you know where she is?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I replied, trying to get a look at his face, but with that huge-ass cowboy hat, combined with the position of the sun in the sky, his whole face was shaded. He could have been the thing of female fantasies. He just as easily could have been eyeless and toothless for all I could tell.
After a few more seconds of quiet, where I guessed he was waiting for me to add something else, he shifted. “Could you tell me where she is then?”
I glanced at the photo in his hand. He’d been right. It was almost ten years old to the day. Taken at my ninth birthday party. I was wearing the biggest, pinkest, most god-awful princess dress to have ever been created and I was blonde and beaming.
I was none of those things anymore. This reaction ought to be fun to witness.
“She’s about two feet in front of you,” I said, now thankful that I couldn’t see his face because whether it was a ten or a zero or somewhere in between, I didn’t want to witness the shock and the cringe that was to come.
When you compared the young girl in the picture to the older girl that was me present day, a cringe seemed to be the standard response.
What I didn’t expect him to do was remove his hat and extend his hand. “Hey, Rowan,” he said, flashing a smile that almost made me flinch. I hadn’t been smiled at like that when meeting a stranger in a long time. “I’m Jesse. It’s nice to meet you.”
Jesse. That’s right. The cowboy J name that had slipped my mind was the name that I was certain I’d never again forget now. Not because his eyes were the same color as the sky, or because his light hair sort-of cascaded down his forehead like it knew just where to fall, or because of the dimples drilled deep into his cheeks from the continued smile. Nope, the reason I’d remember Jesse’s name from this day forward was because of the way he was looking at me. He didn’t study me like I was a freak or something that was different and scary. He looked at me like I was a human being, no different from himself, and yet unique just the same.
It was … staggering. It made me feel all light and floaty, too. For a girl who liked to keep her feet firmly on the ground and who, as a policy, didn’t do “floaty” this whole sensation was a tad overwhelming.
After I’d left his hand hanging in the air like the staggered idiot I was, he dropped it back to his side and lifted his other hand holding the picture towards my face. Studying the picture, then my face, his smile stretched higher. “Yep. You’re Rowan Sterling all right,” he said with certainty. Like he was able to see past my dyed black hair, nose ring, bright lipstick, and my inky black combat boots to find the little girl I’d once been.