After several years of reading romance novels, I’ve narrowed my preferred romance story type for reading and writing: Contemporary tales featuring ordinary people, with strengths, flaws, and pasts, who are happy on their own, but find another person who helps them grow. I’ve enjoyed other types – paranormals, millionaire, billionaire, suspense, and so on – but the realistic tales resonate more.
On the other hand, reality sucks sometimes, or at least current political events. Stories of happiness in this world are good, but sometimes I want reading time to be time away from this world. Then I turn to historical romances – Regency or Western. While I will always love Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, I’m fond of stories that show strong women defying conventions – in part because I have my doubts about the reality of those conventions. It is true that social roles were more constricted in the past, but there have always been people who act outside the roles, and probably more than we know. The same forces that limit social roles suppress stories of people who don’t follow the roles. In the less connected and documented world of the past, or on the frontier, it was sometimes easier to reinvent yourself, or otherwise be unconventional, and I believe many women took advantage of that. With our histories dominated by stories of powerful men, there’s a lot of satisfaction in reading stories of powerful women.
Which brings me to The Rock Creek Six, a series of independently published books alternately written by Lori Handeland and Linda Winstead Jones, who have been writing romances since the mid-1990s. The books were originally published four years ago, but I discovered them from a recent promotion of the first story (yes, promotion works, even on older stories).
Rock Creek Texas, in the late 1800s, is an undistinguished small town, partly abandoned thanks to raids from local bandits, and lacking men after the civil war. School teacher Mary wants a quiet home, after fleeing two other towns during the war, so she travels to Dallas and hires a gunman to save the town. Reese laughs at her offer of $150, but is attracted to her even though, or perhaps because, she reminds him of his prewar past. And his hotel bill is overdue. Mary’s first sight of Reese is him lying on his bed, shirtless. That, his general lack of propriety, and being well-spoken, calls to something in Mary. The sexually charged dialogue in their meeting (and the steamy covers) is appropriate to the heat level in this series – definitely hot, but sex scenes are well-integrated into the plots (and I will never again be able to say I am “cleaning the bathtub” with a straight face).
Reese wants to bring his friends and fellow gunmen, Sullivan, Rico, Jed, Nate and Cash. They fought together in the civil war, and continue as a loose but fiercely faithful group. The premise is common enough – the comitatus arriving to save the town goes back at least to Beowulf, and the series references The Magnificent Seven, both in promotional material and in Reese’s line about his friends: “Together, we’re downright magnificent.” The bandits, and other old west hazard tropes, are subplots to the real stories – the healing and domestication of the men.
Western plots are typically about bringing order – taming the wild people (or outlaws) just as the wilderness is tamed (and in older stories, this has all the colonialism, racism, and sexism you’d expect). The gunslinger or the comitatus come to town to restore social order, but not become part of it. (At the end of The Magnificent Seven, some are dead, some leave town, and one man stays.) In the Rock Creek Six stories, all the fighting men become part of the social order. They stick around, get jobs, fall in love, marry, and have children (not necessarily in that order). To integrate, they need to change, including overcoming past wounds. They are heroic in their actions and passions (and easy on the eyes), but need direction. A group of strong women provide it.
Sullivan, half Comanche and half Irish, is rescued from a bar fight by Eden, on her way to Rock Creek. She already rescued two children during her trip. She’s Jed’s sister, so he accompanies her for the rest of the trip, then tries to keep her out of trouble while they wait for Jed to return. Rico is smitten by Lily, who arrives in town with the deed for the saloon, big plans and a few secrets. He has secrets of his own. Jed admires the wealthy Hannah’s behaviour when the stage they are sharing is robbed. She’s coming to Rock Creek to prove her sister did not commit murder, and recruits Jed to help, but he has conflicting loyalties. Nate is an alcoholic former preacher. Jo is fond of him, and tracks him down when he disappears. He welcomes her into his bed, thinking she’s his long dead wife, easing him into the heaven he doubts exists. And Cash discovers he has a teenage son, who needs to be talked out of becoming a gun for hire.
The stories take place over at least six years, allowing glimpses of the growth of the town and earlier characters. The chronological separation of the stories keeps them relatively independent (though I had to read the whole series). The backgrounds of the heroes and heroines are sufficiently different to keep things interesting, and the sexual histories of the women vary from clueless virgin to relatively experienced (though not necessarily good experiences). All of the men are, of course, well experienced, but I was delightfully surprised to see a first encounter between a couple that was not wonderful for the woman (even if in a flashback). There are a some great bits of dialogue, lots of heartwarming scenes, erotic moments, and good pacing throughout.
I have my doubts about the realism of aspects of the stories, including the three-story hotel central to the series. Would a small town have a structure that tall? And the women have modern and liberal attitudes to everything from sex to the treatment of the Indians. But I love the happy endings, the happy families, the equality, the redemptions, and the eventual paradise on earth that Rock Creek becomes, thanks to women who take charge.