It’s not every day that the “meet cute” starts with a shotgun . . . but not every heroine is Ellie-May Blackwell. Tough, strong and stubborn—not to mention fierce when she needs to be—Ellie-May brooks no nonsense and protects what’s hers, whether that’s her two children, her struggling farm or the memory of her late husband, Neal Blackwell. Neal is viewed with reverence by most of the town of Haywire, Texas, after dying a hero’s death while saving children from a burning schoolhouse. Ellie-May is not viewed nearly as kindly. The child of a notorious outlaw, she knows all too well how it feels to be treated as guilty by association.
So when Texas Ranger Matt Taggert shows up with suspicions that Neal participated in a stagecoach robbery the day before he died, well, Matt’s lucky that all he gets is a shotgun pointed in his face. He’s not welcome. His suspicions aren’t welcome. And most unwelcome of all are the doubts he plants in Ellie-May’s heart—doubts that make her question everything she thought she knew when she finds a sack full of banknotes stuffed under her front porch.
Ellie-May is a heartbreakingly relatable character. On the one hand, she desperately wants to prove wrong all the whispers and taunts that say she’s no better than her father, but on the other hand, she’s ferociously determined to protect her son and daughter from being tarred by the same brush. The children think of Neal as a hero and she’d do anything to keep from shattering that ideal. That turmoil would be enough to twist any woman into knots, even without the distraction of a certain very handsome, very appealing Texas Ranger. But then Matt goes and makes himself even more desirable by being kind to her children and genuinely compassionate about Ellie-May’s background, approaching it from a place of true understanding, since the death of their own father led Matt’s brother to spiral out of control and become an outlaw himself.
Indeed, struggles and sufferings in their past are something that all of the key characters in this story share, from Matt’s grief over his father’s loss and his brother’s downfall, to Ellie-May’s bruised spirit over the town’s scorn, to her farmhand Anvil’s past as a vagrant, to Jesse, the teenage sidekick Matt accidentally picks up (my favorite character, I must confess), whose father crawled into a bottle after losing his wife. Even Neal, Haywire’s local saint, had a painful secret in his past that kept him from ever finding peace. Margaret Brownley is not gentle with her characters, and they’re the better for it. The troubles they’ve faced have tempered them, making them wiser, stronger, kinder. More loyal. More generous. And ever more deserving of the happy endings they all find in the end.