A Western Family Christmas
by Millie Criswell, Mary McBride, and Liz Ireland; historical (2001)
Harlequin Historical, $4.99, ISBN 0-373-29179-5


Yes, yes, babies and busybody old people and all the usual Harlequin/Silhouette BS are plastered all over the three stories in this anthology (someone should give the project coordinator Tracy Farrell a new brainwave and maybe a glass of Ribena), but it's not too bad. In A Western Family Christmas, I like both Millie Criswell's and Liz Ireland's novellas pretty much, while Mary McBride's novella is probably best appreciated by Martians seeking enlightenment on how stupid romance heroines can be.

Millie Criswell takes on the Scrooge angle in Christmas Eve, only this time the Scrooge is the heroine. Eve Barlow starts out an uber-bitch. She slams doors, snaps at people, and she refuses to let a cold, hungry drifter a room at her inn. At first I am quite taken aback by such behavior, but then I realize it's not her fault. She hates Christmas because the worst things in her life happens on that day. But with every townspeople invading her privacy and egging her to celebrate Christmas to the point of harassment, can I blame her for being so rude and nasty? All the woman needs is to be left alone.

Drifter Gabe isn't a drifter but a well-connected man on a quest to hunt down his cheating wife who has fled the coop with their young child. Of course, he will want to seduce Eve, while Eve will bristle, and there is also a surprise doorstep baby thing somewhere down the road. The whole thing is pretty silly, to be honest. But I like it. I like how Gabe learns that there is more to life than vengeance, and I like how he gives Eve the silence and space she needs. The ending is pretty sweet, and I actually sniffled. A little, not much, okay? Okay, okay, it's a bit more than "not much", but please don't tell anyone I sniffled over a Harlequin book, okay? I'll never live that down.

Liz Ireland's Cowboy Scrooge is also a take on the Scrooge thing. Ivy Ryan, a misunderstood and wrongly convicted ex-con, is finding ways to pull out of a mail-order bride thing she signed for when she discovers, upon arrival at her intended's hometown of Otis, that her intended Josiah is dead. Hallelujah! Wait, Josiah has three children from hell, and the entire townsfolks of Otis will not rest until Ivy take the kids with her. Ivy's stammers and protests are to no avail. Otis wants the Three Kids From Hell O-U-T. Ivy decides to seek out the kids' uncle, one Justin, who runs a merchantile at a town even more pathetic than Otis. Justin, however, is a Scrooge with no heart to love or anything. Ivy has her work cut out convincing Justin to take her and the kids in.

Yeah, yeah, this is a kids-and-love tale that the folks at Harlequin have a rather sick fetish for, but this one is sweet. Justin's thawing and learning to love again - awwww. The three kids - awwww times three. Ivy, spunky, funny Ivy - awwwww. The whole story - awwwwww, I like, I like, sniff. Really, it's awww, I tell you.

Sandwiched between these two is Mary McBride's ode to feminine stupidity, Season Of Bounty. Here's the story. Store lady Matty sees unrepentant bad boy Will Cade steal a brush. The man is stealing a brush not because he's hungry, but because he wants money to pay his way into a whore's bed. My kind of man. Eat tetanus jab, you creep. When a bounty hunter tries to arrest Will, Matty steps in and declares Will her late husband's cousin. Why is she doing this? Because she wants to ask this thief to help her run the store. Apparently no man in town can help her as well as this one, a man she witnesses shoplifting. Very well.

Then that night, Matty is so relieved when she checks her safe and realizes that Will hasn't run off with the money. This means he is a good man, right? I don't know about y'all, but I won't leave my entire savings in the presence of a man whom I've seen stealing, only to be grateful when he doesn't pilfer the money.

In fact, the whole story has Will making all kind of excuses for his jerk behavior and Matty going all soft and putty in his arms because look, he doesn't steal her blind and cheat her silly even when she doesn't do anything to prevent that. Oh Matty, you stupid woman. You're only lucky Will didn't leave you penniless and with a bun in the oven.

This novella doesn't make sense in the logic department, and at best, it is a romanticization of willing victimization of women by men - that's okay, because, awww, he has such a lousy past, et cetera. I reiterate this: Will, go swallow a tetanus jab, and Matty, go back and finish grade school, okay?

Anyway, all those ugly clichés and all can't hide the fact that I really, really like the novellas by Ms Criswell and Ms Ireland. The one in the middle stinks like rotten egg, but that's okay. Two out of three is good enough. I'm feeling like celebrating Christmas already.

Rating: 86


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