Don’t torture yourself by reading this dreck. Let me do it for you.
Samantha and the Cowboy, Lorraine Heath, 2002.
As if the title didn’t already tell you exactly how awful it was going to be, the cover gives you another hint. Samantha is wearing a purple party dress that bears zero resemblance to anything anyone would have worn in 1866, and is sporting a frizzy red mullet-esque hairstyle, while the titular Cowboy is wear a pristine white shirt, Wranglers, and is staring at her chest. Also, the price sticker on my copy says it cost seventy-six cents, which is probably about the correct price point for this piece of trash.
Anyway, if you’ve ever read any sort of “woman disguises herself for a good cause and falls in love with an unknowing man along the way” fiction, you know exactly what the plot of this story is and you don’t need to read this book. But we will.
Texas, 1866. Samantha Reynolds is a sixteen-year-old girl from a poor family who’s just spotted a sign wanting boys fourteen and older to herd cattle to Missouri for $100. Her older brother Benjamin has just returned from the war missing an arm, so he can’t go, and Samantha has two younger siblings who aren’t old enough anyway. Her father died three years ago, and ever since her family has been in particularly dire straits. Benjamin is too depressed over the loss of his arm to be interested in driving cattle everywhere, even after Samantha presses him to do it, which is kind of a jerk move.
That night Samantha waits until her sister is asleep, then gets up and cuts off all her hair in a scene that reads like it was inspired by the scene in Mulan where again, she cuts off all her hair by candlelight. She steals her brother’s clothes and goes to see the boss who’s recruiting cattle hands, and sees a really good-looking guy and gets all flustered. She gets turned down because she has no experience herding cattle, and the boss is like “I can tell you’re lying to me, idiot,” and she is BAFFLED by this. But the sexy guy spots her and tells her to come on anyway, after she tells him that she needs the money badly and she’s a fast learner. This should have been the first red flag, but whatever.
The guy, whose names is Matt Hart (get it? Get it? Hart? Heart? IT’S A ROMANCE NOVEL DO YOU GET IT YET?) has some pretty bad PTSD from the war and has vowed never to get close to anyone ever again, because it just ends up hurting. Hands up if you can see where this is going.
Samantha’s mother yells at her a little bit, but ultimately seems to be not particularly affected by this, which is really bizarre. I’m not sure if they were going for a sort of “her mom is incapable and weak a la Katniss’s mom in The Hunger Games”, or it’s more of a “really really really needs the cash and doesn’t really mind,” which sounds even worse when you realize you’re talking about her sixteen-year-old daughter going on a drive with about twenty rough men.
Meanwhile, Jake, the actual boss of the outfit, is yelling at Matt because he went and hired somebody without his say-so, which is a very legitimate thing to complain about if you ask me. This is where we learn that Matt’s dad owns all the cattle, which Matt uses as a trump card, which is again, crappy behaviour. So Jake tells Matt that he’s going to be in charge of the kid for the entire drive as punishment—again, far.
Sam, as she is now known, turns up to the camp, and sees Sexy Matt again and feels terrible for lying to them all already. She has to ride behind the cattle with Matt while she’s learning the ropes and contemplating how gorgeous he is, and Matt grumps about how pissed off he is that he has to look after her. I feel no sympathy for him as this is entirely his fault.
We’ll stop for a brief interlude here where Matt says “get these little doggies moving again,” and I want to interject that it’s supposed to be “dogies,” as in “get along, little dogies,” and a dogie is a motherless calf, not a general term for all cattle.
Anyway, Jake comes over to Sam and asks her to tie a knot, and then tells Matt to teach her some more knots while she sits there fascinated by his beautiful hands with callouses. There are a lot of messed-up similes in this book, but let’s highlight this one “He smiled then, a smile that reached up to touch his blue eyes and made them sparkle like jewels hanging from a necklace.” That’s a weird sentence.
Matt goes back and forth between wanting to protect this “delicate” boy and refusing to get close to any human being. Sam spends all day, every day, daydreaming about how gorgeous Matt is. One evening they come to a river for the evening, and go off to “relax” in the river, but Sam has no idea what’s going on and is totally blindsided when all the other men start stripping down for a little skinny-dipping in the river. She turns tail and runs, and then Matt tracks her down and there’s a little “clever” wordplay where he’s like “I know your secret! It’s so obvious!” and she’s like “You do?” and it turns out he thinks she doesn’t know how to swim. Sam is like yeah, totally, fear of the water, sure, whatever. Then Sam goes on for a bit about his thighs looking “chiseled from stone, although stone not as dark as the rock used for his chest,” which is a bit rich, but whatever.
Question not otherwise answered or discussed in this book: how does Sam relieve herself without revealing herself?
Jake orders the two of them to sleep next to each other to…I don’t know, learn something. Matt complains a lot about this, and says “Out of the kindness of his heart, he’d offered the kid a place on the drive…and Jake was bound and determined to make him regret his actions.” Dude, you’re not the boss. This is like me complaining that I hired someone at work and my boss was like “Fine, but you have to train them” and then going “GOD, this is SO MUCH WORK, WHY am I being punished for being a GOOD PERSON?” Matt takes it out on Sam by being a brusque asshole and Sam is, understandably, confused and upset. They have to get up in the middle of the night to take a watch of the cattle, and for someone who claims to not want to get close to anyone, Matt is pretty fast about telling Sam all about his life and times and experiences during the war and family strife and stuff. He’s terrible at this.
Every night the hands play cards and socialize and stuff and eventually they send Sam snipe-hunting, which is of course a time-honoured hazing ritual. When Matt finds out about this he fuh-REAKS right out and goes chasing after Sam, panicking, and finds her and accuses her of being gullible and just wanting to be liked. Uh, does he do this with every new person? Because it’s not a crime to be gullible, and wanting to be liked is fairly normal after you, Matt, have spent every waking moment either telling her that you don’t want to be friends OR telling her your entire life story. Chill, bro.
A few days later Matt notices that Sam has no whiskers or any reason to shave at all, as they’re preparing to get ready to go to a barn dance. Sam is miserable with all the young ladies dancing attention on him and is incredibly jealous of all of them for wearing normal girls’ clothes and dancing with Matt and stuff. Matt (again) tells Sam all about how awesome girls are and how he should definitely go kiss some, and there’s another incredibly stilted sentence of “Girls are soft and they smell so good.” Are you five?
Anyway, in a few days more they come to the Red River, and I had to research a little bit because the Red River here in Canada where I live is an enormous river in Manitoba, but the Red River discussed here is a big river at the northern end of Texas. Interestingly, early settlers found that a part of the river was unnavigable due to a log jam 160 miles long that wasn’t fully cleared until after they invented DYNAMITE. That’s a lot of trees. Matt is worried about Sam for not knowing how to swim, but Sam is like “No, I’ll be good!” and then, surprisingly, is NOT good and is swept off her horse by a passing cow. Matt rescues her and drags her to the bank, and there’s a really unintentionally funny line where it says “He wasn’t going to lose Sam the way he’d lost so many friends during the war.” I know it’s intended to mean just losing friends in general, but it makes it sound like he lost many friends to drowning during cattle drives during the war. Anyway, he lays her down to look at her ribs and discovers that Sam is not a boy at all, but a girl!
Matt gets really really really angry at her for lying all this time, and all the cowboys on the other side of the river are going “Do you guys need help?” and he’s like no, just pacing here for the hell of it! All good, thanks! Sam starts to shiver and is in shock, so Matt builds a fire and then takes off his shirt, but not her clothes, to “warm up.” This is stupid, because while body heat is indeed a great way to warm someone up, it doesn’t work if the person in question is still wearing wet, cold clothes, dumbass. (This classic scene in an adult romance novel would have been more, uh, involved, let’s say.) Matt tells her after quite a bit of fighting that he won’t tell her secret, but only because there’s nowhere for her to go right that second, and she should stay the hell away from him forever and ever, amen.
That doesn’t last very long, though, because Matt keeps going on about how Sam needs to cut her hair and button her jacket better and all that other business, and Sam says that she hasn’t been lying about anything besides whether or not she’s a girl, and Matt says “As far as I’m concerned it is [a lie.]” Which is kind of a jerky way to look at it. Then he goes back on his word again and sleeps beside her, like he’s done every night, and they talk about their lives and their struggles and Matt contemplates kissing her, but doesn’t.
The next morning there’s a small prairie fire, and Matt goes to help the others put it out, and Sam goes as well even after Matt tells her not to, then complains at her for not following his orders. Jake and the others are like hey, Sam did a good job, chill out, but that evening Matt keeps sniping at her again. And then while they’re out on watch together, he kisses her, and then says that she can’t stay because he can’t stop thinking about her. Dude, that’s terrible. If anyone should go home YOU should as you are clearly incapable of controlling yourself, Matt, you douchelord.
A few days later as they’re nearing the end of the trail, Jake tells Matt to ride up ahead and check out the next river crossing and stay the night there, and to take Sam with him so she can learn what to do. They ride up together and Matt strips down to get across the river, and when Sam says she understands, Matt says “Do you? Do you realize that I wouldn’t have this problem if you were a boy?” That is….just what she just said, I’m pretty sure, Matt, are you stupid? [yes] Later on she takes a dip in the river herself, using her “special soap,” though it’s never explained why she brought her “special soap” on a cattle drive in the first place. Again, this entire segment reads like it was lifted and trimmed from a much different adult romance novel. They do some kissing, and Matt refers to love as “Cupid’s cramps,” which is so stupid I don’t even want to get into it. Matt also says “Why do you have to say and do things that make me like you? Why can’t you throw a hissy fit so I’ll be glad to get rid of you?” This all sounds like an exciting precursor to abuse, but whatever!
Matt says he won’t tell her secret until they reach Sedalia, and then they kiss which is also described really grossly. “Slowly he skimmed his tongue along the outer edge before circling back to create a figure eight like he’d seen a trick roper do once.” Ew.
After they return to camp, there’s a thunderstorm a few nights later that causes a stampede! Jake yells for everyone to help out, and Matt goes “No! Sam’s a girl!” You fool! They send Sam to the chuck wagon to stay for the duration, and Matt goes off into the stampede defending himself against him….self, I suppose, saying that Sam’s not experienced enough, and then his horse plunges over a cliff. As much as I fervently wished this was the end of Matt, it is not. Sam’s idiotic sense of honour and love for Matt sends her off to look for him after everyone else returns and he doesn’t, and no one else seems to be particularly bothered that Matt didn’t turn back. Good team effort.
Anyway, Matt has a big old injury to his leg thank to a cow horn, and he tries to sort of vaguely make himself a tourniquet, and then Sam shows up to rescue his sorry ass. Sam stitches up his wound, and then tends to him when the inevitably fever sets in and they kiss a bit more. Jake yells at Matt a bit more and tells him that Sam has to leave at the next town, and he can’t give Sam special treatment. But it turns out they’ll need every hand available, and Matt says he won’t go on if Sam isn’t allowed to stay with them. Then the rest of the team says they won’t stay either, and Jake is baffled by this turn of events.
Then we skip right to the end, so clearly everything worked out and Sam got her hundred bucks, enough to pay down her family’s debt and buy some presents for everyone at home. She goes to a dance that night, and Matt meets her there, much to her surprise, and brings the rest of the cowboys for Sam’s friend to dance with. Sam finds out that the herd belonged to Matt all along and he has some bucks, and we can assume they live together happily ever after.
Rating: D. Ugh, this is terrible. For starters, it’s not even original, I’m pretty sure this exact plot has been played out many many times in better-written novels, and more explicitly in adult Harlequin novels, and it’s fairly poorly-written on top of it. Matt comes across completely horribly, as well, and Sam is sort of naïve, but not too stupid, at least. The other characters might as well have come straight out of Central Casting, and the completely threadbare story is not helped by the addition of some threadbare characters. Ugh. Terrible. Terrible, terrible, terrible. But I won’t fail it for not being actively offensive, which is pretty cold comfort.