4 star rating
\"4.5 stars\" Overall From Halter to Altar by Cathy Marie Hake - From Halter to Altar was a charming, sweet romance that was a great start to this quartet of interconnected inspirational novellas. It gives us an introduction to the four Craig sisters, each of whom will get her HEA in one of the stories. IMO, Cathy Marie Hake did a great job of setting up the overall story arc and acquainting the reader with each of the sisters and the circumstances that brought them west to the little frontier town of Lickwind. As it happens, their brother-in-law who was eager to be rid of them, misread an order for bridles and thought he could make a fortune by sending them as mail-order brides. They disembark from the train to find they're not what the hero was expecting at all, but thankfully for them, he and his brother are two of the few gentlemen in this tiny, one-horse town. Feeling responsible for them, the brothers take the four sisters to their ranch for safe-keeping until other arrangements can be made. This first novella primarily belongs to the oldest sister, Matty, and James, the man who placed the order for the bridles. Matty has a take-charge attitude without being the least bit annoying. She sees herself as responsible for her sisters and takes their situation in stride. Some might see it as life handing them lemons, but considering how poorly their brother-in-law treated them, she sees it as a potential blessing in disguise. Along with her sisters, she comes up with a plan to stay put in Lickwind and move into town, where they'll set up shop to earn their keep, while hopefully entertaining suitors and eventually finding husbands, as there seems to be no shortage of eligible men in the area. In the meantime, they take extremely good care of their hosts. It doesn't take long before Matty finds herself falling for James, but he keeps insisting that the rugged frontier is no place for genteel ladies like her and her sisters. He doesn't want them to go back to their brother-in-law any more than they do, but he still insists on sending them someplace safe as soon as it can be arranged. In the meantime, it's hilarious how he keeps fending off all the men who come calling, while stubbornly refusing to acknowledge how jealous he feels, particularly when one pays special attention to Matty. I really like how protective James is, not only of Matty, but also of her sisters. He really looks out for all of them and treats them with kindness and respect. The author does a nice job of conveying the burgeoning feelings between James and Matty and making me feel the connection there. It might have been nice if they'd had a little more alone time, but I still believed in their growing love for one another. Another thing I really liked is that Ms. Hake painted a good portrait of each of Matty's sisters. They all have their own individual personalities that shine through and make me very eager to read each of their stories. I just hope the other three authors do them justice and are equally good at weaving them all into the remaining stories. I also thoroughly enjoyed the humor this author seems so deft at creating. I was smiling and chuckling many times throughout reading it. The animals, Ramon and Rhubarb, added another humorous touch, as well as showing the character's big hearts. I very much hope they turn up again in the other stories too. One last thing I really appreciated was that the faith message was very gentle and woven appropriately into the story, so that I never felt like I was being beaten over the head with it. This is just the way I like my inspirational romances and wish they all were written this way. From Halter to Altar was my first read by Cathy Marie Hake, but it has certainly left me interested in trying more of her work at some point. From Halter to Altar was originally published in the anthology A Bride for a Bit, along with its three companion novellas and was later reprinted in a larger anthology titled The Bartered Bride Collection. Star Rating: ****1/2; Sensuality Rating: 1 From Carriage to Marriage by Janelle Burnham Schneider – Luke and Corrine were my favorite secondary characters in From Halter to Altar, the first story in this anthology, so I was really looking forward to reading about their romance. While From Carriage to Marriage was a good story, I didn't like it quite as well as the first one. In many ways, I felt like Luke and Corrie's personalities showed through a little more fully in From Halter to Altar than they did in their own story. In this one, both they and the entire story just seemed more subdued. Corrie is the only one of the Craig sisters who had been previously married. Her husband was a fisherman who was swept off his boat and drowned in a storm, leaving her pregnant and alone. She is also perceived as the most fragile of the sisters, and only came west with them because she couldn't bear to be separated from them. She's still grieving the loss of her husband, so she's not really looking at Luke in a romantic way for much of the story. Luke shares the duties of running the Rough C's ranch with his older brother, James. He's a real sweetheart who's had eyes for no one but Corrie since she stepped off the train. He wants to officially court her, but knows that she needs some space to heal from her loss. As a frontier story of a woman in Corrie's circumstances, I thought From Carriage to Marriage was well-written and worked quite well, which is why I still gave it four stars. Where I had an issue though, is that this novella is supposed to be a romance, but nothing of a romantic nature happens until 2/3 of the way into the story. This is only a seventy-five page novella to begin with, so leaving the love and romance until the last twenty-five pages didn't really work well for me. Up to that point, it's primarily about Corrie trying to find a measure of independence and a way to earn a living, believing that she'll soon be raising her baby on her own. It's also about the trials and travails of her pregnancy. During that time, we can see that Luke loves her from afar, but he keeps his feelings to himself. The two of them live in the same house and are friendly with one another, but it doesn't go much beyond that. Then they're separated for nearly a month when Corrie goes into preterm labor and must be on strict bed rest. Her sisters deem it improper for Luke to visit her room and will barely even talk to him about her condition. Even when they finally relent and allow him to see her, it's all done with the utmost propriety that doesn't allow for much beyond simple conversation. Their times together are so short and written with so little detail that it was hard to feel a satisfying and convincing connection building between them, especially on Corrie's side. All the way up until the final pages, she's still grieving over her husband and planning to leave the ranch to move into town to continue her bakery business. It's not until Luke indirectly declares his love while talking to her babies in her presence that she has a miraculous eleventh hour turnaround and decides to give him a chance. They don't ever say, “I love you” directly to one another, nor is there even a simple kiss to seal the deal. I'm totally OK with clean romances and I freely admit that maybe I've become too accustomed to historical romances in which the characters often push the boundaries of propriety a bit, but I felt like this one took the chasteness a little too far. Aside from feeling some disappointment with the development of the romantic relationship, From Carriage to Marriage was still a good story. Luke and Corrie were both very likable characters and I enjoyed seeing more of Corrie's sisters and Luke's brother, James. James and Matty are still playing the happy newlyweds. I was a little sad that the animals didn't play as much of a role in this story, and that this one wasn't as light and humorous as the first one. I'm sure that's the result of two different authors who have completely different visions and writing styles. The faith message in this one was a little more overt than in the last one, but still tolerable to me and not what I would call preachy. It was, however, a bit too magical for my taste, with the frustrating “if you pray and read your Bible enough, everything will be OK” message being used as a standard admonishment. In my personal experience this hasn't really proven true, but I could live with it since it wasn't being spouted every other page. So overall, I'd say I generally enjoyed From Carriage to Marriage, and now I'm looking forward to seeing what's in store for the other two sisters. Star Rating: ****; Sensuality Rating: 0 From Pride to Bride by JoAnn A. Grote - From Pride to Bride is the story of the third Craig sister, Bess. She and their youngest sister Bertie move into town and open a restaurant of sorts, selling food and baked goods to the men of the town. Bess also stirs things up by offering to teach the soiled doves in town how to read and write. Her efforts attract the attention of Gideon, the local saloon owner, who just can't seem to get her off his mind or out of his heart. While the title suggests that Bess was prideful, she doesn't really show it much, which was a huge blessing. Yes, she's a bit taken aback when one of the dance hall girls wants to join the church service, but she gets over it very quickly. From then on out, she's totally non-judgmental, treating the girls with kindness and respect. She extends that same attitude toward Gideon, the saloon owner who has caught her eye. Even though she admits that before moving to Lickwind, she might have thought differently about people like these, she realizes that they each have a story and shouldn't be looked down upon for simply trying to make a living. Bess is everything a Christian should be to my way of thinking, actually allowing the love of Christ to shine through her into the community and committing herself to doing good works. I love Bess's spunk and spirit. She's unfortunately earned the nickname “Bossy Bess,” and while she certainly does stand up for herself, she's never annoying. As a secondary character in the first two novellas, I wasn't quite sure if I would like her as well as her sisters, Matty and Corrie, but she's now become my favorite heroine so far. Gideon was an awesome hero too. Despite his questionable business dealings, he has a heart of gold. He's attracted to Bess from the moment she comes marching into his saloon, all but demanding he allow them to hold a church service there. He tries to brush it off, not understanding why he'd be drawn to such a seemingly prim, proper young woman, but to his own mystification, he finds himself offering to rent Bess and her sister the brand new house he'd built for himself and was very much looking forward to moving into. From there it only balloons as he builds outbuildings for their animals and looks after their needs. I love how protective Gideon is of the sisters, especially Bess, and best of all, how he stands up for Bess against most of the other men in town when they start criticizing her teaching of the soiled doves. He even treats these ladies of questionable morals with respect. Gideon may have been angry with God over the loss of his family, but God's light shining through Bess gave him a new lease on life. I absolutely loved this story, and it's my favorite so far in this anthology. From Pride to Bride is everything an inspirational romance should be IMHO. The faith message is gentle, inviting, and encouraging. I can't help thinking that if more Christians behaved like Bess, instead of being judgmental, the world would be a much more beautiful place. Another thing that often frustrates me about inspirational romances is that they're so chaste, I often can't feel the connection. Physical attraction is a normal, natural part of building a relationship, but one that is often forgotten in the inspirational genre. Not so here. In a moment of elation, Gideon picks Bess up and swings her around. Afterward, they often think about how that felt. Ms. Grote makes good use of body language and touch (although certainly nothing improper) to express this couple growing feelings for one another. The only thing I found slightly disappointing was the lack of a kiss at the end. Since the author didn't seem to shy away from the physical aspect of a relationship, I'm not sure why she left this out. It's the only thing that could have made the story ever so slightly better. Well, that and if it were a bit longer.:-) Otherwise, From Pride to Bride was perfect for me in every way. It was my first read by JoAnn Grote, but it definitely won't be my last. If only more inspirational romances were written like this, I'd definitely be reading more of the genre. Star Rating: *****; Sensuality Rating: 0.5 From Alarming to Charming by Pamela Kaye Tracy - From Alarming to Charming is the fourth and final novella in this anthology. It tells the story of Bertie, the youngest Craig sister, who becomes interested in Thomas, a guy who seems to be a newcomer to town but who she quickly learns has a past in the area. Soon that past comes back to haunt him, as someone in town makes it clear that they don't want him there by destroying his property, while an anonymous benefactor makes deposits to his bank account, leaving him with two mysteries to solve. Bertie hates being the youngest in the family, because she feels like her sisters have always treated her differently. Where her sisters behaved like proper ladies, Bertie has always been a tomboy. She'd much prefer to be out riding horses and building things than inside baking and sewing. When Thomas comes to town and catches Bertie's eye, she realizes she needs to start being more ladylike if she has any hope of attracting his attention. Bertie does a lot of growing up in this story. She goes from still seeming like a carefree teenage girl to a more refined young lady, but she doesn't lose her sense of adventure in the process. I also liked that much like Bess, she's a woman who isn't afraid to stand up for what's right, defending her decision to allow a Chinese girl, the daughter of Thomas' servant, to attend school after she takes over teaching duties from Bess. Unfortunately, she still had to bow to the town's wishes, but she generously continued to teach the girl by tutoring her on weekends. Thomas left Lickwind years ago under the dark cloud of his father being accused of cattle rustling. He didn't expect the town to welcome him back with open arms when he returned, but mysterious things, both good and bad, start happening that make him wonder what's going on. On top of that he can't seem to stop thinking about the little tomboy who turned into a pretty lady. Thomas doesn't really have any designs on marriage. He just wants to get his new ranch up and running properly, but Bertie starts to change his mind on the idea of having a woman around. From Alarming to Charming got off to a really good start, drawing me in almost immediately. It had a somewhat lighthearted quality to it, like a couple of the other stories in the series, but also a touch of mystery surrounding the things that are happening to Thomas. I liked the early progression of Thomas and Bertie's relationship. It seemed natural, as they spend some time around each other and begin to think of one another often. I also liked that Ms. Tracy gives the reader a slight touch of physical attraction between them. The issue I had, though, with the romance is that things are just beginning to get interesting between Thomas and Bertie, when the story veers back to the mystery plot. After that nothing more happens on the romance front except the author telling that they did indeed get married – no touching, no kissing, no nothing. This was kind of disappointing and pretty much the same issue I had with the second novella, too much outside plot and not enough romance, especially for such a short story. Otherwise, From Alarming to Charming was still an enjoyable read, when taken as a frontier story. The writing was solid and it was a fairly entertaining read. The faith message was pretty much on par with the second novella as well, a bit more overt than the other two, but still not what I would call preachy. Overall, I liked both the characters and the story, so I would count it as a pretty good novella. This was my first read by Pamela Kaye Tracy, but it has left me open to trying more of her work. Star Rating: ****; Sensuality Rating: 0 Review provided by The Hope Chest Reviews (http://www.thcreviews.com)
Violence-None that I recall.
Sexual- First story contains a chaste kiss. The third story contains a bit of physical attraction and a couple of innocent touches. The other two have nothing at all.
Drug & Alcohol - The hero of the third story is the owner of the local saloon. The town doctor is also revealed to be the town drunk, but no actual drinking takes place that I can recall.