Harper's Bride

Harper's Bride - Alexis Harrington I picked this up for a song from Smashwords after seeing it on the Smart Bitches blog and I'm glad I did. It was a charming western historical romance with two damaged souls I couldn't help but root for.After a grueling trip through the cold to reach the Yukon, giving birth in a tent along the way, Melissa Logan is almost speechless at the latest affront to her dignity. To settle a large debt with a store, her husband offers his wife and child as payment to the owner, Dylan Harper. Although she wouldn't mind escaping her drunken, lazy and abusive husband, she can't be certain the shopkeeper isn't worse. He's considered a dangerous man no one in Dawson would cross, lest he make use of the knife he wears on his belt, or the cleaver he keeps behind his counter. She's not only concerned for her safety, but also that of her infant daughter, Jenny.Dylan doesn't want a wife, he wants his money. He's in the Yukon to make enough money to return to Oregon and raise horses, a goal he's mere months from accomplishing, and an instant family would offer complications. All the same, he can plainly see the man is a wastrel and his wife a bruised and battered hulk. As much as he neither needs nor wants them around, he worries she'd eventually find herself worse off, perhaps sold to a violent man, and ultimately agrees to the bargain. With his lawyer friend Rafe presiding, Melissa Logan becomes Melissa Harper in a pseudo-legal ceremony in a saloon.Walking her back to the room they'll share he outlines the specifics of their bargain - she'll do the chores and cooking, he won't expect his marital rights in bed, and when he leaves to go back home he'll settle money on her and send her on her way.At first, Melissa's terrified of the man. She may not have liked her husband, but he was the devil she knew. Though Dylan swore he wouldn't touch her, her panic at having to share a bed with him prompts her to drag a 75lb bag of rice onto the bed to separate herself from him. Her deeply ingrained fear of getting hit keeps her from meeting his eyes or standing too near him. She doesn't drop this fear suddenly after noticing how handsome he is, or any of the usual marriage of convenience nonsense, it takes time and Dylan's constant efforts to help her conquer her fear.As much as Dylan enjoys how her labors have made his home comfortably domestic, he dislikes frightening her. He's not an angry man or a drinker. The only people that need to fear anything from him are those who'd cheat him or accuse him of being a cheat. He sets out to help Melissa get comfortable with standing on her own two feet.The romance is therefore a slow growing one. When the "marriage" starts, Melissa is filthy and beat up - not exactly the most enticing picture of womanhood - and Dylan feels pity rather than desire for her. Melissa's freaking terrified. So there's no quivering, burning or otherwise -ing lust getting resisted from the beginning. Both have character arcs that span the book, and both need to grow before any kind of attraction can form. All the little ways she shows them growing and changing as people - Melissa setting up her laundry business, Dylan lugging the rocking chair and cradle up the stairs to surprise Melissa, her surreptitiously watching him shave, him cooing to the baby when he thinks no one sees him - endeared the characters to me. Melissa isn't fixed by Dylan's love, she picks herself up and sets herself straight. She's no pitiable creature, she's determined to work hard to make sure she and her daughter never hit rock bottom again. Dylan slowly works his way free of the memory of the woman who betrayed him to accept what grows between him and Melissa.The slow-burning romance and deep character growth contributes to my biggest complaint with the book, though. Because the two work so hard for this, and change so much, the ending felt rushed. I needed more resolution, more closure, after all of the angst they worked through. It wasn't enough to close out the resolution in a single bit of dialog only a page and a half long. I'm not usually one for epilogues, but this book could have used one.Books like this make me wish they still published western historicals. I love the themes so much - the self-made man, the self-reliant woman, forging order out of chaos - and it's such a welcome break from the steady march of the ton, Almack's and simpering virgins.