"Niall covered his ears to drown out the relentless gunfire, but it was no use. He could not hear his parents above; he could no longer hear the whimpering of his seven-year-old twin brothers. His other brother, Jamie, was with them in the small space, but he made no sound. The chamber smelled stale, common in places rarely used."
Tougher Than The Rest by Shirleen Davies is the first book in the 'MacLarens of Fire Mountain' series.
Ohio, 1866. Niall's family is attacked by raiders. His parents just manage to hide him and his brothers in a secret space beneath their barn before the attack takes place. When fifteen-year-old Niall emerges, fire and death are all that greet him. His parents dead, his home up in flames and all their belongings with it. As the oldest of the four brothers, Niall takes charge and remembers what his father said to him. If anything ever happened, find your uncle in the West.
Twelve years later and the boys have grown. Niall now has a daughter, whose mother died in childbirth. He is determined to make sure his family is well taken care of. Even if it means marrying a poisonous widow for her money and connections.
Meanwhile, Kate is travelling to Los Angeles for her new teaching job. Her father worries, especially as she's the only family he has left, but Kate's mind is made up. However, when her California-bound stage carriage loses control and crashes, Kate's plans go out the window.
Niall witnesses the crash and manages to get Kate, and the other survivors out. When it's apparent that Kate has amnesia following a bad concussion, Niall's aunt offers to take care of her until her memory returns- much to Niall's chagrin. A chance encounter with the young woman earlier in the day, was enough to send him running. He has carefully laid out plans that this attractive, young woman (who awakens within him emotions he believed long dead) threatens.
On the other hand, Kate struggles to remember anything about herself, while all the while her mind turns to the handsome stranger living under the same roof. But he already has an intended, and the wedding ring on her finger surely means she does too. Then why can she not control her heart when he's around?
As with most romance novels, the plot and characters are quite formulaic. The basic character personalities of the main leads could be out of a Jane Austen or Bronte novel. Kate is more learned than most other women are expected to be for the era, in all manner of things- including talents more common to men. Though the main difference is Kate's lack of flaws. I struggle to think if she has even one. She is too perfect, and excels at everything. It can make her a little boring and unrealistic. I don't have a problem with strong female leads, but everyone has flaws and weaknesses. There are no exceptions to that rule. It would make her a stronger lead if she had to overcome her own shortfalls.
Cast alongside our leading lady, Niall is by far the more interesting of the two. It's almost as if the author tried to balance out Kate's lack of flaws with Niall's abundance of them. As with many male romance leads, he comes of at first as abrasive and rude, but is a good man at heart. He is almost her opposite in a way. Surprisingly immature in matters of the heart, and his motivations can be hard to understand. He refuses to admit his attraction to Kate, which at first makes sense, considering everyone believes her to be someone else's wife, but is very obnoxious about it, treating her as a schoolboy might treat his first crush.
Later in the story, there is no sense in it. Why he refuses to accept his emotions is beyond me. It's not out of respect for his dead wife, as he's fine with a lover and marrying a woman just for her connections. A woman who his daughter hates and whose connections he doesn't really need.
On a small side note, I do think the title and book cover should be changed. Or maybe just the cover. I may be the only one who thought this, but when I was first approached to review this, I fully believed it was the 'Fifty Shades of Grey' kind of romance novel. I want to make it clear, in case any one else is thinking the same thing, that that is not the case. This is just your typical chick-lit. To be fair, I should've paid more attention. The man on the cover is wearing a shirt, which should've been indication enough.
The plot itself is a little slow. Almost the entire story is just one person misunderstanding and the other denying their emotions. The same excuses they tell themselves are repeated over and over again like a mantra, as though saying them enough could make them true and bring some kind of closure.
The ending, once you get to it, is predictable (as it is with most romance) and felt a little rushed. For all the build-up, there isn't a huge payoff. I think telling us a little more would've negated that, especially considering a late plot point and an event from Niall's past. It had me questioning why he wasn't more worried.
The whole thing ends with a final, quick remark setting up the plot of the sequel. Whether I'll be checking out the next book remains to be seen. The plot seems interesting enough, and the story will star my favourite brother from this book, so those factors may lead me to pick it up (once it exists).
There are also a couple characters and side plots that have little to no point in the story. A couple are never seen again, and their main purpose it to add length to the story. It can drag it a little, but not enough to make you stop reading.
Having said all that, my only real criticism is with the main leads. Other than that, the story is enjoyable enough, and even the main leads can be entertaining. You've seen this story a million times, and doubtless will see it a million more. This is the kind of romance book that isn't read for its originality. It's read for the same reason people watch romantic comedies. You don't have to think too hard, you know what's going to happen, and it makes you feel good.
I am often frustrated with the main leads of chick-lit/ flick type romances. Not for the reasons I stated above, but because they always deny the obvious, whether out of ignorance, misunderstandings or just sheer pig-headedness.
Overall, an easy read (despite it's dark beginning), that may not leave you warm and fuzzy, but will leave you joining in with the supportive cast for one last word, 'Finally!'
Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book from the author. This is not a sponsored review. All opinions are 100% my own.