After accidentally killing a man, Bailee Moore was sent west on a wagon train by her father who no longer wants to have anything to do with her. She'd managed the hard trek by herself until she met and befriended two other women - one ill after losing her husband and baby to a fever and the other accused of being a witch - who are equally alone as she is. When the wagon master throws them all off the train as unfit for polite company, all seems to be lost, but Bailee is a fighter who isn't about to give up. Turning her wagon south, she's determined to find a settlement in Texas before their meager supplies run out, but when they've nearly reached their destination, the women are accosted by a rough-looking man who tries to take both their wagon and one of Bailee's friends. Bailee fights back and believing she's killed yet another man, she and her friends immediately turn themselves in to the sheriff when they get to Cedar Point. The sheriff isn't sure he believes their story and isn't able to find a body, but with the women having confessed, he has to pronounce some kind of punishment. With the shortage of women in town, he concocts a scheme to turn the women into wives for the three lucky local men who win his "Wife Lottery." Bailee agrees, but when the man whose name she chooses doesn't even speak to her, she wonders if this is going to work after all.
Carter McKoy's parents were murdered when he was a small child and he was found by the sheriff with their bodies. He was taken in by the preacher and his wife, but they never treated him very kindly. So when Carter was old enough he went back to his family's farm and has lived there alone ever since. He isn't sure what possessed him to put his name in the hat for the "Wife Lottery," but when he wins Bailee - his favorite of the trio of women - he thinks he might have won the jackpot. However, he isn't quite sure what to say to her or what to do with her now that he has her. As they slowly navigate their way toward a better understanding of one another, it comes to light that the man Bailee supposedly killed may still be alive and out to get her. Then Carter is asked to use his rare skills to communicate with a little girl who was the sole survivor of a train wreck that was caused by robbers who might come back to finish the job by killing the only remaining witness. Soon all their lives are in danger, but Carter is determined not to let anything happen to the woman he's come to love with all his heart.
The Texan's Wager is my first read by the rather prolific Jodi Thomas and the first in her Wife Lottery series. It's the story of a young woman named Bailee who, after she causes an accidental death, is sent west alone on a wagon train by her father, the only family she has left. When she befriends and throws in her lot with two other young women, one who lost her husband and baby to a fever and is now sick herself and another who is deemed a witch, they're all three abandoned on the trail by the wagon master. Determined not to die, she turns her wagon south toward Texas in hopes of finding a town before they run out of food. When they encounter a man before reaching safety who tries to take their wagon and one of the women, Bailee isn't having it, so she coshes him over the head with a board. Thinking she's killed yet another man, she immediately turns herself in at the sheriff's office when they finally find the nearest town. The sheriff isn't certain he believe the women's tale, but he temporarily keeps them in jail while investigating their claims. He fails to turn up a body, but with the women's confession, he has to do something. With so few women in the area and with no love lost toward the man who was allegedly killed, he knows no man in town would convict the ladies at trial, so instead he assesses a fine against them, which they have no money to pay and then holds a lottery. Any man who can pay one of the women's fines is welcome to place their names in a hat for the chance to win a wife. And needless to say, most of the single men in town show up for the lottery. Thus begins Bailee's journey to finding true love with the man whose name she draws, a journey that's fraught with challenges and danger.
Bailee grew up in genteel comfort in Missouri, but after accidentally killing a man, her father washes his hands of her and sends her west alone. She knows how to care for a home and do wifely things, but life on the trail is a challenge. Still, she keeps her head up and defends her friends, Sarah and Lacy, even though it first means being stranded on the trail and later having the "death" of another man on her conscience. But because her conscience aches, she's willing to accept the sheriff's decision. When she first meets Carter, she wonders if she's married a mute, but she doesn't get frustrated with his quietness. Instead, she patiently bides her time until he chooses to talk and then they gradually get to know one another better. I have to give her props for being loyal to him from the start even though he was nothing but a stranger, and he eventually proves himself worthy of her trust. I like that Bailee is a no-nonsense woman who isn't afraid to speak her mind, but at the same time, she's kind and considerate of others. She observes Carter's behavior, even when he isn't talking to her, and takes the time to draw reasoned conclusions. That's why when she questions his integrity late in the story, I wasn't sure where her doubts were coming from. I know she'd only know him for a couple of weeks at that point, but he'd given her no reason to think badly of him. It also didn't seem to serve a strong purpose in the plot either. But otherwise, Bailee was a great heroine who always looked out for the well-being of others. She was fairly quick to start falling for her new husband and had a willingness to stand by his side through the difficulties they faced.
Carter is a man of few words who's used to being alone. He was found next to the bodies of his murdered parents when he was only five years old and was taken in by the local minister and his wife. The couple weren't particularly kind to him, so as soon as he was old enough, he went back to the farm where he grew up and has lived by himself ever since. A fear of history repeating itself made him rig a security system, as well as dig tunnels beneath his house, where his rooms are hidden. When he hears of the wife lottery, he impulsively puts his name in the hat, never expecting to win, so when he does, he isn't quite sure what to do with Bailee. He's not used to talking with anyone unless absolutely necessary, so it takes him a while to say anything. But they gradually discover that they mesh well together and that he likes having her around. So when rumors start flying that the man Bailee thought she'd killed is hunting her and the other women down with the intent to kill, Carter knows he'll do whatever he has to do to protect her. Carter is a sweet man, and despite being one who isn't particularly verbal, I did like him. He tends to show he cares through his actions, and especially when he risks his life for her, his feelings are loud and clear. He's also one of the most innocent heroes I've read, one of those rare virgin heroes who doesn't even recognize a brothel when he's inside one, which was cute. He has an instinctive sense of what it means to bed a woman, but I like that he takes his time getting there and enjoys kissing, touching, and bringing Bailee pleasure.
The Texan's Wager has a number of great secondary characters. Bailee's two friends, Sarah and Lacy, are put through the wife lottery as well. Sarah is sick in both body and spirit after losing her husband and baby on the trail, so she doesn't really play a part beyond the opening chapters. It's simply said that her new husband took her to Dallas for medical treatment, but she does become the heroine of the next book of the series, When a Texan Gambles, which I assume will tell all about what happened to her after she left the jail. Lacy is only fifteen, so she has a little growing up to do. However, she was married by proxy to a man who's away fighting in the military. The story of what happens when her husband finally returns home is told in the third book, A Texan's Luck. The final book, A Texan's Reward, tells the story of Nellie Jean, another teenage girl who is living in a brothel, and Jacob, a Texas Ranger who helps Carter track down the villain. Jacob seems like an honorable man who mentions that he wants to marry Nellie Jean when she's full-grown. Then there's a broad assortment of townspeople from both Cedar Point, nearest to where Carter lives, and Childress, the next town over, which include two sheriffs, a bunch of prostitutes who double as makeshift doctors, and Lacy's father-in-law, who owns the town newspaper and put his son's name in the hat, along with shop owners and ne'er-do-wells aplenty. Then there's a little girl who was the sole survivor of a train accident and robbery who Carter is persuaded to help and a large Gypsy family who in turn help the girl and Bailee when they're nearly killed by gunmen.
Overall, The Texan's Wager was a good read, but it wasn't quite perfect. For a while, I thought it might end up being a five-star, but by the time I got to the end, I felt like a few things were missing. There were certain things I wanted to know more about that simply weren't revealed. For example, I thought that perhaps Carter and Bailee might eventually have a heart-to-heart talk about their respective pasts, but they never did. Therefore I didn't get a strong sense of how their pasts affected their present. I also thought that Bailee might reveal more about what had actually happened when she'd killed the man in the event that brought her west in the first place, but nothing is mentioned beyond her trying to foil a robbery which led to her somehow accidentally killing him. Then there was Bailee's questioning of Carter's integrity, which clearly hurt him. She does apologize, but there's little time for them to talk about it in the moment and they never discussed it again. Finally, while I do give the author credit for expressing some good sexual tension between Carter and Bailee even though both are still virgins, they only get one very brief love scene at the very end that is more euphemistically rendered rather than explicitly detailed. Although I had heard this author writes more on the sweeter side and kind of expected as much, it was still a tad disappointing given the build-up. In general, I felt like the romance got a bit lost in the over-abundance of sub-plots, while IMHO, the above points should have been better developed but instead languished as well. However, I admit that the story did keeps me pretty entertained with some action interspersed with a sweet, tender romance that makes me look forward to trying more of Jodi Thomas's work.
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