Adventure writer, Jonathan Forrester, bought half of an Arizona sheep ranch from an old codger who lost to him in a game of poker. His new partner, Merrill Fox is none too happy to hear that her uncle sold out to a wealthy Easterner who is inexperienced in sheep ranching, and not so subtly sets about trying to scare Jonathan away. The only problem is, Jonathan doesn't scare easily, and is eagerly looking forward to experiencing a new adventure for his next book. He is rather shocked to discover that his new partner is a female, but underneath the shapeless men's clothes and abrasive attitude, he also finds a desirable woman. Merrill is surprised to find herself attracted to Jonathan too, and after some thought, she realizes that she would dearly love to have a child to pass her ranch on to when the time comes. But Merrill has long been a spinster, not to mention illiterate, and doesn't think herself pretty or smart enough to tempt any man into marriage, much less one as handsome and intelligent as Jonathan. Luckily for Merrill, Jonathan sees things much differently, and with the help of his young niece sets about to make all of Merrill's wishes come true in time for Christmas.
The Fourth Gift had a highly unusual gender bending storyline. Merrill, the heroine, had lost her mother at a very young age and had been raised by her father and uncle with no real female presence in her life, so she is basically a really feisty tomboy who doesn't know how to be feminine. She wears men's clothes, is small but well-muscled, and runs the sheep ranch her father left her as well, if not better, than any man could. Merrill is also highly intelligent with a photographic memory which is something I could appreciate. She learned four foreign languages just by being around people who spoke them, could do large figures in her head, and never forgot anything she learned, but still she is, much to her embarrassment, illiterate.
Jonathan, the hero, is the antithesis of Merrill. He was city born and bred, but has been living the life of a wealthy adventurer-seeking writer which is what leads him to purchase half of Merrill's ranch from her uncle. Jonathan is a completely laid-back beta hero who ends up temporarily taking care of the domestic duties of the ranch after the housekeeper leaves in a huff, and since he had never run a sheep ranch before, he defers to Merrill when it comes to business.
I had rather mixed feelings about this type of gender role reversal in a historical romance. I admit that it held a certain interest merely because of its uniqueness, but overall, I think I'm more of a traditionalist when it come to romantic relationships especially in a historical novel. There also wasn't enough sexual tension or emotional connection to suit me. A large part of the story is told from Merrill's point of view, in a very matter-of-fact kind of way, which fit the character, but didn't really foster the deep romance that I prefer. Also since there were so few scenes from Jonathan's perspective, I didn't feel like I got to know him as well as I would have liked. Most of the time I enjoy child characters, but when Jonathan's eleven-year-old niece came to live with them, I found her to be a bit too precocious and perky for my taste. She talked and acted more like a teenager in my opinion, and I was rather skeptical of a child that age being able to travel from New York to Arizona by herself without mishap.
Overall, The Fourth Gift wasn't a bad story, but it wasn't entirely to my liking from a personal preference standpoint. It was my first read by Elizabeth Chadwick, but I may be open to trying something else by her in the future. Readers should note that this Elizabeth Chadwick should not be confused with the popular historical fiction writer of the same name. In this case, Elizabeth Chadwick is used as a pseudonym by author Nancy Herndon. The Fourth Gift can be found in the anthology, A Wilderness Christmas.
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