Widow, Honey Farrell, is struggling to raise her two boys and keep her ranch afloat after several head of cattle were rustled from her. Even before her Texas Ranger husband died in the line of duty one year ago, he was rarely home to help, leaving Honey with the bulk of the ranching and parenting responsibilities. She has vowed never to fall in love with or marry another man who courts danger the way her late husband did. This time she thinks she wants someone who's safe and reliable, but the man who just proposed to her simply doesn't stir her heart and passion the way a husband should, while her sexy new ranch hand makes her feels things she shouldn't.
Jesse Whitelaw is a Texas Ranger working undercover to infiltrate a cattle rustling ring. Working as a ranch hand for Honey is the perfect cover, not to mention, she owns a champion steer he intends to "steal" in order to gain an introduction to the top man in the operation. With the help of a mutual friend, Jesse manages to convince Honey that she needs an extra pair of hands around the ranch and he's just the man for the job. It doesn't take long for Jesse to fall for the pretty widow. He begins to feel very protective of her and her boys, and wants nothing more than to be a part of their lives long after his assignment has ended. But will Honey be able to forgive him when she learns the truth about why he's really there, and more importantly, will she be able to live with his chosen profession?
For a short novel, Honey and the Hired Hand was a surprisingly enjoyable read that kept me very emotionally engaged. Joan Johnston seems to have a talent for expressing a great deal using an economy of words. The pace moves along very quickly yet the story never felt rushed. Even though it takes place over the course of only a few weeks, there is an intimacy to Jesse and Honey's relationship that makes it seem like they've known each other forever. The sexual tension is deliciously taut right from the start, but I could sense more passing between then than mere lust. The love scenes are very sensual in spite of not being overly long and only moderately descriptive. Overall, Ms. Johnston did a great job with taking me through the emotional ups and downs of this couple's relationship and convincing me that they were absolutely perfect for one another.
Jesse is one sexy, alpha cowboy. He is also a Texas Ranger working undercover to break up a ring of cattle rustlers. Jesse exhibits a self-confidence and a sort of lazy arrogance that can be very charming in a cowboy hero. When his alpha-ness comes out, he can be just a little caveman-ish which would normally bother me, but here the author deftly expresses that side of him with a certain tenderness and lightheartedness that made him very appealing. I really liked that Jesse was a gentleman and expected Honey's oldest son to treat her with gentlemanly respect too. He is also very good with her boys and with getting them to warm up to him. All in all, Jesse was a wonderful hero who absolutely oozed sex appeal, and it certainly didn't hurt that he was part Native American too.;-)
Honey was a woman whose heart had been broken when her husband died in the line of duty. She swore she would never fall in love with or marry another man who was a Ranger or who courts danger like he did. Even when her husband was alive she didn't exactly have it easy. Because he was frequently away on assignments, she had to shoulder the burden of running the ranch all by herself. Now she just wants a dependable guy, but quickly discovers that dependable is also rather boring. I could sense right from the beginning how Jesse completely disarms Honey. She doesn't want to be attracted to him, but can't help being drawn to him like a magnet. Even before she finds out about Jesse being a Texas Ranger, she senses danger lurking around him. She is frightened by how strong her feelings are for him, and tries to break things off with him more than once so that she won't get hurt again, but soon realizes that her life would be empty without him around.
With the limited length of the story, there isn't a lot of room for secondary characters, but there were still a couple of stand-outs. Honey's oldest son, Jack, is very protective of his mother and not too keen on her having relationships with guys who he views as vying to replace the dad he lost. He manages to get himself into some trouble, but his heart was in the right place. The book opens with Honey dating Adam, a doctor and ranch owner who has just proposed, but deep down she knows she doesn't love him and he deserves better. Unfortunately, she breaks his heart, but Jesse's little sister gets to help him pick up the pieces in the next book of the series, The Rancher and the Runaway Bride. Jesse and Honey also share a couple of mutual friends, Dallas, another Texas Ranger, and his wife, Angel. From the moment they popped up in the story, I had the feeling I was supposed to know them from somewhere, and after doing a bit of research, discovered that they had appeared as the hero and heroine of a previous book, A Little Time in Texas. I was a bit surprised that their book wasn't mentioned anywhere as being part of the Hawk's Way series or even a prequel or sorts, but I guess it wouldn't be necessary to read it first. I'll definitely be interested in checking it out sometime though.
Honey and the Hired Hand was my first read by Joan Johnston and also the first volume in the Hawk's Way series, named after the Whitelaw family's ranch. It was originally published as a Silhouette Desire title. It was later reprinted along with two other books from the series as part of the anthology, Hawk's Way Rogues, and again as a single-volume HQN special release. Overall, Honey and the Hired Hand was an excellent introduction to both Ms. Johnston's work and the Hawk's Way series. I'll definitely be looking forward to reading more from this author.
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