Title: The Heart of Texas
Author: RJ Scott
Publisher: Love Lane Books
Buy Link: Amazon.com (Second Edition)
Genre: M/M Contemporary Western
Length: Novel (approx 85000 words/405 pdf pages)
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
A Guest Review by Cole
Review Summary: A sprawling soap opera encompassing 20+ years of the family machinations of the Campbells’ and the Hayes’, which has seemed to garner passionate responses among readers in both directions.
**This review contains spoilers**
Riley Hayes, the playboy of the Hayes family, is a young man who seems to have it all: money, a career he loves, and his pick of beautiful women. His father, CEO of HayesOil, passes control of the corporation to his two sons; but a stipulation is attached to Riley’s portion. Concerned about Riley’s lack of maturity, his father requires that Riley marry and stay married for one year to someone he loves. Angered by the requirement, Riley seeks a means of vengeance on his family: blackmailing Jack Campbell into marrying him “for love” suits Riley’s purpose. There is no mention in his father’s documents that the marriage had to be with a woman. And Jack Campbell is the son of Riley Senior’s arch rival.
Riley marries Jack. Abruptly, his entire world is turned inside out. Riley hadn’t counted on the fact that Jack Campbell, quiet and unassuming rancher, is a force of nature in his own right. This is a story of the struggle for power, murder and deceit, lust and love, the sprawling life of a rancher and the whirlwind existence of a playboy. But under and through it all, as Riley learns over the months, this is a tale about family and everything that that word means.
The Heart of Texas is the tale of two families: their sordid history, professionally and personally, a study in how two families that could have been so similar are so different, due to their choices, and the two men that reconnect them after over twenty years of simmering hate, greed, and secrets. Riley Hayes, the second son of Gerald Hayes, the spearhead of HayesOil, opens the book in a rage over the meeting he just attended with his father and his older brother Jeff, who has just been left the multitude of shares in his father’s company. Riley had expected them both to get equal shares. Jeff helps run the day to day operations along with Gerald as well as securing contracts and other operational duties (though Riley has wondered at times just how nefarious his brother and father have become to be so successful in their dealings), and Riley has taken charge of the research and development portion of the company. He maps, finds oil prospects and draws up the information for his father and brother to acquire new assets for the company. He has put his life and soul into his work, and when his father tells him why he won’t share equal holdings in the company — that he’s irresponsible, a playboy, and doesn’t have a wife and stable family, and loosely refers to his bisexual best friend Steve — Riley assumes that the real reason is his father knows that he has preferred both sexes himself, though, admittedly, he seems to prefer women. To placate him, his father tells him that he will change the contract to split the company evenly between the brothers if Riley marries for love for at least a year’s time. Hurt and angry, Riley thinks of the one way he can contractually adhere to his father’s wishes, yet still shove the contract in his face. He will marry a man, and he has the perfect man in mind, Jack Campbell, the son of his father’s arch rival and former business partner.
Riley knows that the only way he will get Jack to agree to the marriage is to blackmail him. After the breakup of the company 20 years previously and the falling out between both families, the Campbell family has fallen into financial ruin due to Jack’s father’s gambling addiction, debts to their ranch, and Jack’s baby sister’s heart problem, which has gutted the families bank accounts. Knowing that the Campbell’s stand to lose everything and that he holds a secret that Jack doesn’t yet know, he offers his contract of marriage to Jack for one year. Jack refuses to accept, assured that he can find a way to keep their ranch and his pride at the same time, until Riley tells him that his sister is pregnant, and she might not live to term due to her weak heart. Cursing the name Hayes, Jack feels that he has no choice but to accept, in order to afford the healthcare that could save his sister’s life.
The following months deal with a whole slew of family members that hold a whole slew of secrets, and despite their hate for one another, Jack and Riley find that they are leaning on one another throughout the messes of scandals that pile around them and that they will need one another to make it through this year of marriage with their sanity intact.
This is quite a long book, though don’t be discouraged from the page count. This is a good example of Wave’s post yesterday about the lack of coherent guidelines between formatting, word count, and page count. The pdf file is over 400 pages long, but the margins are wide and the spacing large. So, I did my own independent word count, when I couldn’t find one online, and came up with a rough estimate of 85000 words. A long novel for sure, but maybe not as long as many would expect. That said, because of this and due to the hostile relationship between Jack and Riley for the first 175 pages or so, I had a very difficult time getting into this book. I suspect that this is mostly a personal problem, so I took no account of it into my rating, but the tone of the book was very harsh and depressing and it took me a long time to even think about warming up to the characters, all of whom at that point I hated. Again, I’m often very sensitive to these things and I don’t particularly like sprawling soap opera drama (more on this later), as it tends to be over the top, and not in a funny, campy way. I often had to stop reading because I found myself getting cranky. I am glad, though, that I stuck with the story. In the end, though it may not have been one of my favorite books as it seems to be for so many other readers, I did enjoy it.
At the center of the story are Riley and Jack, who for the first half of the book, loathe one another. Obviously, Jack hates Riley, not only for the family he comes from, but for blackmailing him (which he soon finds out about). At the same time, I still feel a bit puzzled at why Riley held animosity toward Jack and the Campbell family, although for the most part it seemed to be tinged with pity at their poor state. I suppose that he envied them, having grown up in a cold home with only his little sister Eden as a true friend. It is easy to hate Riley until you understand his motivations, or at least why he felt like he needed to act the way he has done for most of his life, trying to beat his family at their own game, even while destroying lives in the process. Jack, on the other hand, is presented as a bit of a martyr. He sacrifices of himself daily for his family and his pride. Yet, I found that I had a difficult time coming to like him as well. I never felt like he was a pushover, in fact I felt like he more strength than Riley and he was often the one calling the shots in their sham marriage, but I didn’t understand his decision to immediately capitulate to Riley’s contracted marriage when faced with his sister’s pregnancy. He doesn’t seem to tender any other possibilities of providing for his family and sister. I wondered, then, if this was maybe just a setup for the story to get underway. It felt disingenuous to his character and I wondered why he would even consider such an offer except at the last resort.
The only two characters that I didn’t feel were totally fleshed out were the villains of the story, Gerald and Jeff. I felt like I understood Gerald until the very end, when his character seems to shift, and he is remorseful. Is it just that he finally sees the consequences of his greed? I wanted to understand more, but I ended up assuming that this was why. I wouldn’t mind that normally, not knowing for sure, but this story shifts POV between several of the characters of the family, and to shift into Gerald’s POV once or twice throughout the story is inviting his thoughts to the reader, without fully explaining them. On the other hand, Jeff himself was an enigma to me. The point, it seemed to me, was to present him as the embodiment of evil, without giving any real evidence as to why he is the way he is, except for the fact that he was raised in a cold-hearted family (even though the other children didn’t turn out that way). In wanted to know more about Jeff, how he came to be the evil man that he is, and what exactly his motivations are, other than a sick sense of megalomania. I don’t think that it justifies the crime by understanding how the criminal came to commit it and why. So, I didn’t understand why he was portrayed the way he was.
Though the soap opera style of this story might not have been to my taste, I think that it was done rather well. The characters become more interesting the further you read and the scope of this novel is very large for RJ Scott to attempt. The whole story is a giant web, the characters interconnecting with each other, always with a secret to be revealed and a new emotional bomb about to be dropped into the middle of the families, just waiting for them to scurry about trying to put the pieces back together. It is an intricate plot line and I thought that the various pieces were juggled well. I liked that, while Riley could have been made out as GFY, he wasn’t. He had a prior inclination to men, even having experimented some. Also, I thought the setting was portrayed very well, having grown up only a few hours away from this area all of my life, I really felt the Texas countryside, as well as the feeling of Dallas within the pages and I applaud RJ for her representation of a place so far from where she lives, geographically and culturally. The only character than I really loved was Donna, Jack’s mother. She was a real spit-fire woman who refused to bow down to the pressure she’d felt her whole life, to don the hat of a Dallas debutante, and to curl up and surrender under the weight of all she had to face in her life. I only wish that we could have seen more of her.
It has been mentioned in other reviews that this book is mislabeled — that it is not in fact a romance, but a soap opera featuring two men. I won’t speak to whether it is a romance or not, because despite the “rules,” everyone has a different idea of what constitutes one. I do, however, agree with him about the labeling on the novel. I doubt this has anything to do with the author, but I probably would not have requested this novel for review if I had known the type of story this was. I feel like the blurb itself is a bit misleading, as it only portrays the story to be about the two men and not the families that surround them, which make up a very large portion of the story. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the story itself, other than the few problems that I had with it, it just isn’t my cup of tea and I would have liked to get a better handle on what the story was about before deciding on it. If I hadn’t needed to finish the book for review, I admit I probably would have abandoned it.
In the end, I think that this book will appeal to many readers, and certainly has so far. It seems to be drawing a lot of passionate responses from readers and reviewers alike, both in high praise and in disappointment. If it sounds like something you’d like, with lots of drama and angst, villains and secrets, secret pregnancies and more, then by all means, read The Heart of Texas and find out which side of the fence you come out on. Recommended. I welcome your comments, but please, don’t hurt me 😉