Love for the downtrodden hero

This is cross-posted at The Season.

One Fine Cowboy coverA couple of months ago, I wrote about how I don’t always connect with kickass heroines. The women I empathize with the most in novels are inevitably ones more like me—people whose main fights have been to overcome internal barriers, like fear and low confidence after spending too much time around mean jackasses, to accomplish the things they want in life.

Fortunately for me, romance is full of these women and I get to watch them blossom into confident, fulfilled people by the end of a novel. But what if the genders were reversed? How many romance heroes can you name who’ve been so badly beaten down by life and past relationships that they struggle with the confidence they need to achieve their dreams? Or worse, they barely allow themselves to dream anymore?

I was surprised to find such a hero in one of this year’s RITA-nominated contemporary single title novels.

Nate Shawcross, the hero of Joanne Kennedy’s One Fine Cowboy, is one of the few heroes I can remember in a contemporary romance who is the victim of an abusive romantic relationship. Sandi, his long-term girlfriend and the mother of his child, is emotionally manipulative and heaps so much pain on Nate that it’s no wonder he’s got the self-confidence of a roly-poly.

Nate owns a horse ranch in Wyoming, and he’s completely taken by surprise when people start showing up expecting him to teach them techniques for dealing with problem horses. He has a bit of a reputation as a horse whisperer, but his ranch is on the brink of foreclosure and it’s falling down around his ears. He soon discovers Sandi—who left him—sent out a bunch of brochures advertizing training sessions and comfortable accommodation on the ranch. She took people’s money and told them to show up at the ranch without telling Nate anything about her scheme.

One of the “trainees” is graduate student Charlie Banks, who quickly realizes what trouble Nate’s in and helps him out.

But Sandi comes back and starts re-exerting control over Nate, who doesn’t seem capable of fending off her manipulative, hateful acts. Only Charlie is able to stand up for him, like she does in this scene when Sandi returns.

Setting her fists on her hips, she glared at Charlie. “What are you doing with my husband?”

“Your husband?”

Sandi rolled her eyes in the universal high school language for I can’t believe how clueless you are.

“Nate,” she said. “You know, the dumbass cowboy you’ve been fooling around with.”

Charlie spun around, her hands on her hips. “Nate’s not a dumbass, and I don’t fool around. And he’s not your husband, either.”

“Yes he is,” Sandi said. “I’ve put up with him for seven years. That makes us married. Common-law husband and wife.”

Charlie felt a stab of sympathy for Nate. What kind of miserable, empty relationship did the two of them have?

“I thought you left,” she said. “I thought you guys broke up.”

“He might have thought so, but he was wrong,” Sandi said. “I’m not done with him yet.”

She’s a chilling woman, but unfortunately not unrealistic. Nate is up against several huge battles to save his livelihood, his home and his daughter. Falling in love with a new woman opens new troubles for him, particularly as he questions his ability to win any of the battles he’s fighting.

Charlie, the heroine, is the person who breathes fresh life into him. She inspires him to fight when he’s ready to give up, and she vanquishes Sandi’s hold over him.

In many ways, Nate reminded me of heroines common in the genre during the early 90s—a victim of life and unable to fight his own battles. A person who needs someone strong and commanding to help sort out his messy life.

And, just like with my favorite heroines, he develops into a stronger, more confident person by the end of the novel.

Have you read many novels with heroes like Nate, who are victims of emotionally abusive partners or who have lost confidence through being beaten down by life? How did you feel about them?


  1. Kat, thank you for reading my book and writing about it in such a thoughtful way. I loved this post. It actually made me see it in a new light. A lot of readers seem to have connected with Nate, and maybe you’ve hit on one of the reasons why (the other reasons are that he’s really hot, is a great father, doesn’t talk much, and buys the heroine cowboy boots. What more could you ask for?).
    I agree with you about the kick-ass heroines versus women like us. Much as I’d like to live a fantasy life where I slay all my demons, my girls tend to keep it real and struggle with self-confidence.

    1. Wow – what a compliment! And thank you so much for your kind words on your Facebook page!

      I can certainly understand why readers connect with Nate (and yee-haw on the cowboy boots. Y’think he could find me some vegan ones? That would make him a superhero). He’s such a lovely, kind, gentle man, and my heart broke for him every time his ex opened her mouth. I think far too many people can relate to having someone they love and trust drag their self-esteem through the muck. I hate to say it’s refreshing to see a hero in that situation, because I hate seeing anyone hurt like that. But I loved that you show men aren’t immune. The genre can focus too much on abused, vulnerable women having their lives turned around by falling in love with alpha, uber-confident men.

      One Fine Cowboy was certainly refreshing, thought-provoking and worthy of a RITA nomination (congrats!).

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