How I love thee Harlequin Historicals! Let me count the ways - 1) westerns, 2) westerns, 3) westerns, 4) westerns....
You get the idea. And not just westerns, but good westerns. Trust me, I read some real stinkeroonies last year. I mean, you think with so few getting published that we'd get some quality - but oh no! Well, at least we still have Harlequin, bless their hearts. And to sweeten the deal, they happen to have very good authors writing westerns for them. Cheryl St. John being one.
Anyway, The Lawman's Bride is St. John's latest and is a February release. But now that you can order new Harlequin titles a month in advance on their web site, I got my copy last week.
Sophie Hollis is a gal running from her past. As a child, her westward bound family was attacked by a band of Sioux. Daddy and brothers killed, Mommy and her taken captive. Sophie is taken in by the chief, who dotes on her, while Mommy ends up with another brave. Mommy ends up dying in an epidemic, chief croaks, and Sophie is sold to a white man. She's 12 years old.
The white man in question, Tek Garrett, is a slick con artist who teaches Sophie everything he knows. He hires tutors, dresses her in finery, and soon she's part of the cons. She dreams of freedom. A normal life. But when she tries to escape (at age 14), Garrett decides the girl needs a firmer hand and he, well, he does things to her that no grown man should be doing with a 14-year-old.
Fast forward many years and Sophie gets another chance. She runs to Newton, Kansas where she lies through her pretty teeth and lands a job as a Harvey Girl. All she wants is to make enough money to start her own business, and working for Harvey is respectable and pays well. However circumstances arise and she soon catches the eye of the local Marshall, Clay Connor. Not cool. The last thing she wants is to draw attention to herself, so she avoids him for a stretch. But he's really persistent, stuff keeps happening, and dang he's really nice. I'm talking decent, hardworking, handsome - pretty much the opposite of every man that Sophie has ever known. This intrigues her, and she intrigues him. I mean, she's really different from the other girls that work at the Harvey House. Sophie seems so smart and independent, all those other girls seem so innocent and naive by comparison.
One thing leads to another, time is spent in each other's company. He likes her, she likes him and then the past shows up to screw up everything.
Sophie carries this book. Without her, it doesn't work. She's also the prototype of Wendy's Perfect Heroine. She wants her independence. She wants to control her own destiny. She wants to run the show, and while that might sound lonely to some, Sophie can't see herself handing her life over to a man. Not when the male gender hasn't exactly endeared itself to her. She's not frosty though. She doesn't walk around with a stick up her butt. And she never, ever plays the victim. When she meets Clay, she genuinely likes the guy. He's damn near perfect. The perfect Beta hero. Dreamy sigh.
The plot is fairly conventional, and while some might bristle at a less than honest heroine (OK, so she lies a lot), she does what she does out of necessity (she is a fugitive after all). And when her past finds her, she doesn't rely on Clay to rescue her (although he does play a healthy role). Our girl sets her own plan in motion. She pretty much half-rescues herself.
So why isn't this a keeper? I'm picky. That simple. For me, keepers have to have an "A-Ha!" moment to them. They need to knock the wind out of me. It's all very vague and I can't describe it - but essentially it needs to emotionally wallop me. This was very, very good and I have no doubt it will land on keeper shelves for other readers - but I'm picky. Final Grade = B+.
Another word of note, which is treading into spoiler territory. I bet St. John gets a lot of angry e-mails on this one. Why? Not because the heroine lies or is victimized - but because of the dead dog. Seriously. I've discovered you can write your books in blood and have villains eat human babies, but kill an animal and readers start frothing at the mouth. People have explained this phenomena to me in intelligent ways, but I suspect it's one reader foible I'll never "get."
The hero has an old hound dog who is knocking on death's door. He can barely walk, is blind and can't hear. I mean, the poor thing is sad as hell. But the hero just doesn't have the heart to shoot him (which is how these things were handled back in the day). He eventually realizes that something has to be done, and takes the dog to the town doctor (incidentally the hero from The Doctor's Wife) and he gives the dog an injection. Dog goes to sleep, doesn't wake up. Now, my parents grew up in farm country. This is what you do. A pet gets too sick and old - you euthanize it. Simple as that. But many people (and I mean many) feel this sort of thing is inhumane and barbaric - so I'm wondering how many angry letters St. John is going to get.
You will tell us, won't you Cheryl?