The Marshal and Mrs. O'Malley by Julianne MacLean
The Particulars: Historical western romance, Harlequin Historical #564, 2001, Out of Print (sort of), Rights reverted back to author and book republished under the title Tempting the Marshal in 2016.
Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: Author Susanna Kearsley gave me this book. She brought it special to an RWA Conference (and I'm sorry, I can't remember what year!), told me it was one of her favorite westerns, and she gifted it to me. Yes, when it comes to historical westerns and Harlequins, my reputation precedes me.
The Review: I didn't love this as much as Susanna did, but it's easy to understand why she was drawn to it. As far as plots go, MacLean was obviously hit with some divine inspiration when she cooked up this one. There's a sophistication to the Big Secret that you just don't see every day.
Josephine "Jo" O'Malley wants vengeance. The most powerful man in town, Zeb Stone, owner of the dry goods store and running for mayor, murdered her husband Edwyn. And nobody is going to do anything about it given Zeb's influence and the fact that the local law is as useless as decaffeinated tea (seriously, just wrong). So she does what any self-respecting romance heroine is wont to do - she dresses up in men's clothing, takes her herself and her gun down to Zeb's store and plans to shoot the man right between the eyes. To protect her son, Leo, she's willing to commit murder.
What she didn't bargain on was Fletcher Collins, the new marshal that, literally, just rode into town. He's walking the business district when he sees Zeb being robbed at gunpoint in his store. The culprit is of slight build, making him think he's no more than a boy, and the look in the kid's eyes? Yeah, that's no killer. Naturally though, stuff happens. Fletcher ends up getting shot (and knocked out cold) and the bandit gets away.
Great. So not only did Jo chicken out and not shoot Zeb but she ended up shot for her trouble. She's gotten dressed in the women's clothing she left out by the privy to aid her escape when she nearly passes out cold and the town deputy finds her. That's how both she and Fletcher both end up at the doctor's office getting treated for gunshot wounds and she quickly realizes...he doesn't know that it was her trying to shoot Zeb. Everybody thinks she was an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire. But that begs the question - what was she doing in town, alone, at that time of night? Because dang, Fletcher Collins is just the sort of persistent lawman who will not let something like this go - especially since he's now been humiliated during his first night on the job.
Making everything even more complicated? Turns out Zeb is Fletcher's brother-in-law. Leaving Jo not only in a panic that she'll be found out, but that she and her boy are still in danger, there's no hard evidence that Zeb murdered her husband and who is going to help her? Certainly not the man's brother-in-law and new town marshal!
Yes, it's all very involved but MacLean totally makes it work. Jo is the bandit and Fletcher doesn't know that. Fletcher is willing to listen to Jo about her suspicions but isn't about to just take her word for it that Zeb is A Bad Man without some actual proof he can sink his teeth into. Plus, you know, the guy is married to his sister. But he is willing to listen to her and doesn't dismiss her accusations outright, a refreshing quality in a good romance hero. Then, of course, there's the small matter of the pair being attracted to each other, and how is that possibly going to work? Jo did try to kill a man, Fletcher is a very black or white, law and order, sort of guy, plus there's baggage for both of them. Fletcher's feelings for his late father. Jo's marriage and her feelings for her dead husband.
The ending does feel a bit rushed, especially since the first half or so of the book feels more methodical, but it ends the way you want it to end although dagnabit, I don't think MacLean ever has written about a book about Zeb's wife/Fletcher's sister, and that's simply a crying shame.
I'm currently mired in a wicked slump, in large part thanks to recently relocating the Bat Cave (moving has a way of sucking any joy out of my life) and while this book didn't light a fire in me, I zipped through it over the course of two lunch breaks at The Day Job. If I wasn't in such a persnickety reading mood I think I would rate this one higher - which means if you dig historical westerns, this is one I think you should pick up.
Final Grade = B-