Wild West Brides
by Cathy Maxwell, Ruth Langan, and Carolyn Davidson; historical (2002)
Harlequin, $6.50, ISBN 0-373-83508-6


This is an anthology about women finding love with cowboys and other hirsute grizzlies in the Wild, Wild West. Of the three, only Cathy Maxwell's Flanna And The Lawman is worth a reread. In fact, Flanna And The Lawman is, in my opinion, ranks up there with Connie Brockway's Heaven With A Gun (from the Outlaw Love anthology) as one of the finest Western novellas I've read. The other two are standard, formulaic marry-in-distress romances with no refreshing twist to make them memorable.

Cathy Maxwell's story - incidentally, her first Western - is formulaic too, but what sets this one apart from the rest is fine, fine repartee, a truly strong and intelligent heroine, and a hero so tortured yet noble that he sets all my Nick Fallin Groupie alarms ringing like it's the end of the world.

Flanna Kennedy was her father's accomplice in their fake medicine man act, until she met Trace Cordell, a hardened sheriff in the town of Loveless. Theirs was a doomed love story, for Trace was a lawman while she and her father were skirting at the wrong sides of the law. Forced to choose between her father and Trace, in the end Flanna decided to go with her father.

That was then. Today, Trace was an ex-lawman, as everyone loves to remind him. A hardened man whose strict adherence to law and duty has him killing more than his share of people, he was deemed too uncouth for the very town he had protected when the town prospered, and he was booted without a by-the-by. It sounds funny, I admit, but this affected Trace as much as Flanna's leaving him did, and now he is about to be hanged after he is framed for murder.

Flanna arrives to save him, and while trying to conceal her own motives to see Trace, she ends up telling everybody that she is his wife. Since Trace, she and her father have decided to go straight, and they bought this land with a good water supply. The thing is, their neighbor Burrell Slayton wants the land bad, and he has already has his men murder Flanna's father. Now Flanna needs Trace's help in her final showdown against Slayton.

Trace is just amazing as a guy who has loved, been burned by it, but just can't help protecting the woman he loves despite his blusters. He's hard, but he's also a knight, albeit one in tarnished armor. Instead of some pansy ex-lawman who will leave her for "her own good", Trace will stand by her and fight to have her in his life once he receives his epiphany. I really like this guy.

Flanna, by the way, is no Daddy's girl. She knows her father's flaws, and her reasons for leaving Trace weren't the usual "Daddy loves me and I need to take care of him" babblings, as she will tell Trace clearly and confidently. She knows that Trace and she will never work out the first time around, because like she said, Trace was too zealous in his lawman job and too holier-than-thou, and he would never stop reminding her that she and her father were cons. It is only this time around, when they are both wiser, could they probably have a chance at a happy ending.

The obligatory rescue-the-damsel scene in the end by the way is caused by Trace's asking her to stay put while he charges forth like a gung-ho hero and she obeying him. Next time, as she reminds him, maybe he ought to let her help. If you ask me, she has proven herself more than capable in that respect when she saves Trace from being hanged. Got that, Trace?

Intelligent, sexually-charged chemistry, and two magnetic lead characters make Flanna And The Lawman a truly great read.

Ruth Langan's This Side Of Heaven is the same old stuff too. Ethan Storm, Montana mountain man, takes in Kate McCrea and her nephew Danny. Kate cooks, cleans, cooks, cleans, cooks, cleans, and takes care of Danny and Ethan, all the while worrying about how she and Danny will get to Boston. Boston is where she believes they will be safe from Danny's Evil Daddy, who of course must show up for the Big Scene towards the ending.

This one is pleasant, but completely predictable. Kate is of course the hungry woman, the perfect martyr, the comforting mother, and innocent lover, while Ethan is gruff, reluctant to love, but he can't resist Kate mothering him. This is the Montana Sound of Music, which is very similar to the Sound Of Music in Texas, London, or some backward Scottish province.

Carolyn Davidson's Second Chance Bride is also the same old pregnant mail-order-bride thing. Jebediah Marshall has a four-year old kid he never told his wife-to-be, but he has the nerve to be offended when Louisa Winifred Applegate Palmer arrives eight months pregnant. But as she mothers his kid and slowly heals his Broken Heart, he realizes that this True Woman will be the one he will love forever and ever, et cetera. Again, this is completely predictable fare, with the bonus of Jeb being a bit of an ass at times.

The first half of this book has Louisa, pregnant yet exhibiting only mild discomfort when she's waddling, glowing and everyone going awww over her. Beautiful softporn to enjoy when you're pregnant, hating your husband, and aching all over your body. Then after she has popped out the brat, she's wonder woman, working and cleaning and cooking and changing diapers, glowing healthier and ruddier with each sloughing she does, until Jeb has no choice but to love her - a perfect, hardworking, dedicated woman just the way the men in the backward mountains love their wimmin' - silent, pregnant, and hardworking as hell. Perfect softporn for the Thomas Kinkade/Ozarks crowd, where the Mega-Domestic-Engineer and Baby-Factory Woman is given the royal salute as the True Woman Who Deserves The Love Of A Gruff, Midway-Useless Mountain Man.

Er, give me a funny, sophisticated, and less hirsute sophisticated townie guy any day to some mountain man who will probably stink at the end of the day. Still, Second Chance Bride is readable and not particularly bad, but it's also very easily forgotten after the last page.

With a keeper story by Cathy Maxwell and two pleasant but average stories by Ruth Langan and Carolyn Davidson, Wild West Bride isn't too bad a book at all. Sometimes it just takes one story, and in this case, I'll keep this book for the story by Ms Maxwell alone. That, and the really evocative cover. I love the beautiful black and white photo in the locket surrounded by pastel roses - the cover artist, whoever he or she is, has outdone him/herself with this one.

Rating: 86


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