After the Ashes
Grade : A-

Cheryl Howe's debut novel, After the Ashes, is a rare find in more ways than one. Aside from being a Western Romance, a category which is somewhat underrepresented in the current market, it showcases the kind of tightly woven storytelling and solid characterization that are at times equally elusive.

Bounty hunter Christopher Braddock meets Lorelei Sullivan when he comes looking for her younger brother, Corey, who is believed to have participated in a recent stagecoach holdup that resulted in more than one death. After she gets Braddock to leave the old run-down ranch they now call home, Corey convinces Lorelei to go "talk to" Braddock at his hotel room and delay him long enough for Corey to disappear.

If this set up sounds tiresome or worrisome, relax; the story doesn't play out the way it seemed to be heading. And once Braddock's conscience makes its unwelcome reappearance, it isn't long before he's fully entangled with the Sullivans' problems. Braddock has his hands full protecting Lorelei from the backlash of Corey's lawless act while prying enough information from the not-completely-guilty Corey to capture the robbers' leader and find the stolen gold. Thrown into the mix are an overzealous Deputy U.S. Marshal with a grievance against Braddock who is also on Corey's trail, a drunken doctor/saloon owner named Archie, the band of robbers led by a gravely wounded Mulcahy and his ruthless gunman, Ricochet, and an old war buddy of Braddock's who has made a new life with his family in New Mexico territory, despite his severe war injuries.

The story itself works very believably, with a few minor exceptions. Mostly, I could never predict exactly where it would go next, and this has much to do with the way Howe's characters are themselves re-evaluating their choices with each new piece of information or development that is revealed. The general plan is for Braddock to deposit Corey and Lorelei with his old war buddy's family while he beards Mulcahy's gang in Specter Canyon. But, of course, the best laid plans and all that. The only time the story didn't work for me was one of the two situations where Braddock was caught unawares, unarmed. One time was fairly believable since even the most paranoid gunman might lose track of his trusty pistols when he's trying to wow his gal with some interesting bedroom moves; the other time was a contrivance, and I wish the author had found a different way to bring about the subsequent result for which she was aiming.

But what works best about this story is the wonderful characterization. There are no easy villains or simple heroes here, and the tug-of-war between Braddock and Corey over Lorelei's loyalty is one of the things that makes it such an interesting read. These are breathing characters who respond as you would expect them to, whose reactions and choices are clearly rooted in who and where they were before and in the immediate aftermath of the recent war. The author succeeds so well because she not only shows how the three main characters struggle with their current situation, but infuses them with an historical context that gives a firm grounding to their actions. It's easy to see how Braddock, a West Point graduate from good family, could be forever changed by seeing the brutal reality of a battleground lay waste to his cherished ideas of honor, yet still retain enough of his past self to kiss Lorelei's hand with the flourish of a cotillion partner.

Braddock is the tortured hero you love to love. He's not a brooder, only deliberately benumbed, until his desire for Lorelei reawakens principles and longings he thought he'd long since abandoned. It isn't self-pitying feelings of unworthiness which keep him at a distance from Lorelei - simply the realization that he always survives while those riding by his side do not.

Lorelei is a completely sympathetic character, the southern belle who is as good at surviving as she was at enticing beaux. She's naive in many ways, but ultimately nobody's fool because experience has taught her that men aren't especially trustworthy. She goes to great lengths to preserve her last remaining tie to family and a happier past, embodied in her brother, Corey. But she's also human enough to resent what he has cost her, to call him on his willingness to callously use her and to recognize that Braddock is her one chance to try and grasp some happiness for herself. Corey is maddeningly irresponsible and self- serving, but he's not without redeeming qualities or his own demons, so you can understand Lorelei's protective stance where he is concerned. Her decision to become intimate with Braddock is believable, as is the inner battle she wages between expecting nothing and cherishing secret dreams of forever after. You can relate to Lorelei; she is every woman who has endured the changes and privations wrought by the men in her world when they engage in dishonorable acts of self- interest and honorable acts of war.

It's no easy alliance between this trio, with Corey playing on Braddock's and Lorelei's ambivalence about trusting each other to serve his own ends. The dynamics are constantly fluctuating, and I really appreciated the realistic flavor of their reactions. Lorelei, for example, at least briefly considers leaving Corey to his deserved fate, leaving Braddock to his mistrustful solitude and taking the next transportation back to Kentucky, where she might be alone but would be free of the physical and emotional hardships that are her current lot. And I cheered when Braddock made it clear he was going to beat Corey till he told the truth, and a frustrated Lorelei simply admonished him not to break any of Corey's bones.

The love story is steamy and, although it's erotic at times, it never felt gratuitous or descended into sex-by- numbers. I loved the fact that Lorelei, while inexperienced, was not totally ignorant about her body or the pleasures of experimentation. After the Ashes meets another criterion I have as well, showing me that Braddock and Lorelei go beyond mutual lust and tenderness to fill a specific need in each other, making their inevitability as a couple not only believable but desirable.

I really enjoyed this story on many levels. It's an eminently satisfying romance, but also provides an interesting glimpse of the type of people who migrated west after the war, sometimes on the run from the ghosts of the past, but always looking for something better than what they left behind. I highly recommend this one, and look forward to seeing what new stories Cheryl Howe can regale me with.

Buy it at Amazon

Reviewed by Donna Newman
Grade : A-

Sensuality: Hot

Review Date : March 18, 2003

Publication Date: 2003

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Donna Newman

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