Once an Outlaw
There’s got to be a set of handbooks somewhere for writers to consult when they’re plotting their books, one titled The 1001 Stupid Things An Allegedly Smart Heroine Will Not Do, and its companion tome, Rules A Villain Must Never Break. Disregard for the wisdom contained in both these guides spoiled what was an otherwise pleasant read for me.
Emily Spoon is a member of a notorious outlaw family; her uncle Jake has just gotten out of prison after doing time for a string of stagecoach robberies and has sworn to change his ways. Determined to keep him, as well as her brother Pete and cousin Lester, on the straight and narrow, Emily’s ready to settle down on the ranch Jake won in a card game – if the good folks of Lonesome, Colorado will let them, that is. But bad luck is dogging the family’s heels. Lonesome’s sheriff is none other than Clint Barclay, the very man responsible for locking Jake up seven years ago. What kind of trouble will this dangerously attractive man bring to the Spoons in general, and Emily in particular?
Clint thinks he’s finally found his place in Lonesome, but he’s in no hurry to share his life with any one woman, especially not the admittedly irresistible Miss Spoon, who greets him on her front porch with a loaded rifle – and that’s before she even knows who he is. Once she discovers his identity, the fat hits the fire. They both swear they’ll have nothing to do with each other, but when Emily finds herself in danger, Clint’s the one who always seems to be there to help her out. She begins to see the man behind the tin badge, and he discovers the woman behind the outlaw name. When Uncle Jake starts acting mysterious, though, Emily suspects the old dog can’t shake off his old tricks, and there’s no way an outlaw’s niece and a sheriff could ever get over a hurdle that high. Or is there?
This was a frustrating read. There was a lot to like. At the heart of things, there was a sweet love story, with an engaging hero who, despite a major reluctance to communicate honestly with the heroine, is well drawn and likable. The story also contained a cute, realistically portrayed, and non-annoying kid with a subplot of his own. I enjoyed watching him and Uncle Jake together; the old guy got to show his heart of gold in an effective manner. The other secondary characters fit nicely into the picture, and Ms. Gregory did a good job with the setting. There was a little too much head-hopping for my taste, however, and in a couple of places I had to reread several passages to figure out whose mind I was peeking into.
And then there were the major problems I had with the heroine and the villains.
On the one hand, I liked Emily. I could believe she was desperate for her family to stay clean, and she did try very hard to help them. On the other hand, though, it was almost as if she were demonstrating a new Theorem of Plot Dynamics for Romance Novel Heroines: for every smart action, there is an equal and opposite stupid action. A smart heroine does not venture out at night, in the heart of a storm on a mountainside, even if she thinks she has a good reason. She does not allow herself to be dragged into a barn at night, wearing only a flimsy nightgown, by the one man she’s sworn to despise. She does not tail her uncle up into the mountains when she thinks he’s up to no good, then, after she’s caught by the bad guys, antagonize them into mistreating her even more than they’re inclined to. I wanted to reach into the book and tell Emily to think before she acted.
Which brings me to my second major objection: the villains’ fatal mistake. If you’re a no-good, cold-hearted, son-of-a-bitch bad guy who tells the heroine straight off that you’re going to rape and then kill her, don’t wait around for “the right time” – just go ahead and ravish and shoot her and have done with it! But no, these morons have to hang around and taunt her with what they’re going to do to her, then they’re stupid enough to let her in on their plans for their crimes. She even gets them to confess their reasons for breaking the law, as well as divulging who’s really behind everything. No, no, no – if you’re going to let your victim live for even a moment after you’ve captured her, don’t talk to her any more than you have to! Loose lips and all that. Believe it or not, there is such a thing as a smart criminal; I just wonder why we never see one in a romance novel (unless he’s the hero). Pairing a supposedly intelligent heroine with a set of dumb crooks does little to reinforce the notion that she’s smart.
The subplot’s resolution, coming as it did after the conclusion of the main action, seemed tacked on, and Emily struck me as being a little too quick to recover from some major crises. But I really did like Clint, so the read wasn’t a complete disaster. If you can overlook the flaws in the heroine’s actions, to say nothing of the complete abandonment of the Villain’s Code of Conduct, you may enjoy the nice romance that’s hidden in here.