The Law & Miss Hardisson
by Lynna Banning
Harl. Historical, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-373-29137-X
****
Like you, I read for a number of reasons, one of the main ones being escape. That's exactly what Lynna Banning's The Law and Miss Hardisson provides. The book itself is an attractive package with a title that caught my eye and a charming cover, showing - rather than the trite orgasmic clinch - a couple enjoying each other's company. Pretty packaging does not make a novel, however; the story does. For the most part, Banning's story delivers on the promise of its title and cover.

The dark-haired cowboy with his arm around his lady's waist is Clayton Black, and they are both gazing down on what Clayton thinks of as "a white steeple town, full of people with refined manners and an extra helping of bigotry." Clayton is half-Cherokee and in 1883 that means he knows about bigotry from personal experience. He is also a Texas Ranger, far from home, tracking Brance Fortier, the man who killed his father and kid sister. He has trailed Brance all the way to the white steeple town of Crazy Creek, Oregon.

Irene Pennfield Hardisson, attorney-at-law, is a recent arrival in Crazy Creek. Irene spent her first 25 years in Philadelphia where her widowed father encouraged her to study the law. After his death, she traveled west where she saw more need for lawyers than in the settled, orderly East. Her acceptance by the citizens of Crazy Creek came quickly after she was instrumental in settling a hostage situation. She persuaded the hostage-taker to free the farmer's son he was holding in exchange for his own freedom. The hostage-taker was named Brance Fortier.

When Clayton Black bursts into her office, some instinct warns Irene not to tell him about her role in Fortier's release. Lonely, bored, and already interested in Clayton Black, Irene coaxes him to teach her how to play Truth poker. Instead of playing for money, the winner gets to ask questions - how many depends on the size of the bet - which have to be answered honestly. When Clay wins a hand, he plans to ask Irene about Fortier, but instead he finds himself asking her questions about herself…why she isn't married, why she's traveled all the way to Oregon. When Irene surprises Clay by winning a hand, his answer to her question explains his gut-wrenching reasons for wanting to capture Fortier.

Despite the attractions of the green-eyed lady lawyer with the razor-sharp mind, Clay plans to stay in Crazy Creek only long enough to find out what direction Fortier was headed in when he left town. A series of events keeps him there far longer than he planned, however. As a result, this engaging couple have plenty of time to get to know each other better…much better.

The heart of The Law and Miss Hardisson is a trial, but before the trial starts, Banning treats us to the funniest chess game I've ever read about. When the trial starts, Banning cranks up the suspense without losing her humorous touch, as the lawyer from Philadelphia tries to adapt to the more informal courtroom style prevalent in Oregon in 1883. Unfortunately, once the trial is over, Banning's narrative tries to transform itself - unsuccessfully - into an action story. The humor disappears, and the suspense dwindles.

Not to worry, however. Even though I found the last three chapters weak, that weakness was out-weighed by the charms of both Irene and Clayton. Folk wisdom holds that opposites attract, perhaps because opposites also complement each other. Irene Hardisson and Clayton Black are such complementary opposites…she with her book learning, he with his street smarts…that I had no trouble believing in their mutual fascination. I rooted for their romance all the way, comfortable that they suited each other down to the ground.

All in all, I have no qualms about recommending The Law and Miss Hardisson as a reliable escape route from your daily grind.

--Nancy J. Silberstein


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