Willow by Carolyn Brown
(Avalon, $19.95, G) ISBN 0-8034-9616-8
Willow is the first in a new series by Carolyn Brown to be released in hardcover. While the book has earned a three heart rating, be aware the price is a little steep for a book that is only 192 pages.

Willow Dulan has left everything she knew back in Philadelphia to come west to St. Joe, Missouri to see her father, Jake Dulan. What she finds is a dead father and four sisters she never knew she had. It seems that Jake was a “love ‘em, marry ‘em and leave the kids when the wife dies” kinda guy. He was on a search for a male heir, one he could leave his land to and pass on his knowledge. But he only had daughters, and his wives died. He left the girls nothing in his will but the chance to meet and get to know each other.

The other four girls are in the same boat as Willow. They have left everything they know behind, so they must go forward. They decide to join a wagon train run by Jake’s partner, Hank Gibson. This wagon train is headed to California with 100 women, all of whom will meet and marry gold miners waiting at the end. The girls figure they don’t have much choice. They hire on as “extras” – women who are not part of the original one hundred, but who will be there if some of those women don’t make it.

Willow is immediately confronted by one of the men hired by Jake. Rafe Pierce is a cowboy who actually has his own spread, which he shares with his sister and her family. Rafe is helping get the train to Ash Hollow and then he will split off to go home. He is not looking for a wife, as he was hurt badly when a pretty blonde singer rejected him after he had fallen in love.

Willow, blond and petite, looks too soft to make the long journey west. Rafe says as much and he and Willow decide they cannot abide one another. Yet they are attracted. When Rafe gets tossed from his horse trying to cross a river, and Willow saves him, they are forced to be civil to each other.

Throughout the entire book they struggle to be polite to one another, while secretly watching each other and fighting their mutual attraction. My biggest problem with the book was that they fell in love without really sharing anything that resembles friendship. The only thing they share is a love of sunsets. Although I liked and admired each of them individually, this lack of affection really made it hard to believe they fell in love.

The first 60 to 70 pages of the book introduce Willow to her sisters. It appears that the Promised Land series will be devoted to the Dulan sisters. And a unique group they are. Willow was raised by her spinster aunt and learned how to cook, clean, shoot, farm and any number of assorted things, including blacksmithing. She was engaged to marry a local businessman, until she discovered that he was in love with another woman, one who was “beneath him” socially. He was going to marry Willow and have his heirs, but keep seeing Lucy on the side. After all, as he told Willow, Lucy is the only woman he would ever love. It was this that pushed Willow out the door and heading west when Jake’s letter asked her to come.

The other girls have interesting histories too. Garnet worked in a saloon playing the piano, but never did anything impure. Velvet, a preacher’s daughter, was being forced to wed a man 20 years her senior, so she decided to search out Jake, just as he sent for her. Gypsy is the daughter of a Mexican lady and was raised on a ranch. And finally, Augusta, or Gussie as she prefers, is the oldest. She grew up being shuffled from relative to relative until she discovered dancing. She danced in a saloon but she too is pure as the driven snow.

The story is a little slow to start, as there is plenty of background that must be laid to make the rest of the story work. This actually drags to the point where I had some trouble picking up the book once I put it down. But at about 80 pages in, with the group firmly on the trail with the wagon train, my interest perked up as did the action.

The romance between Rafe and Willow is subtle, almost too much so. All of their interactions involve tempers and arguing. Once they actually kiss, the tempers are tamped down, but the arguing and mistrust seem to continue. Once they both realize they are in love, things move quickly and resolve themselves directly.

Willow is the start to what looks like stories about an interesting group of women. I hope that now that the plotline is established, the other books will allow more emphasis on the romances and less on the plot setup. You may want to pick this one up at your library rather than shell out the cost of the hardback, though.

--Shirley Lyons

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