High Stakes Passion
by Juliet Burns
(Silh. Desire #1644, $4.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-76644-0
**
Newcomer Juliet Burns has written a tale that has it all: love, misunderstanding, cowboys, personal angst, lies, truth, and romance. Her style is easy to read and the characters are generally likable. While predictable and at times, clichéd, there is a lot of promise in her writing.

High Stakes Passion is the story of Audrey Tyson and past rodeo champion Mark Malone. Audrey is a plain Jane who considers herself too fat for anyone to really love. She has taken a risk and told her publisher boss that she can get the real story on The Lone Cowboy, Mark Malone, who left the rodeo circuit after being injured and no one has seen or heard from him since. Audrey has some history with Mark, albeit brief and one-sided. She was a teenage girl at the rodeo being bullied by a few boys in the stable when Mark intervened and sent the boys on their way. She has had a serious case of hero worship ever since. Audrey poses as a housekeeper to get on his ranch and plans to get her story, then hightail it back to the big city. But the best laid plans…

Mark is anything but a hero. He was injured when a bull fell on his leg. Many months after surgery and physical therapy, he is physically on the road to mending, but emotionally he is a mess. He drinks heavily, cares about little and is slowing watching his ranch dry up because he has no interest in it and is full of self-pity. No one, even the father figure foreman and his wife, can get through to him. Until Audrey…

Audrey swoops in and starts cleaning his house. In a fit of anger, she throws out his beer bottle. Pretty soon, she has Mark eating and getting dressed; going out for a ride on his horse even though he is resenting her the entire time. They are attracted, but both try to ignore it or hide it. Audrey starts making friends with some of the ranch hands and is determined to find out Mark's secrets for her story…until she starts to realize she cares for him and doesn't know if she can betray him. Mark, meanwhile, has plenty of reason to hate women…his mother paraded men in and out his whole life and so Mark is convinced all women cannot be trusted and are never loyal.

The story is nicely paced and the two characters are likable. Their interactions are engaging and the dialogue moves the story along. The sparks are in the air when they show their attraction and ultimately I was rooting for them to work out their problems. The downfall is the plot line and use of so many romance clichés. The innocent girl who has low self-esteem meets the tortured cowboy and makes him see the world can be better. There is misunderstanding followed by misunderstanding and of course, their relationship is based on the lie about who Audrey really is. Mark makes an astonishing recovery from alcoholism, yet can't see to get past the fact that his mother was scum. Audrey has guts and determination on the one hand, taking this risk for her career, yet has no confidence in herself.

These contradictions make High Stakes Passion an uneven reading experience. I enjoyed the story on the one hand, while lamenting the same old tired plotlines on the other hand. Keep an eye out for Juliet Burns…she shows promise as a romance writer, but this story won’t make her a household name just yet.

--Shirley Lyons


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