Of Men and Angels by Victoria Bylin
(Harl. Historical, $5.25, PG) ISBN 0-373-29264-3
****
Despite some rookie mistakes, Victoria Bylin has written an engaging romance for her debut novel. Her hero and heroine are appealing, her secondary characters add greatly to the story, and the tale of struggle in Colorado in 1885 is well written.

Alexandra Merritt has led a full life. Born in Colorado, she is returning there because her father’s heart is weak and he may not live long. She has been in Philadelphia, helping poor children and orphans. Alexandra is engaged to an older man, a widower of a close friend. She doesn’t really love him, but he is comfortable.

On her trip West, Alexandra takes the train until Leadville, where a bridge is out. Rather than wait for repairs, she gets on a stagecoach, along with Charlotte, a nice young woman who is eight months pregnant. She learns that Charlotte is on her way to meet her sister so they can head to California where her husband is. But this stagecoach ride is anything but tame. They are caught in a flash flood. The driver and outrider are killed, the coach overturns and Charlotte and Alex are alone. Then Charlotte goes into labor.

Alex finds herself in the unwilling role of heroine. She is “rescued” by a man wearing a black duster, with two black eyes from a fight, several days’ growth of beard and smelling like a whiskey mill. Jackson Jacob Malone, or “Jake” as he is known, has a hangover and needs a drink. His life is a mess. He bedded a virgin, and now she is pregnant. Her brother confronted him and Jake shot him in the ensuing fight. Jake’s brother Gabe, who raised him, is now the sheriff and he ran Jake out of town, accusing him of being good for nothing. And Jake believes him.

So what does he do when he comes upon the stagecoach scene? He stops and helps. He buries Charlotte, who dies from giving birth, and helps Alex with the baby. They travel to Grand Junction, Colorado, where Alex’s family lives. On the way there, Alex is bitten by a snake and Jake saves her. Jake sees Alex as an angel and Alex thinks Jake is very heroic. All this action takes place in the first 70 pages.

Jake agrees to stay on in Grand Junction to help her father harvest his peach crop but then he has to leave. It is during this stay that Jake finds himself, realizing his strengths and understanding he is a good man. Alex learns what is important, and it is not her life in Philadelphia. There is also the side story about baby Charlie and whom he belongs to…is there an aunt and father out there somewhere?

The story reveals the life of Alex’s parents, too. Katherine and William Merritt have had a fruitful life on their peach orchard (pardon the pun!). Will is a preacher and a good one. Yet, he has a shameful secret that he and Katherine have had to live through. Katherine is a heartwarming woman, who teaches Jake and Alex about patience and standing by your man, even when he has hurt you.

The story as a whole is fun and well written. It dragged in the middle just a little, while Jake was convincing himself he had changed and Alex tried to become as noble as her mother. Not much happens as these two wrestle with their inner struggles. This is in sharp contrast to the almost too action-packed beginning of the story.

Bylin shows a lot of talent and just needs to smooth out her story so that the flow is more even paced. At the beginning I felt like I was on a roller coaster, waiting for the next catastrophe around the bend. Then it seemed like I rode a merry go round, going past the same plot issues over and over. Finally the story began the last descent and ended nicely.

Bylin shows some innovation with her use of William’s character, as he serves as conscience, narrator and humorist. Katharine is a little less developed but signifies the stability that Alex is craving.

Pick up Of Men and Angels and settle back for a ride. I think you will be glad you did. And keep an eye on Victoria Bylin.

--Shirley Lyons


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