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Reluctant Dad

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Rodeo Dad by Carla Cassidy
(Silh. Int. Mom. #934, $4.75, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-07934-6
****
I really didn't expect to like Rodeo Dad when I opened my package of SIMs for this month. A quick peek at the back blurb told me that I was looking at yet another "secret baby" book, with cowboys and rodeos thrown in for good measure. Same old, same old. But then I started reading and two hours or so later, when I finished, I realized that a talented author can take "same old" and craft a really enjoyable story around what might seem to be tired plot cliches.

The prologue suggested that this might be a "secret baby" story with a difference. The setting is the visitors' room at the Montana state prison. Marissa Sawyer has come to see Johnny Crockett, a man she once loved but whom she hasn't seen in ten years. Johnny was convicted of murdering the daughter of the town of Mustang, Montana's leading family. He is about to be released and has indicated that he is returning to Mustang. Marissa has come to try to convince him to start over somewhere else.

Johnny rudely rejects Marissa's plea. Ten years earlier, as his life crashed around him, Johnny had waited for Marissa to visit him in jail, to tell him that she believed in him. But she never came. Now he wants to return to Mustang to see if he can discover who really killed Sydney Emery.

The reason Marissa doesn't want Johnny back in Mustang is that his arrival will lead to his discovery that they had a son. No one in town knows the identity of Benjamin's father. No one knew that the mayor's daughter was seeing the town's wildest young man. A scared and confused Marissa had let everyone believe that her former boyfriend was Ben's father. Now the truth is bound to come out.

As luck would have it, Johnny soon discovers Benjamin. Now he feels doubly betrayed. How could Marissa have kept Ben's existence from him? How could she have denied him any knowledge of his son? Johnny is determined to claim Ben and to be a good dad, unlike the father who had abandoned him.

Cassidy has crafted a nicely complex story with many intertwining threads. There is Johnny's developing relationship with Ben, a boy who yearned for a father and now has found one. There is the response of the town when Johnny's fatherhood becomes public. There is the relationship between Johnny and Marissa. Both felt betrayed by the other: Marissa because she believed that Johnny was seeing Sydney at the same time he was making love to her; Johnny because he believed that Marissa had abandoned him because she was ashamed of their love. Yet despite their mutual hurts, neither has been able to forget the tender love and dreams they shared.

Then there is the question of who really murdered Sydney Emery and why her stepbrother, the powerful and nasty Brad, is so determined to drive Johnny out of Mustang.

Cassidy does not downplay the very real barriers that that Johnny and Marissa must overcome to find their happy ending. Marissa comes to understand just how badly she hurt the boy she loved so deeply. She wonders, despite the physical passion that flares between them, if Johnny can ever forgive her.

So there you have it. Another secret baby story. (By the way, the rodeo plays a pretty minor role in the book. I'm sure the editors at Silhouette chose the title Rodeo Dad primarily for marketing reasons.) But despite its same old plot, this is an engrossing and enjoyable story. Now I guess I'll go look for Cassidy's other "Mustang, Montana" books.

--Jean Mason


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