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Territorial Bride by Linda Castle
(Harlequin $4.99 PG) 0-373-29041-1
Don't let the Christmasy-looking cover deceive you. This is one of those "regular" romances that publisher's wrap in a seasonal package in the hopes of attracting a buyer with holiday romance in mind. Territorial Bride has the obligatory tacked-on Christmas chapter and some holly on the cover. And that's as close to Christmas as it gets.

What Territorial Bride does have is a disappointing plot that shifts focus too often with little or no payoff. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, the novel runs the gamut of emotions from A to B. The story alternates between slapstick comedy, homespun family values, and movie of the week trauma, spreading itself too thin and reducing the emotional punch to a mere poke. The result: an uneven tale that is never sure what it wants to be and only succeeds in losing the reader's interest.

Territorial Bride reads as a story in three parts: country girl decides she wants to be a lady; country girl is transformed into belle of the ball; country girl faces tragedy. What you are left with is the conviction that had the country girl in question simply stayed put, life would have been much more exciting…and fulfilling. As it is, the reader is forced to tag along on a journey with two people who, because of the plot machinations that begin to govern their lives, slowly grow closer, but in so doing lose all the charm that brought them together in the first place.

All of this is very unfortunate, you see, because the book begins in such a wonderfully charming way. Missy O'Bannion is the unabashed cowgirl forced into a dress to serve as Maid of Honor at the wedding of her brother Trace to Bellami James (themselves the protagonists of author Linda Castle's previous Fearless Hearts.) For Missy, the occasion proves to be a momentous event – she decides she wants to become a real lady. The reason behind that, whether she admits it or not, is to impress Brooks James. Bellami's brother is a one-time city slicker turned cowboy who Missy had delighted in needling…until the dynamic shifts and Missy becomes all too aware of Brooks as a man. When she receives an invitation to return to New York with the James family, Missy jumps at the chance to spite Brooks, who is decidedly unhappy about her decision. At the last minute, Brooks jumps on the train.

Once in New York, Missy is taken under the wing of Brooks' cousin Ellen, who promises Missy she will help her become a lady if Missy will teach her how to ride. At her official coming out, Missy is introduced to New York society as Marisa and Brooks is stunned by the change. Shortly thereafter, he catches Missy in the act of climbing down a trellis and realizes that there is still a lot of New Mexico left in this visiting New Yorker. Next thing you know, Brooks is climbing into Missy's bed and telling her how much he wants her.

The romance between Missy and Brooks (our Missy Brooks?) takes off like a rocket, and it is here that the plot machinations begin to move the characters away from their previously defined natures. Brooks may very well be a city boy, but he is initially brought to life (very convincingly I may add) as a tall, laconic cowpoke. That makes his instantaneous transformation into such an ardent lover somewhat jolting. He starts spouting sentences like this:

"I'm going to brand you Marisa O'Bannion…brand you with kisses and mark you with my passion. I want you to know how deep my love for you runs."

When Missy is injured in a fall from a horse, he changes guises once again, into the angel of all caretakers. And yes, naturally, you'd hope that the man you love will be there to aid and support you when tragedy strikes. But what happens when the heroine is her own worst enemy? Missy begins the story as an independent young lady ready to experience life at the fullest. Three quarters of the way through the book she is so hell bent on martyrdom that she becomes an absolute bore. Her extreme selflessness in the face of her circumstance is nothing more than a device used to add pages to the book. She pushes Brooks away, he follows her. She tries to run again, he finds her. She sneaks away, he tracks her down. Over and over again until you find yourself saying, "Oh hell, just get on with it already."

The promise shown in the early chapters of Territorial Bride (a title I found very deceiving) is never reached. Plot lines involving cousin Ellen, her overprotective father, and another of Missy's suitors go absolutely nowhere, perhaps in anticipation of a sequel. Good for the author, bad for the reader. New York society of the time (1889) is not described in any great detail. The motivations of the characters become suspect. Unfortunately, the last sin is the worst – that is the kiss of death to a romance.

--Ann McGuire

And on a personal note to the editors of this book: while I appreciated the Author's Note regarding spinal cord injuries and her listing of the address for the Christopher Reeve Foundation, the fact that the same man's name was misspelled in the dedication was just plain sloppy.

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