Heart of the Lawman by Linda Castle
(Harl. Historical #473, $4.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-29073-X
During her three miserable years in prison, only two things kept Marydyth Hollenbeck going -- her love for her daughter Rachel and her hatred of Flynn O’Bannion, the U.S. Marshal who helped send her to jail for the murder of her husband, a murder she didn’t commit. When she is unexpectedly pardoned by the governor and released from prison, she can think of nothing but reuniting with her daughter and resuming her life. Until she gets the bad news.

Her daughter’s legal guardian and primary caretaker for the past three years has been none other than Flynn O’Bannion. Marydyth had assumed her daughter would be raised by Victoria Hollenbeck, her late husband’s mother. But as she eventually learns, Victoria suffered a series of debilitating strokes and coerced Flynn into taking over Rachel’s care, as well as the management of the considerable Hollenbeck fortune.

The reasons behind this far-fetched development are never made clear to the reader. It’s all very vague, but suffice it to say that by the time Marydyth returns home to the town of Hollenbeck Corners, the nearly four-year-old Rachel loves and trusts Flynn far more than she does her own mother, whom she doesn’t remember. And in any case, the legal guardianship is unbreakable, so if Marydyth wants to be near Rachel, she’s going to have to be near the much-despised Flynn.

Which is pretty much what Flynn had in mind when he engineered Marydyth’s release from prison. He has evidence that hints at the idea that Marydyth didn’t kill her husband (which is what he uses -- somewhat implausibly -- to secure her pardon), but he isn’t completely convinced of her innocence. He wants her to be near Rachel, because Rachel needs a mother, but he also wants to watch her like a hawk.

This isn’t difficult to do, since Marydyth promptly moves into her old house with him and Rachel, scandalizing a town that’s already shocked to have a murderess back in its midst. From that point on, Flynn and Marydyth struggle to be civil to each other and make a good life for Rachel.

That’s the part that’s difficult. How can they endure this arrangement when neither one trusts the other? And how can they ever grow to trust each other if they never talk about their doubts? They seem determined to do things the hard way, both stubbornly refusing to share or ask for information that might clear the air between them.

It’s exasperating. I mean, honestly, if you were suddenly released from prison, wouldn’t you want to know why? Wouldn’t you be just the least bit curious to find out what exactly had come about to make your release possible? Not Marydyth. She decides “she’d sooner walk over hot coals than ask Flynn.” Okay, I could buy this for a couple of weeks, but as she gets to know him a little and her long-cherished hatred fades, there was no reason for her not to ask.

Except that her not knowing becomes an integral part of the plot, so she can’t ask, because that would spoil the author’s carefully laid-out plan. I really get irritated when plot machinations take the place of realistic character behavior, and, sadly, this book is full of that kind of thing.

For example, what is the deal with characters that fall into instant comas the second they finish having sex? Are there really that many narcoleptic people in the world? I mean, sure, sex can be exhausting, but it’s just not realistic to believe that both characters would conveniently drop into peaceful sleep at one of life’s most awkward moments. But Marydyth and Flynn manage it again and again, deftly forestalling any conversation that might -- again -- clear the air between them.

And while the air between them is thick, it’s certainly not thick with sexual tension. The love scenes in this book are some of the most wooden, uninspiring passages I’ve ever read. When Marydyth “explores” Flynn’s mouth with her tongue, I pictured her probing around in there and taking notes. When Flynn “deposits” kisses on her breasts, I imagined him filling out a little deposit slip before each one. Now, I know I sound terribly nit-picky, here, but the point is that if I’m caught up in the moment, I don’t have time to notice things like that. In this book, I had plenty of time.

And then there’s the “mystery” about who really killed Marydyth’s husband. This was so clear so early on it was almost ridiculous. Of course, the hero and heroine (especially Flynn, a former ex-Marshal) cannot figure it out even when their lives really do depend on it. Talk about thick -- this was frustratingly thick-headed, and just another example of plot manipulation at the expense of believable characters.

Heart of the Lawman didn’t have to be such a bad book. The author created some acceptable characters in Marydyth and Flynn. Both are a little ordinary (Flynn, for example, has the standard “I ride alone, I’m a lone wolf” excuse for not getting romantically involved), but they certainly would have been adequate if they’d been allowed to act like real people. Instead, they do stupid, implausible things without any credible reasons, and that makes the romantic relationship between them seem as unconvincing as their behavior. I didn’t buy it, and I wouldn’t advise you to buy this book, either.

--Ellen Hestand

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