The Cowboy & the Heiress
by Anna DeForest
(Zebra Bouquet #44, $3.99, PG) ISBN 0-821-76580-9
***
The Cowboy and the Heiress is the story of a runaway rich girl and a cowboy with a heart of gold. Sound familiar? Me, too. But this romance rises a notch above the tried and true with adult characters who try to communicate and stay level-headed about their attraction to each other, and for the most part, it succeeds admirably.

Colorado rancher Lang Nelson is stopping for a cup of coffee at Pete's Diner one day when he spies a leggy blonde making a hasty exit from an eighteen-wheel truck, followed by a surly driver who seems to think she owes him for the lift. And he's not talking about money. Lang can't stand idly by and watch this woman get hassled, so he intervenes and gets rid of the driver. Following the blonde into the café, he's surprised to hear this classy-looking lady inquire about a job as a cook. As it happens, Lang desperately needs a cook for his ranch, which he's trying to keep afloat by taking in paying guests.

The woman, who calls herself Beth Richards, claims she's a great cook. Her quiet humility as she asks Lang for a job impresses him, and against his better judgment, he hires her on a trial basis. It's pretty obvious she's running from someone or something, but what?

Lang, in addition to running a ranch, is guardian to his two teenaged twin nieces. Add in a friendly housekeeper and an aging uncle, and Lang has his hands full. He sure doesn't need the complication of his attraction to this mystery woman. Beth, for her part, left a conniving ex-fiancé behind in New York and has made her way across country to western Colorado as incognito as she can manage. Here, in a place where she spent a happy childhood summer, she may find herself. And she'll start with her cooking skills.

The author made quite a few right moves in this story, in this reviewer's opinion. First off was the idea that Beth actually can cook, saving readers from another tired useless-rich-girl-who-can't-boil-water-but-by-golly-she's-spunky plot. Lang is forthright, caring, intrigued by this woman but certain she'll want more than he can give her in the material goodies department. As the weeks go by and Beth flourishes, Lang is forced to change his mind. It's fun to watch.

The book stumbles a bit about midway through. Nothing much seems to happen for quite a while, and then a few plot elements get thrown in that don't fit, like Lang's supposed broken heart over another rich girl. This is mentioned at the outset, but nothing is done with it, and as any sort of conflict, it seems thrown in at best, like a guy couldn't have a good reason for not marrying at age 36 except a scheming, snooty ex-girlfriend. Given that Lang himself protests that he's just never met a woman he wanted to settle down with, it's contradictory. Why include it? He had enough conflict without it.

And the timing doesn't fit. In fact, there were several instances in the book where the author seemed to have lost track of her chronology. The ex-girlfriend was one of several incidences. The housekeeper tells Beth that Lang's father died and Lang gave up the rodeo circuit to stay close to his mother. Later in the story, Lang explains that when his father died, he went away to college. When you're trying to build a background for the hero, this sort of inconsistency is frustrating.

The ending was satisfying, though, and Beth does a lot to make things come out her way. Once she finds herself, she's not about to let the new discoveries go to waste.

The Cowboy and the Heiress is a slightly uneven category romance with two mature, reasonable characters who act like adults. Readers who like stories with a western flavor may want to check this one out.

--Cathy Sova


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