Scoundrel for Hire
by Adrienne de Wolfe
(Avon, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-380-80527-8
I found the hero and heroine of Adrienne de Wolfe’s Scoundrel for Hire both credible and appealing. Unfortunately, they were trapped in an unconvincing plot and surrounded by a set of equally unconvincing secondary characters.

Raphael Jones is the result of an affair his mother had with a travelin’ man. His mother’s Bible-thumping husband has damned him as inherently sinful because of the circumstances of his birth…and Raphael believes him. When he is 14, Rafe's mother dies and he runs away. Unprepared for life on his own, he is taken in by Fred and Fiona, a pair of con artists who run a traveling theater company. Believing himself to be as bad as his stepfather claims, Rafe takes readily to a life of chicanery and play-acting.

Silver Nichols, on the other hand, loves her father dearly even though he was absent, prospecting in the West, for most of her childhood. Silver was raised in Philadelphia, first by her mother and then, after her mother's death, by her grandfather and aunt. At age 18, after a traumatic encounter with a suitor, she fled Philadelphia and joined her father in Aspen.

In 1886, Silver is running the business side of her father's successful silver mine when she meets Rafael Jones. Rafe is passing himself off as a well-known geologist, but, of course, he is working with Fred to sell shares in a wholly fictitious diamond mine. Silver has met the geologist he is impersonating but instead of exposing him, she hires him to seduce her prospective stepmother. Silver is convinced that Celestia Cooper, her father's fiancée, is a charlatan using her so-called occult powers to defraud Maximillian Nichols.

Rafe believes that Silver wants him to seduce Celestia to preserve her father's fortune for herself. Even though her motivation offends him, he agrees to participate in the con because he needs the money for Fiona who is dying of tuberculosis. He is unprepared for Max to be so taken with him that he offers to pay Rafe $75,000 if he woos and wins Silver.

Brought together by Max's scheming, Silver and Rafe find themselves learning to appreciate each other and to understand how their childhoods shaped their characters. The scenes with just these two, without the distraction of the other characters, held my interest and had me turning pages with some degree of enthusiasm.

Aside from Rafe and Silver, however, the characters in Scoundrel for Hire are painted with such broad strokes that they end up as caricatures. I found it difficult to work up more than a mild interest in Max and Celestia or Fred and Fiona. There is an even less believable set of villains who provide the unlikely and long-drawn-out climax to Scoundrel for Hire.

A died-in-the-wool fan of Western romances may find enough elements in de Wolfe's Scoundrel for Hire to make reading it an intermittently enjoyable experience. The less dedicated reader may not.

--Nancy J. Silberstein

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