The Duchess and the Desperado
by Laurie Grant
(Harl. Historical, $4.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-29021-7<
****
For readers who like Western romance with a twist, I have no trouble at all recommending The Duchess and the Desperado as a fun read. There are a few minor bumps in the road. Overall, though, this is an entertaining story.

Sarah Challoner, Duchess of Malverne, is preparing to embark upon a goodwill tour of the American West, circa 1872. She leaves behind her petulant younger sister and a suggestion from Queen Victoria that she marry an available duke, who is at least her equal in rank. Sarah has other plans. She will be wed to Thierry, a French nobleman, when she reaches Santa Fe. This assignation and secret wedding has been arranged prior to her departure. When she returns, she'll be a married lady and that will be that.

Initially, I had some question as to how an unmarried young lady could be a duchess in her own right, but the author takes pains to explain how it could happen. Rare, but possible.

Upon arriving in Denver, Sarah is intrigued by the appearance of a man in full western attire, right down to his dustcoat and boots. Her nearsighted inspection of Morgan Calhoun is returned with a flirtatious wink. No sooner does Sarah depart from the train than bullets begin to fly and she is tackled by none other than Morgan, who rightly deduces that someone wishes to harm this lady. If he only knew.

Sarah, after some thought, decides to hire Morgan as a bodyguard. She'll keep to her intended social schedule. But with a strong man beside her, and the attentions of her servants and uncle, she'll be safe enough. Won't she?

Not for long. After initially resisting Morgan's suggestions for her safety, Sarah is convinced when threatening notes start arriving and there are other attempts on her life. Soon she and Morgan are fleeing to Santa Fe in disguise. And Sarah can't help comparing Morgan to her jealous fiancÚ. Next to Thierry, Morgan stacks up well. Too well.

The identity of the assassin isn't kept a secret; rather, the author treats readers to a story of love on the run. It mostly works just fine. I admit to a bit of exasperation with a couple of convenient misunderstandings, and Sarah's thickheaded insistence on having her own way wore a bit thin early on, but overall this book held my interest.

Morgan was a delightful character. A wanted man with no way to prove his innocence, he's reluctant to be ensnared by the charms of this pretty foreigner and exasperated by her stubborn streak. But the more he gets to know her, the deeper he falls under her spell. Sarah, for her part, doesn't spend much time waffling over the missing Thierry. Once she decides she's found love with a real man, she doesn't hesitate. And her reluctance to wear her eyeglasses was a hoot. Those of us who are, um, optically challenged will identify with her immediately.

The ending will either work just fine or leave you groaning. I must have been in the right mood to appreciate it. A bit wild, yes, but no more so than Sarah being a duchess in the first place.

So for an evening's entertainment in the Old West, give The Duchess and the Desperado a look. In fact, I'd have a bowl of popcorn handy.

--Cathy Sova


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