Last Chance Hart by Jillian Hart
(Harlequin Historical #404, $4.99, PG-13)
ISBN 0-373-29004-7
Last Chance Bride is a mail-order bride story with a twist the heroine is pregnant when she meets her prospective husband for the first time. Libby Hodges has had a rough life she's lived on her own for many years, supporting herself with her seamstress skills and forever craving love, family, and a home of her own.

When she spots an advertisement from a lonely widower looking for a mother for his daughter, she strikes up a correspondence. But the widower, Jacob Stone, is far away and intangible a nice fantasy, but cold comfort for a woman as starved for tenderness as Libby. So she's easy prey for an unscrupulous man who takes advantage of her innocence and vulnerability, uses her, then kicks her to the curb. Of course, because Libby has no luck, she winds up pregnant.

This all takes place before the opening of the story. We first meet Libby as she steps down from the stage coach in Montana Territory in 1866. She's come to meet Jacob Stone, but she's discovered on the journey that she's probably pregnant. When she meets her pen pal of six months, she is instantly struck by his good looks and gentle manner. He appears to be everything he seemed in his letters. Libby is also charmed by his six-year-old daughter, Emma. She knows that this is the man she wants to marry, but honesty compels her to tell him the truth about her condition.

For his part, Jacob is having second thoughts about Libby, anyway. She's much younger and prettier than he'd imagined, and that's a problem. See, he doesn't want to marry for love, because love hurts when you lose, as he well knows from the death of his first wife. He just wants a platonic friend to take care of his daughter. Upon meeting Libby, he instantly feels that this gentle, pretty woman could be a danger to his heart. Upon hearing she's pregnant, he balks completely. It seems his first wife died in childbirth, and this is a big issue for Jacob. He does not want to lose another wife.

This seems like adequate fodder for an enjoyable read, but it just doesn't work. First of all, Jacob is a little hard to swallow. Over and over again, he repeats this phrase to strengthen his resolve not to marry Libby: woman die in childbirth. Well, yes, but after about the fifth instance of this defense, I wanted to shake him. Not all women die in childbirth, for heaven's sake. As the book progresses and he shows absolutely no inclination to get over his heartbreak, he began to seem like a self-pitying emotional coward. Not an appealing hero characteristic. When he finally comes around, (and I do mean finally) it's for no discernable reason. He just changes his mind at last. It made no sense to me, and it was not at all believable

The story itself has problems. Due to a number of circumstances, Libby ends up living with Jacob and Emma in their isolated cabin in the woods for several months, acting as housekeeper and Emma's caretaker, as well as an occasional bed-partner for Jacob. But nothing happens in this section, and it's a long section. The characters spend a lot of time together doing various things, but neither of them manages any emotional growth during this time. There's absolutely no forward motion for the story, and this long dead section seemed completely unnecessary, besides being awfully boring.

And it bothered me that the social awkwardness of this situation for Libby was never addressed. I'm no historian, but it seems to me that a single, pregnant woman living in 1866 would have a hard time of it socially in any case, especially given the reference to a religious flock in town that protests a local dancing hall. But Libby faces no prejudice, and neither she nor Jacob even consider it as a possibility. Odd.

Then there's the writing. Normally, I hesitate to comment on an author's style, because this may be a matter best left to individual taste. But I found the narrative unpolished and overly simplistic, the dialogue stilted, and some scenes almost incoherent. The author also has an annoying habit. Of writing. In short sentences. Like this.

Perhaps the biggest problem I had with Last Chance Bride was that I felt absolutely nothing for these characters, except mild irritation at times. I didn't feel connected to them, so reading the book was as emotionally involving as reading a Dick and Jane primer. It's lifeless.

The one bright spot in this book was Jacob's daughter, Emma. Unlike the hero and heroine, she felt real to me, and most of her words and actions rang true for a child of that age. The author did a good job of crafting her.

This is Jillian Hart's first published book, and I really hate to dog a new author, but I just can't recommend Last Chance Bride.

--Ellen Hestand

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