Daring the Devil

It Happened One Night

Lady Reckless

Maddie's Justice

Jackson’s Way by Leslie LaFoy
(Bantam, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-553-58313-1
Decadently intelligent dialogue, well-developed characters, and a refreshingly original plot: the allures of Jackson’s Way are immediately apparent. Unfortunately, they soon prove a source of frustration rather than pleasure, for Leslie LaFoy’s new book ultimately feels more like a trip to business school than a stroll down lover’s lane.

Eking out a living as a cattleman in harsh 1830s Texas, Jackson Stennett has dug his fair share of graves. But the death of Billy Weathers brings more complications than most. Not only was Billy like a father to Jackson, he was also co-owner of their ranch, which is now threatened by the debts he leaves behind. However, Billy has also willed Jack his property back east, which when sold should generate enough money to settle the loans. All Jack has to do is go to New York to oversee the liquidation.

This solution becomes less promising when Jack arrives to discover that Billy left a family behind in Manhattan, one that has assumed his wealth would devolve onto them. Jack’s shocking news to the contrary triggers a stroke in Billy’s former partner Richard, and is particularly bitter for Billy’s youngest daughter Lindsay, who with Richard’s help has struggled to accommodate her siblings’ outrageous expenditures with the diminishing assets of her father’s company.

Guilt-ridden but determined to save his ranch, Jack strikes a deal with Lindsay: if she helps him assess and liquidate the company, he’ll take only what he needs to clear Billy’s debts. Though the remaining amount will barely suffice, Lindsay sees no other choice. Bound by this uneasy truce, the two quickly discover a mutual admiration and attraction - one that exists precariously alongside Jack’s fear of emotional intimacy and Lindsay’s well-learned distrust.

However, when it becomes clear that someone has been methodically robbing the company, and that that person is willing to murder in order to remain undetected, Jack and Lindsay’s truce becomes a confederacy of the sort that makes maintaining emotional distance a dangerous, and perhaps impossible, task…

Leslie LaFoy’s considerable skill as a writer is never more evident than in the detailed discussions of finance which occupy so much of this book. Though at some point the sheer amount of them begin to weary the reader, they are surprisingly interesting, and do not explain why the romance between Jack and Lindsay is so strangely flat. Nor to blame is Lindsay’s frustrating tendency to play the all-enduring martyr for her obnoxious siblings; in a time in which women cannot possess assets in their own names, one understands why she must tolerate her brother’s abuse.

Less easy to appreciate is Lindsay’s admiration for Jack. His tactless behavior is the catalyst for a fatal stroke in the one man Lindsay loves; his ultimately baseless suspicions inflict pain on Lindsay’s already poor emotional state; and his conviction that this admirably self-sufficient woman should really just marry and find someone to take care of her smacks of a chauvinism that it is difficult to imagine Lindsay tolerating. We know she’s attracted to Jack because LaFoy tells us so, and Lindsay tells him so, but no elemental pull leaps from the page. And while real life often finds two people calmly debating with each other whether to act on their attraction, it does not translate very erotically to the page.

Still, despite the definite lack of sexual tension and Jack’s debatable qualifications as a hero, Jackson’s Way is one of the best-written novels that romance has offered lately. Should Leslie LaFoy successfully address these two faults in her next book, it will undoubtedly be on my keeper’s shelf.

--Margaret Shelley

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