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The Mackenzies: Zach by Ana Leigh
(Avon, $5.99, PG -13) ISBN 0-380-81103-0
**
Never having read Ana Leigh’s other novels about the Mackenzie family, I wonder if the author is suffering from series malaise, made to churn out one too many of a good thing. For while The Mackenzies: Zach lacks any overtly glaring flaws, it feels mechanical and directionless, as though someone had been whacking the author with a broomstick a motivation to keep her typing.

After escaping a coercive relationship with an abusive lawman, Rose Dubois has landed the prestigious job of waitress in the Harvey Restaurant chain with a single goal in mind: marriage to a rich husband who will provide her with respectability and stability. Unfortunately, her professional competency hasn’t earned her any suitors, only the thankless position of heading up a new branch of the restaurant in a nasty little cowtown called Brimstone, Texas.

Brimstone is plagued with a new posse of trouble-seeking vagrants, headed by the nasty Jesse Tait - whom Rose quickly offends - and graced by the gorgeous Zach Mackenzie - whom Rose quickly besots. As an itinerant cowboy with unsavory companions and a shady past, Zach hardly fits the profile for Rose’s suitor search. However, she has a hard time remembering that when he’s making her pulse hit light speed, even after his new employer and the richest man in town, Stephen Rayburn, takes a potentially matrimonial shine to her.

As for Zach, he’s actually not so seamy. But what with the nature of his undercover mission, and Rose’s aversion to lawmen, he’s not about to tell her he’s actually a Texas Ranger, and a member of one of the wealthiest families in the state to boot. Still, despite his deception, and Rose’s own mercenary determination to marry Stephen, he can’t resist their attraction any more than she can. Once passion deepens into the respect of friendship, they’re really in trouble - and it only gets worse, ‘cause someone’s decided to kill Rose, and Zach too, and some innocent bystanders just for the heck of it. Yikes.

There are a few nagging contradictions in the book, like Rose’s immediate willingness to befriend a member of a criminal posse despite her deep need for respectability, or her lack of real curiosity about why Zach took up with the posse in the first place when he constantly disparages their moral worth. Also, the connection between Rayburn and Jesse Tait, which she rejects as impossible, is blatantly obvious. But these issues aren’t crippling to the book itself; they just make Rose seem stupid.

More troubling is the less tangible yet equally undeniable sense that this story is propelled not by characters or story, but by page count. A full fifty-one pages are devoted to a day at the local fair, thirty-three of which detail Rose and Zach’s performance in a contest to win tickets to that night’s circus performance. They solve clues without difficulty, break into a building and are not caught, go into an outhouse and do not get dirty. Perhaps a nice way to actually spend a day with a love interest, this uneventful passage is not the stuff of literature - and therein lies the crux of the book’s problem. Fiction should not document the passing, or killing, of time, and when a reader is left wondering what the point of the pervious fifty pages was, something is very wrong.

With such unclear stakes for such large chunks of the story, real danger feels artificially tacked on when it does emerge, as though added as afterthought, in a bid to inject the plot with new vigor. This schism between no stakes and the highest stakes of all - those of life or death - breaks the book into several different moods that make it feel much longer than it actually is.

This may not deter the reader from muddling through to the end, since Zach Mackenzie possesses a certain down-home charm that transcends his confused surroundings and this reviewer’s bias against men who call women “honey.” Still, one can only wish that he had been provided a clearer, cleaner, and more direct path on which to strut his Southern charm.

--Meredith McGuire


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