Prairie Bride

The Marshal and Mrs. O’Malley
by Julianne MacLean
(Harl. Historical #564, $4.99, rated PG-13) ISBN 0-373-29164-7

The Marshall and Mrs. O’Malley has one of the most charming covers I’ve seen on a romance in recent months. If you're tired of lush, improbably long-haired women spilling out of their too-tight dresses, take a look at this artwork. Sexy and understated, it's perfect for the book. This western romance about a widow out to avenge her husband’s death and the handsome marshal who stands in her way has some equally charming moments.

Jo O’Malley is afraid for her life and that of her young son, Leo. Widowed six months earlier, she was an eyewitness to her husband’s lynching and she knows who one of the men was: Zeb Stone, local merchant and would-be mayor of Dodge City, Kansas. Jo decides to dress herself in men’s clothes and shoot Zeb while he’s in his store. With luck, nobody will recognize her and she’ll be just another faceless bandit who drifts in and out of town.

This plan goes horribly awry when the new marshal in town, Fletcher Collins, happens to pass by and notice the masked gunman holding Zeb at gunpoint. Jo, in a fit of “I can’t shoot him” trembling, manages to shoot the marshal, instead. She’s also wounded when Zeb fires at her, but manages to escape.

Fletcher is embarrassed by the escape of the masked man. When Jo faints in the street, having changed her clothes in a local privy, Fletcher is concerned. This lovely woman was hurt because he didn’t do his job properly. At least he can look after her and help her get home. Jo, for her part, quickly figures out that she shot the marshal, and her guilt is consuming.

Jo and Fletcher are attracted to one another, but Fletcher’s sister is married to Zeb Stone and Jo doesn’t think Fletcher would ever believe her if he knew why Jo was trying to kill Zeb. Eventually, Jo is unmasked and Fletcher is unwillingly forced to confront the truth about his brother-in-law.

Fletcher is a fun character. He’s been an unofficial lawman for a while, but isn’t at all sure he wants to wear a badge. He sure has the hots for Jo, though. I liked his loyalty to his sister, yet Fletcher was willing to look at the facts and consider other possibilities rather than staunchly denying Zeb’s possible involvement.

Jo was less sympathetic, mainly because she came across as heedless of her own safety. She doesn’t think ahead and needs constant rescuing from her own actions; plus, she has fits of nervous trembling at inopportune moments that are convenient to the plot, i.e. just at the point when she could have shot Zeb point-blank, she closes her eyes, pulls the trigger, and shoots Fletcher instead. I got tired of Fletcher having to come to her aid. Even after Fletcher figures out her disguise, Jo insists she can handle things herself. Enough, already.

I also wondered at Jo’s son, Leo, who tended to disappear from the story just when it was time to get Fletcher and Jo alone. For all that Jo makes a big deal out of wanting to keep her son safe, she hardly spends any time with him. Part of the time, I couldn’t figure out where the boy was.

The budding romance between Jo and Fletcher felt sweet without being cloying, and the two do manage to generate some heat, though this is far from a sensual romance. The Marshal and Mrs. O’Malley is a decent read with a wonderful cover. That’s not a heartfelt recommendation, but neither is it a thumbs-down. If you like western romance, you could do a lot worse.

--Cathy Sova

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