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Wild West Wife by Susan Mallery
(Harl. Historical #419, $4.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-29019-5
Do not be misled by the trite title of Susan Mallery's new Harlequin Historical, Wild West Wife. This well crafted story of a community in the grip of an evil bully explores the limits of frontier justice and the classic question of when, if ever, the end may justify the means. Billed as a "prequel," Mallery's book looks back to 1879, and specifically nineteenth-century Whitehorn, Montana, which is also the setting of her contemporary Silhouette Special Edition series.

After having been abandoned as an infant, Haley Winthrop grew up in a poor section of Chicago, supported herself from the age of twelve, and, through hard work and perseverance, went from being a scrubwoman to being a physician's assistant. Realizing that she must move on in order to have the warm, loving family which is her dream, she answers an ad for a mail-order bride.

Armed with a ticket and one letter from her fiancé, Haley heads west, fantasizing about the man she will marry. Unfortunately, the man of her dreams, Lucas Stoner, is a cold, calculating scoundrel. Stoner runs the land office in Whitehorn and has big plans. He plans to become rich by building railroads and then acquire even more power by becoming governor of Montana. He believes having the right wife by his side will further these ambitions and plans to marry an orphan so he can "invent" an acceptable past for her.

Jesse Kincaid returned from a cattle-drive to learn his family's ranch had been burned and his father lynched. Though he is a law-abiding, hard-working rancher, Jesse holds up a stagecoach and kidnaps Haley. He intends to use her as a pawn in his attempt to force Stoner to talk with him about the murder of his father and of others.

The unintended effect of the kidnapping and week-plus trek around the countryside evading a drunken, inept sheriff, is the slow death of Haley's dreams to marry Lucas, which forces Jesse to examine the relationship between his well-intentioned actions and their unanticipated results.

While Jesse and Haley are on the trail avoiding anyone sent by Stoner to retrieve his kidnapped fiancée, they talk. Though Haley does try to escape from Jesse with credible, frightening results, as they begin to relate to each other, grudging, mutual admiration develops between them. Jesse describes his desperation, his reasons for kidnapping her and his uncertainty about Stoner's plans. Haley describes the grim, harsh aspects of life in Chicago and shares her dreams of marrying and having a family. As the days pass, Haley begins to think there may be some truth to Jesse's stories, though she is very slow to discard her dream of a life with Lucas Stoner.

After losing his wife and his mother within a short period of time, Jesse considers ranch life too hard on women generally, and has concluded that love leads to pain and death for women. Clearly, Jesse and Haley are at odds in their dreams and goals. The resolution of these differences and the acceptance of each other's love as genuine is the focus of most of the book.

There is a small cast of secondary characters involved in interesting relationships, including Daisy Newcastle, a widow who loved Jesse's father. Daisy has become Lucas' mistress in her effort to ferret out information which she and Jesse can use to bring Lucas to justice. Like Jesse, Daisy is a good, moral person who finds herself doing abhorrent things out of desperation. Lucas and his cousins, dullards who roam the countryside killing at his bidding, are no "Blazing Saddles" desperadoes but truly evil men, whose criminal acts are nearly impossible to prove.

The strengths of this book far outweigh some minor irritations. Susan Mallery creates admirable, likable characters – gutsy, intelligent women, and loyal, sensitive men. Whether or not you are familiar with Whitehorn and want to read about its "history," Wild West Wife is worth reading.

--Sue Klock

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