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A Dime Novel Hero

Untamed Heart by Maureen McKade
(Avon, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-380-80284-8
I am about to make a terribly profound statement about what makes a good romance novel. The characters! Now I know this comes as no surprise to anyone reading this review. We want characters we can care about. We also want an entertaining and interesting story. Well, Maureen McKade has come through for us in her new western, Untamed Heart.

I don't know when I've come across a heroine I like more than Gabby Wade, proprietor of Miss Gabby's Gambling Emporium in Sawtooth, Wyoming, in the year of our Lord 1887. She is lovely, of course. But more than that, she has a joie de vivre that shines through her every act. She is also kind, intelligent, thoughtful, determined, generous and brave.

Gabby had arrived in Sawtooth about six months before our story begins and had purchased a rundown saloon which she has turned into a most respectable establishment. There is no cheating allowed, the girls serve drinks and nothing else, and Gabby keeps an eye on her customers. Nobody is allowed to lose more than they can afford in her place and she'll cut off a customer's booze if she thinks he's had one too many.

Gabby cares so much about the Emporium because it is the first home she's had since she was a child. After her parents' deaths, she traveled all over the west in the company of her uncle, a gambler and a con artist. So when the survival of her business is threatened, she's willing to do whatever it takes to preserve it.

Miss Gabby's Emporium is threatened because change is coming to Sawtooth. If the town is to get a much needed bridge, it has to incorporate and elect a mayor. And the leading and only candidate for mayor, Tyler Ashburn, has made it clear that if he is elected, his first act will be to close all the saloons and gambling establishments in town.

Ty hates gambling and for good reason. His father had lost all he owned gambling and had committed suicide, leaving 11 year old Ty to support his mother and younger brother. As far as Ty is concerned, gambling is the devil's work.

When nobody else will step forward to challenge Ashburn, Gabby decides that she will run for mayor.

In fact, Ty is a reluctant candidate. He has been forced to run by his soon-to-be father-in-law, Vernon Greenwood, the town's leading businessman. Ty is scheduled to marry Greenwood's daughter Eleanor in just a few weeks time. Marrying the beautiful, if cold and contained, daughter of the town's foremost citizen will bring him the respect and position that Ty has sought ever since the disgrace of his father's death.

This is the entertaining and interesting story that McKade provides in addition to her attractive characters. These two unlikely people are thrown together in the campaign. Gabby is able to see behind Ty's stern facade to the decent and caring man who has buried his true self in his quest for respect and position. Ty must overcome his preconceived notions about his opponent's character and accept that there is more to life that amassing wealth and achieving higher status. And he must come to realize that a cold, pragmatic marriage with a selfish and uncaring woman is not likely to bring happiness and that happiness is worth having.

In addition to the primary romance, McKade provides a nice secondary love story involving Gabby's friend Rose, and ex-prostitute whose life Gabby saved and Ty's friend Joe. She also adds an element of danger and intrigue as the reader discovers that Vernon Greenwood is not the upright man he appears and that he has his own agenda that he will ruthlessly pursue at any cost.

One of the most impressive aspects of Untamed Heart> is McKade's ability to touch all the reader's emotions. There are moments of "laugh out loud" humor and moments of touching grief. There is romance and there is suspense. And there is a nice portrayal of life in a small western town.

All in all, Untamed Heart is a most satisfying book. I must dig out McKade's previous book, Dime Novel Hero from my to-be-read pile. If you are a fan of western romances, I recommend this one without reservation.

--Jean Mason

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