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Two Brothers by Linda Lael Miller
(Pocket, $12.00, PG-13) ISBN 0-671-71600-X
**
Two Brothers is a "flip" book, that is, a book where the back cover becomes the front cover for a second story. It's a neat concept: in theory you get two books for the price of one. In this case, however, at $12.00 you get two books for the price of two, and frankly, neither is worth the price. The "flip" concept's about the only thing satisfactory in this book.

The first of the two stories, "The Lawman", begins with a preface from the 1853 journal of Mattie Killigrew. Pregnant with their first child, Mattie and her husband are part of a westward-bound wagon train. She gives birth to twin boys during an Indian attack; her husband is killed.

Before she dies of blood loss, she arranges for two different families to take each of the boys (and manages to write all this down in her journal as well!).

Thirty years later Shamus (Shay) McQuillan, Jr., is the drunken marshal in Providence, California. His beloved fiancée was killed in a stage coach bombing more than a year earlier, and he's been drowning his sorrows. (He's been taking care of his manly urges with "a certain widow of faulty reputation" ever since. Now why was that information necessary?)

Shay is awakened from a drunken sleep by a stranger holding a gun to his throat – a stranger who looks exactly like him. Tristan Saint-Laurent, the twin brother he'd never known he had, has tracked him down because he was the owner of the stage coach. He wants Shay's assistance in catching the culprits and recovering the money that was on the stage.

Here's where I had my first problem with this story. What's the reaction of these separated-at-birth twins? Thrilled to be reunited? Eager to catch up on their lives? Explore their similarities and differences?

Nope. These are rough, tough westerners in an era when men were men. They don't have time for that sissy stuff. They're adversaries from the get-go for no apparent reason. (Character motivation is often shaky in both books.) In the opening reunion scene, Tristan says, "You know, little brother, before I leave this hind-tit town, I'm going to make a point of kicking your ass from howdy-do to farewell."

Ah, brotherly love.

Working as a waitress at the hotel restaurant is Aislinn Lethaby. Aislinn's admired the handsome marshal, and as he begins to emerge from his grief-induced stupor, he finds that he's thinking about Aislinn a lot.

Aislinn's dependent on keeping her job because she has two younger brothers she's hoping to bring out to California to join her. She is a compassionate person who deserves some security and happiness. So what's she do? Dumb stuff that jeopardizes her job time and time again.

The most absurd is when she dons a dance hall girl costume to run to the saloon to check on Shay because she's heard a gunshot and is convinced he must have been shot. (I warned you about the shaky character motivation.) She's not a TRR TSTL (too-stupid-to-live) heroine, but she's close.

The story abounds with plots and subplots. Can Shay and Tristan solve the stage coach bombing? Can Aislinn and Shay sort out their romantic difficulties? Can Aislinn protect the dance hall girl from the powerful rancher's son? Can Shay repair his relationship with his sisters? Is his sister Dorrie's lover going to return? What about their father's will? Can Shay arrest the bad guys without getting killed? Can Shay and Tristan find that family feeling again?

I couldn't help but wonder if the story had been severely edited from a much longer version. The author seems to have tried to pack too much conflict, too many dilemmas, into this uneven episodic book. The story lurches from crisis to crisis with little transition. Some story lines are introduced than dropped.

What's left is basically the story of how spunky Aislinn stands up to the marshal, gets his attention, does dumb things, and gets her man.

What the story really lacks is any exploration of the central theme: the reunion of Shay and Tristan. Other than fooling folks with their identical appearance, virtually every incident in this book wouldn't have been any different had these two been completely unrelated strangers. Yes, by the end, they've reached some sort of working understanding but so could friends or business associates.

Incidentally, there's a tacked-on epilogue describing Shay and Aislinn's wedding night that seems to serve no possible purpose other than to add some gratuitous sex. It's in abrupt contrast to the rest of the book and is a jarring ending.

The second book on the flip side, The Gunslinger, is worse.

Once again there's the chopped-down sensation of the first book. There are hints of a tawdry secret in Tristan's past (including the book's title), but that theme fizzles. More hints about his relationship with his adoptive father are unexplored. There's very little examination of Tristan's character at all unless learning that he wants to be rich and powerful counts.

Emily Starbuck drives a large flock of sheep onto Tristan's ranch. Emily has a note for the ranch that was given as collateral by the previous owner in exchange for a loan to her deceased uncle.

She has driven the sheep from Montana to California with only her dog and her horse Walter as company. Over a thousand miles. Through the mountains. Without an experienced guide. Arriving in June means she would have had to have left during the winter or early spring before the snow would have melted! (Obviously I have serious doubts that such a sheep drive could even be accomplished.)

She says she did that because she didn't have any choice. (How about selling the sheep and taking the money?) She's spent months on the trail and doesn't know that Walter's a mare.

Yes, it's another TSTL heroine! (When Tristan asks what's going on in her "extraordinary brain," I figure he was marveling that there was any activity at all.)

From the moment Tristan helps her off her horse, he's determined to keep her. He offers to let her stay with him until their legal situation is sorted out. (With all the resulting I'm-sleeping-in-his-bed contemplation that passes for sexual tension in this story.)

The big conflicts are whether Emily is willing to remarry after four years of being more servant than wife to an older man (yup, she sure is) and whether the other ranchers in the area will accept Emily's sheep or if she'll have to move on. How that conflict is resolved is anticlimactic as well as of questionable historical veracity given attitudes of the period.

There seems to be no reason for the attraction between Emily and Tristan except that the plot requires it. I never felt as though they were well-matched and, in fact, wouldn't wish an Emily on the bad guys. I want my heroines to be intelligent and audacious – the kind who wouldn't ignore the hero's directions and put herself and others in danger. Emily certainly doesn't qualify.

But then there's no accounting for the taste of a guy who feels immediate attraction to a woman who has spent over a thousand miles with a bunch of sheep, seldom bathed, and has been wearing the same set of clothes all the way!

I like the idea of a "flip" book with related plots and characters. Two Brothers has the potential for powerful stories, but unfortunately it's unrealized. No matter how intriguing the concept, this time the result is two very uninspired stories.

A two-heart book means that readers ought to "think twice" before buying. At the price of $12 a copy for Two Brothers, readers ought to think twice and twice again.

--Lesley Dunlap


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