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The Man from Stone Creek
by Linda Lael Miller
(HQN, $19.95, PG-13) ISBN 0373-77115-0
***
Linda Lael Miller has been a favorite of mine for a long time. I have many of her westerns and historical era books on my keeper shelves. Perhaps it is this memory of previous excellent romances that kept me from liking The Man From Stone Creek as much as I wanted. While it is enjoyable, it is not up to her usual standards.

Sam O’Ballivan is a Ranger and is assigned as a schoolteacher in Haven, Arizona, near the Mexican border to catch some thieves who have been on the rampage for a few months. He arrives to find the soon-to-be replaced schoolmaster, Tom Singleton, dangling from the well rope and several students giggling in the bushes. One of the students, Terran, is the brother of the mercantile owner. Terran leads him to his sister, Maddie Chancelor. Maddie surprises Sam and starts him thinking things he should not be thinking. Maddie too, is attracted to Sam, although she doesn’t want to be, having lost her fiancé in a shooting just a few months before.

Secondary characters include Mungo Donagher and his family. Mungo owns the closest large ranch and half the town. He is married to his third wife, the high-and-mighty Undine, and has four sons. Garrett, Rex and Landry are grown men with a penchant for troublemaking. Sam suspects that one or more of them are involved in the gang. The fourth son is Ben, who is the same age as Terran. At twelve he is small yet has had to learn to survive around his snarling father and three bullying brothers. The other townspeople who come into play are the local madam, a smarmy banker, a cowboy-turned-deputy named Rowdy Rhodes, and Estaban Vierra, a Mexican who is supposed to be Sam’s ally in catching the bad guys.

The conflict revolves around Sam and Maddie and how they get along with the townspeople of Haven. There are plenty of complications when Mungo shoots his oldest son. Ben and Terran provide Maddie with plenty of problems and of course, behind it all is the search for the outlaws.

Sam is a solid hero, but he is so laid back, he is almost too subtle a hero. He is a do-gooder and a good guy, even going so far as to being engaged to his partner’s daughter out of duty rather than love. When she pops up in Haven, more complications occur.

Maddie is a western lady, even though this tale is set in 1903. She has had to rely on herself to protect her brother since she was an early teenager and has worked hard to build a life without losing her self-respect. She falls for Sam and yet realizes he will be leaving. She doesn’t want to care for him and tries not to show it. This “lack of interest” ploy on both of their parts keeps the sexual tension from building. It is there but is really not part of the tale. The romance is too subtle for full enjoyment.

There is more action packed into the last 100 pages than the rest of the book. It is exciting and brings the story to a nice end. But I found it difficult to stay with it early on, thus diminishing the ultimate enjoyment of the book.

The PG-13 rating is there due to the explicit nature of the sex in the final pages because it is non-existent the first 2/3 of the book. While The Man from Stone Creek is pleasurable, it is not worth that hardcover price of admission. I hope Miller can recapture her magic in her upcoming novels.

--Shirley Lyons


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