Autumn Star by Lori Morgan
(Leisure, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-8439-4892-2
**
Lacey Ashton has just arrived in Portland from England to meet the father she hasn't seen in thirteen years. Within moments her are belongings stolen and she finds herself with no place to sleep and hungry after nearly two days without food. That's how she ends up in Portland's most infamous cathouse. Of course she doesn't know it's a cathouse, and promptly drinks several glasses of champagne. It's really the only sensible thing to do.

Along comes U.S. Marshall Morgan Caine, just in time to rescue her from a pawing drunk. Morgan gets her out of the pickle and finds her a safe place to sleep. The thanks he gets is Lacey's indignation because Morgan initially mistakes her for a prostitute. Unbelievable, since all he did was find her drunk in a brothel.

Morgan is seeking revenge for the murder of his sister Shannon and is only in Portland to see some of the men responsible hanged. After the hanging, he returns to the Washington territory. Coincidentally, that's where Lacey is with her father Colin. Imagine her surprise when Colin's right hand man introduces his nephew, none other than Morgan Caine. So they all head out for the Washington territory together where Morgan and Lacey fall for each other while some bad stuff happens.

To keep the reader from realizing that there is not much of a plot, the author throws in an incredible number of interrelated sub-plots. Why did Lacey and her father have to escape from Virginia when she was seven? How come Colin left her in England all those years? Who is Lacey's stepbrother's real father? Why did the Lawton gang choose Morgan's sister? This is all in the first seventy pages. When you add a cast of secondary characters that would make Cecil B. de Mille proud, it creates total confusion.

As for Lacey, she is the poster girl for foolish, annoying heroines. When she isn't pulling out guns in the worst possible circumstances or sulking about how no one believes in her, she's getting in the way of the hero, inevitably letting the bad guy escape. Her mantra to anyone who will listen is that she's a Big Girl. This would be a whole lot easier to swallow if she wasn't constantly acting like a petulant child. At one point, Lacey describes her current emotions as irrational and childish. One could argue that pretty much describes Lacey all the time.

For example, at the prodding of her father, Morgan suggests to Lacey that she buy some clothing more appropriate to traveling with a wagon train. In short, a corset and bustle aren't the best choice for the rigors of the trail. Lacey, with her usual knee-jerk reaction to anything that smacks of an order, purchases men's clothing. That'll show him! She then takes great pleasure in rubbing in that she was only doing as Morgan commanded and stops just short of actually going "nyah nyah nyah". She's also rather inconsistent. On one hand she's bent out of shape that Morgan could dare mistake her for a tramp, but then she gets upset when he initially rebuffs her extremely forward advances.

One does feel a little sympathy for Lacey, though, as she seems just as confused by the tangled web of sub-plots as the reader. Whenever she dares ask someone what's going on she either gets a brush off, or from the ever-charming Morgan, "You talk too damn much." Lacey gets her answers about the time the reader does, complete with a nice bow to tie it all together.

There's not much to say about the hero, because frankly, the reader doesn't find out much about Morgan. The majority of the book takes places in Lacey's self-centered little head and what is seen of Morgan is one-dimensional. He's a lone wolf, determined to seek vengeance and has no time for silly things like love and family; pretty familiar territory.

Autumn Star was an absolute chore to read. I had to put the book down several times out of sheer frustration, torn between shaking some sense into Lacey or because I'd become hopelessly lost in the knot of sub-plots. It earns a generous two hearts.

--Anne Bulin


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