Once a Mistress

 
Donovanís Bed by Debra Mullins
(Avon, $5.99, PG-13) 0-308-80774-2
****
Iíve never been much of a fan of romances set in the days of the American Old West. They seem over-populated by stereotypes: the reformed gambler/gunslinger, the spunky schoolteacher/newspaper reporter, the taciturn lawman, the wealthy rancher, the dependable middle-aged doc, the gossipy busybody, the swaggering ranch hand, the laconic old-timer. We may no longer be able to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear with the Lone Ranger, but he and his pals left a lasting mark on the western novel and romances are not immune.

Every once in a while, however, an author puts such a fun spin on this tried-and-true formula that I canít help but enjoy the experience. Yes, all those old stereotypes are alive and well and living in Donovanís Bed, but thereís also a lively spirit that is irresistible. In her review of the authorís debut book, one of my fellow reviewers stated that Ms. Mullins showed talent for writing lighter historical romance. Iíll second that opinion.

When an ornately carved bed is carted through town on the way to Jack Donovanís ranch, Sarah Calhoun is determined to get to the bottom of the story. Donovan had appeared in the area with enough money to buy a large ranch and build a fine house which he has been filling with the best furniture ever since. Sarah knows there is a story about his background that he has been concealing.

Sarah is the editor of the Burr, Wyoming Territory, newspaper. She took over the job from her father three years ago when he was murdered by Sarahís lover, Luke Petrie. The scandal has tainted Sarahís reputation, and she has been mostly shunned by the good women in town ever since. As a result, she dresses in somber clothing and dedicates herself to running the newspaper.

Donovan is a man with a plan. Now that he is a respected rancher he is looking for the right woman to marry, to run his house and raise his children. Even though he is attracted to the lovely Sarah, whom he begins to think of as his sassy girl, she doesnít fit his concept of the right woman. He is certain that her dedication to the newspaper will not allow her to devote her full attention to him and tending his house.

At a community dance, however, Donovan is struck with the sensation that she is the ďright woman.Ē As they are dancing, he tries to fight the feeling while Sarah is trying to pump him for information. When she learns that he would love to have her in his bed but as his mistress not his wife, she gets angry and vows to get even. She writes a newspaper story about Donovanís quest for a bride, and suddenly every single woman in the area is determined to be Mrs. Donovan.

Can Donovan avoid the many lures being cast his way? Will Donovan accept that his idea of the right woman isnít right for him at all? Can Sarah let go of her sense of guilt and believe she deserves a husband and family? Will things go wrong if Luke Petrie shows up again? Will Donovanís or Sarahís past deny them happiness?

Donít get the wrong impression from the suggestive title and the misleading cover picture on this book. The characters donít get anywhere near a New Orleans bordello. Yes, the sexual tension between Jack Donovan and Sarah Calhoun is high from nearly the first chapter. But this is a book with a well-developed sense of fun. There is as much foreplay in their dialogue as in their physical relationship. Itís gratifying that Donovan realizes so quickly that Sarah is the right woman because itís evident to the reader right away.

The character development in Donovanís Bed is equally good. The author has put new faces on those old stereotypes. Readers who have grown tired of the classic tortured hero are going to appreciate Donovan. Heís got a painful past, but heís put it behind him and made a new life for himself. The only surprise is that it took a newspaper article to get all the women in the area to throw themselves at him -- this guyís got ďGood CatchĒ written all over him. Fortunately, Sarah is his equal. Sheís picked herself up after a personal misfortune and moved on with her life. These two belong together.

If you, like me, ordinarily avoid romances set in the American West, you may want to make an exception in this case. Those readers who love this setting will want to put this book high on their to-buy list. I have serious doubts that the Old West was ever like this, but more romances with this setting should be. This is a western romance I can strongly recommend, and thatís about as rare as a legendary silver bullet.

--Lesley Dunlap


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