Promised to a Stranger

Beloved Protector by Linda O’Brien
(Avon, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-380-81344-0
I hate, hate, hate it when a romance starts out with a premise I just can’t believe in. That’s what happened with Beloved Protector by Linda O’Brien. If I hadn’t had to review this book, I would never have persisted beyond the first 50 pages and wouldn’t have discovered the pleasant little story that followed.

The year is 1898, and Miss Eliza Lowe of Chicago, Illinois, has just had a letter from one of her two best friends. Eileen Caroni’s new husband has been accused of a crime he did not commit, and she has written to ask Eliza to loan her a tremendous sum of money - $1,000 - so that she and Francis can flee to Mexico. Eileen and Francis Caroni will travel east from Cheyenne, Wyoming; Eliza will travel west from Chicago; and they will meet somewhere in the middle.

A young lady like Eliza cannot travel unescorted, so her Aunt Violet hires a Pinkerton to accompany her, an act right off my believability scale. Hire both a Pinkerton and a female chaperone? Sure. I can believe that. I can’t believe Eliza going off alone with a 27-year-old man described as having a “proud bearing…wide, straight shoulders…(and) thick sandy-brown hair that was so clean it gleamed.” Surely an authentic Aunt Vi, the epitome of the fluttery maiden aunt, would have insisted on a woman to accompany Eliza and Case Brogan. Perhaps Ms. O’Brien thought that a chaperone would have been an impediment to the romance she was setting up, so…no female companion on this trip.

Eliza and Case start out for Moline, Illinois, in a wagon. The first night on the road, they camp out by the Green River, and Eliza decides she must bathe in the river. Case doesn’t think it such a good idea…nor did I, for different reasons…but he finally agrees, with the condition that he will remain within earshot so that she can call for help. Again, I had a hard time believing that a young woman, traveling alone with a man she had known so briefly, would strip down to the buff to bathe outdoors. Somehow or other, though, I wasn’t surprised when Case mistakenly decided Eliza was in danger and he was obliged to rescue her, nude or not. Again, the situation seemed like an authorial device to heat up the romance rather than something that would have happened naturally.

Once over the hurdles posed by the lack of a chaperone and Eliza’s unlikely al fresco bath, Beloved Protector settled into an agreeable read. There were no more episodes that strained credulity. Instead, I found myself enjoying a familiar storyline…the hero with dark secrets in his past, the naïve heroine, and the duplicitous villain, all dressed up by glimpses of an earlier America. Although Case rarely rose above the level of a stock character, Eliza’ naïveté was frequently amusing, and she did grow over the course of the story. Beyond that, Ms. O’Brien’s competent prose smoothed the path of a mostly ordinary narrative.

Beloved Protector is a perfect example of a three-heart romance. It has a major flaw - its unfortunate beginning - a typical characteristic of a three-hearter. The remainder of the book is formulaic, but Ms. O’Brien handles the formula well enough to insure that her story doesn’t slip down to two hearts. Her story doesn’t merit a fourth heart, however. To move up a step, she needs to bring more intensity to the romance and more originality to the conflict. That leaves me with a three-heart recommendation for Beloved Protector as an easy-to-read, undisturbing escape from reality.

--Nancy J. Silberstein

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