Wild and Free

Love’s Journey Home
by Jackie Stephens
(Zebra, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8217-7355-0
Maybe it’s just me but if my identical twin sister told me she was wanted by the law for stealing a whole lot of dough and she’s innocent but needs to track down her low-life boyfriend to prove it and needed me to stand in for her until she can get it all straightened out, I’d offer to help her find a good lawyer.

And if a lawman came for me, told me I’d robbed a whole bunch more than my sister told me plus I’d stolen a horse and shot his father then stuck me on a horse that bounced my tookus for hours and miles, I’d be yelling, “I’m the good twin” at the top of my lungs not playing dumb. And when he stuck me in jail and locked the cell door, I’d whip out that daguerreotype of my twin and me saying, “See, see, there’re two of us and you’ve got the wrong one!” not tell him they were my cousins from back in Sicily.

Now remember my viewpoint is from 2002 where babies get Social Security numbers practically at birth, the AARP can find everyone when they turn fifty, and national criminal records are only a few computer commands away, and I’d still be pleading, “No, Mr. Lawman, I don’t wanna go!” But Bianca is in 1894, facing a judge and a hanging in a time and place where the letter of the law was sometimes honored more in the breach than in observance, and she’s just wondering how come her twin Francesca didn’t tell her this extra stuff not desperately trying to figure out how to save herself. Maybe giving her a necktie party would have the beneficial effect of improving the gene pool.

The lawman is Texas Ranger Kane Fairchild. He knows this Francesca Rossetti is bad to the bone and the girlfriend of one mighty nasty customer, but he can’t help but be attracted to her. He observes that she ought to be riding a horse better and that her Italian accent is thicker than he’d noticed before (Bianca’s and Francesca’s parents were Italian immigrants to Texas), but he’s doing his lawmanly duty - he’ll get her to show him where she hid the gold and he’ll bring her in. It turns night, but he keeps clip-clopping along holding her sleeping body in his manly arms and another manly part is taking notice of her shapely womanly parts (doesn’t that hurt on horseback?). In spite of himself, in spite of what he knows about the treacherous Francesca, he’s still attracted to the beautiful temptress. Bianca, meanwhile, can’t help but notice, “Dio, how handsome he is.”

Eventually Kane will discover the truth. What then? Will Bianca end up in the hoosgow for being an accessory and obstructing justice?

Yes, it’s yet another example of Romance Stock Plot Title I: The Big Misunderstanding, Subpart A: Identical Twins. Can’t romance authors come up with another plot for twins other than always having them mistaken for each other? And why must it always be a good twin/bad twin mixup? I’ve known a number of identical twins, and every time they’ve both been nice. What this stock plot needs is more heroines like the one in Baby, I’m Yours by Susan Andersen who insists you’ve got the wrong dame, bub, but that appears to be a vain hope. Making this a nineteenth century western variation with an Italian-American heroine whose conversation is peppered with Italian phrases doesn’t save Love’s Journey Home.

This particular version of this stock plot also borrows from another literary tradition: the road book. Texas is a big state, and Kane and Bianca spend a lot of time ambling around it with not much real action. This gives them lots of time to worry about things and sneak peaks at each other so they do both. Repeatedly.

Kane’s got more to worry about than finding the gold and taking Francesca to jail. He’s also a tortured hero - his beloved wife died and he blames himself. His family wants him to come home and help run the family ranch, but memories of Natalie keep him always on the move, unable to settle down. Bianca, who is committed to remaining gullible no matter what she learns, keeps dwelling on how Francesca is family, she couldn’t have lied.

And so it goes for mile after plodding mile. In one scene, Kane and Francesca take a train. It’s too bad they change to horseback, because Love’s Journey Home could use a faster track. Things don’t pick up until the last quarter of the book, but that’s too little too late. There’s a secondary romance back in Galveston between Bianca’s friend and her cousin that mostly just interrupts the flow of the main plot.

An annoyingly oblivious heroine, an overused stock plot, a dragging pace - it all adds up to a western romance with a lot of repetition and no sizzle. Love’s Journey Home is a trip you may not want to take.

--Lesley Dunlap

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