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Into the Sunset by Shelly Thacker
(Dell, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-440-22518-3
***
Shelly Thacker's new Western romance, Into The Sunset, left me wanting. Although the writing is good enough to make it easy to read, the story itself is ordinary, with the exception of three or four small scenes that showed promise.

The heroine is a young girl from a bad background who becomes a rich man's mistress rather than starve. When Antoinette Sutton becomes pregnant, her lover gives her $50 and tells her to leave. He is accidentally shot during their confrontation and she flees, correctly assuming that no one will believe she is not at fault. The man's vengeful wife sends his guilt-ridden brother, famous Federal Marshall Lucas McKenna, after her with the reminder that in an uncivilized place like the West, no questions will be asked if he has to kill her to bring her in.

Lucas catches up with Annie in the dying town of Eminence, Colorado, where kindly townsfolk took her in after she suffered a miscarriage on the stage. Annie is injured again when she tries to escape Lucas, and her injury prevents him from taking her back to St. Charles, Missouri, to stand trial. Lucas commandeers an abandoned hotel to serve as a jail and locks Annie up. During their forced intimacy as captive and jailer, Annie and Lucas discover an almost overwhelming passion for each other despite the fact that he hates and despises her.

There is something particularly disturbing about a story line that focuses on the heroine's growing attachment to her jailer. While it is true that Lucas eventually becomes convinced of Annie's innocence, he lusts after her long before that, and as her jailer, has access to her that she can neither control nor curtail. Although this disturbs her, it also excites her. Yuck.

To be fair, Lucas struggles against his attraction right up until the moment he breaks down and seduces her. His integrity reasserts itself immediately after this for him pleasurable lapse, and he continues to let her believe he despises her in order to maintain his distance. Poor Annie is left to believe that he simply took advantage of his position to scratch an itch and she still keeps falling in love with him.

Neither of these characters fully came to life for me. Lucas is supposed to be tough as nails, and just as righteous: a real Old Testament sort of guy. Unfortunately, he struck me as similar to Caleb Black in Elizabeth Lowell's Only His. But Lowell's character is righteous out of a belief that his personal search for retribution is a necessary individual effort that preserves the moral order in a lawless land. Lucas is concerned about bringing his brother's killer to justice, but his sense of himself is less sophisticated, and his struggle to come to terms with his increasingly ambivalent feelings for Annie left me feeling annoyed rather than sympathetic.

Poor Annie is almost too pitiful a character to criticize. Despised as a young girl because her mother was a whore, she couldn't go to school. Practically sold into the relationship with Lucas' brother by her own mother, she lost everything she ever cared about when she miscarried the baby he rejected. Throughout most of the book she feels unworthy, and her fantasies about being cared for by Lucas though distressing, given his treatment of her are clearly the best she can hope for. She's a sweetie with an understandably limited imagination.

My question is why would an author with a much wider imagination be content with a character like this? The best parts of the story and they literally stood out for me as I read them are a few scenes where Annie displays some feistiness and points out with devastating accuracy that Lucas is a hypocrite and naive in his judgment of her. For those few moments the embryo of a self-aware woman seems to appear only to dissolve once again into a helpless waif whose vulnerability is her chief marketable asset.

The other inhabitants of the small town of Eminence are a collection of potentially interesting characters who also fail to take up their emotional space in the story. The doctor who saves Annie's life, the aging spinster who takes her in, the young boy who latches on to Lucas as a role model and hero: all are given enough life as characters to whet our interest, but none stands out as a true original.

When I finished this book I was disappointed. The story didn't take me to any new places, the characters didn't introduce me to any new people, the plot offered no new insights into human behavior. However, if you think I expect too much from a romance novel, you might enjoy this book more than I did. Into the Sunset is a comfortable read that keeps you in familiar territory; some days, that's enough.

--Bev Hill


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