Heart of the Hawk by Justine Dare
(Topaz, $5.99) ISBN 0-451-40721-0
Justine Dare, a.k.a. Justine Davis, has a flair for creating strong characters and sustaining dramatic tension. She writes contemporary series romance, futuristic fantasy novels and now historical romance -- with a twist. Heart of the Hawk is Dare's second novel -- and hopefully not the last -- revolving around a mysterious, magical book that has served the Hawk family for centuries.

Joshua Hawk, a notorious gunfighter with a tragic past, is minutes away from being hanged for killing an unarmed man. Much to his surprise, he escapes that grisly fate when the widow of the man he killed steps forward to claim that her husband was armed when he attacked Hawk, and that the fight between the two men was fair.

Hawk is certain that the widow, Kate Dixon, is lying. He knows his attacker was unarmed. Yet why would Kate save the life of her husband's killer? He soon learns that the man he killed, Arly Dixon, was a cruel, drunken bully who physically and emotionally abused Kate. To thank her for saving his life, Hawk decides to stick around in Gambler's Notch and help Kate run Arly's mercantile store.

Kate has never known anything but cruelty and neglect at the hands of men -- first her father and then her husband. She is wary of Hawk, but gradually comes to trust him and then to care for him. She learns to value herself and to stand up for herself. But Kate knows something about her husband's death that she can never reveal to Hawk, and is afraid to let herself care for him.

Joshua Hawk has his own secret. He is the lone remaining member of a family with ancient roots. His grandfather, who raised him, had told him of a magical book that always appears to the last Hawk when the family line is in danger of dying out to help him find a way to revitalize the Hawk dynasty. Josh had never believed his grandfather's fanciful stories, and he is convinced that he will die someday in a gunfight, ending the family line. Much to his surprise, the magical book does make an appearance. Josh reads in disbelief that he has already met, in Gambler's Notch, the woman who will help him continue the Hawk line.

Heart of the Hawk has a strong hero and heroine. Joshua Hawk maintains his distance from others but is honorable and compassionate. He learns that he can rise above his gunfighter reputation and find a place among the townspeople of Gambler's Notch. Kate's growth from shell-shocked, abused widow to independent, outspoken woman unfolds nicely as well. The growing attraction between the two of them builds to a sizzling resolution.

Heart of the Hawk contains all of the Justine Dare trademarks I have come to expect -- strong writing, troubled yet sympathetic characters who are transformed by the power of love, interesting secondary characters, spicy love scenes (though not enough of them!) and above all, enough dramatic tension to keep you reading when you are supposed to be working, eating or picking up the kids. I only have one quibble with the book -- the tragedy in Josh's past that becomes the driving force behind his own death wish is almost identical to the one experienced by Dax Silverbrake in Dare's earlier novel, "The Skypirate". Despite that minor quibble, I devoured "Heart of the Hawk", and eagerly look forward to more books in the Hawk series.

Dare's earlier novel, Wild Hawk/b>, features a contemporary Hawk male who discovers the powers of the magic book. I recommend it highly as well.

--Susan Scribner

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