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To Kiss a Texan by Jodi Thomas
(Jove, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-515-12503-2
****
Jodi Thomas is one of my favorite western historical subgenre Texas authors and she does not disappoint me in her new entry in the saga of the McLain brothers. This is the story of Wes McLain, the eldest of three brothers who decided to leave Indiana after the war and try their luck in Texas. It is also the poignant story of a young woman who has suffered too much in her brief life and who, with Wes' help, discovers her true worth.

Wes is in Denton, Texas, to try to make contact with his erstwhile fiancée. The wealthy Angela Montago had agreed to marry him when she thought he was going to be a rich rancher. But after he lost his herd to a stampede, she cut him off. Wes wants to see Angela to tell her that he has a way to restore his fortune. He has a map that will lead him to a treasure buried thirty years ago before the massacre of Texans at the Goliad mission.

As he waits for Angela (he knows she will be heading to a planned revival meeting), a wagon with a cage rolls up beside him. Inside the cage is the wild woman who will be the featured attraction at the meeting. The traveling preacher has been going all around the state exhibiting this creature to the credulous and seeking money to "save" her and other lost souls.

Wes' attempt to speak to the woman gets him only a beating from her guards and as he leans against the wagon, he sees a spark of sympathy in the "creature's" eyes. He also sees her bruises and can only imagine the horrible treatment to which she has been subjected. Suddenly, he determines to free her from her captivity. But while he frees her from the cage and gets her to his horse, he is shot by her keeper. He begs the woman to get him to Fort Worth, where his brother, a doctor, might save him.

The woman gets him to Fort Worth, where she is welcomed by his family. But the preacher follows and, to save both the woman and his own hide, Wes quickly marries her. And for the first time, she speaks, telling him that her name is Allie.

Allie had seen her family massacred by Indians. The only survivor, she had been kept for years as a slave. When the encampment where she lived was attacked by rival Indians, she had fled to a refuge she had prepared for herself. For five years she had lived alone, until the Texas Rangers had come upon her. Unable to get her to speak or to tell them about her family, they had turned her over to the preacher for "safekeeping." Her life since her return to "civilization" had been hell.

Now she has been warmly welcomed by the McLains and Wes has stepped in to save her. Having learned her name, they promise to try to find her family. Allie is torn between fleeing back to the security of her cave and staying with the first person who has ever not seen her as a "throwaway woman."

Thomas does an admirable job in developing Allie's character and her gradual emergence from the shadowed world where fate had led her. She has regained her English and can communicate, but her life has made her very different from those around her, and Thomas portrays that difference in a moving and effective fashion. Likewise, her gradual discovery of her own value as she understands that Wes values her is very touching.

Wes is at first a reluctant hero. Like many veterans of the Civil War, he has had a hard time adjusting to peace. He has found nothing that has meant anything to him except his ambition and his dreams. Yet, ever honorable, he postpones his quest to protect the defenseless Allie. He believes that he is incapable of love and caring, but he is wrong. Yet, can he cage Allie's spirit if she wants to be free?

Thomas recreates Reconstruction Texas with a sure hand. She weaves in the characters from the previous story seamlessly, although this story certainly stands alone. She also provides a rich new cast of secondary characters, especially the admirable Victoria Catlin, one of the earliest American settlers in Texas.

There is action aplenty in To Kiss a Texan with all the villainy and danger that we expect in a western romance. But there is also a grand and sweet romance, a tale of healing and love. I am certainly enjoying Thomas' recounting of the lives and loves of the McLain brothers, and I say, with Allie, "More, please."

--Jean Mason


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