Her One And Only
by Alice Valdal
(Zebra, $4.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8217-7837-4
**
Alice Valdal’s second frontier romance featuring the small mining town of Prospect, British Columbia starts out as a satisfactory read. Unfortunately it all comes rushing downhill like an avalanche once the characters make love.

Emma Douglas left San Francisco in disgrace. Her banker father was accused of embezzlement, and when he is found shot dead the police rule it a suicide. Polite society starts slamming doors in her face, and wishing only to flee the horrible gossip, she travels north to Prospect to become the new schoolmarm. At first she resents the manner in which her comfortable life was taken away from her, and the strictures placed on a spinster schoolteacher are tiresome – but Emma eventually warms to frontier life and the independence. Now only if Grey North would stop pestering her.

Grey runs a respectable hotel in Prospect and has no plans to ever marry. Despite this desire, he has marriage-minded females dogging his heels. So he figures, why not pretend to court Emma Douglas? It would save them both from unwanted attention from the opposite sex. Emma’s response to this half-baked plan is chilly at best, but Grey is nothing but persistent. Then when both of their pasts come calling they find themselves hitting the road for San Francisco, and discovering that a pretend courtship has a way to leading to something more.

Emma really carries this story for the majority of the book, and it does take some time for the reader to warm up to her. She starts out resentful and frustrated by her circumstances. She was raised a lady and is now teaching school in the middle of the wilderness. She also finds herself renting a room from a meddlesome local widow and the “rules” placed on her by the school board are particularly grating. However, she quickly warms up. She begins to appreciate her independence, life in the frontier, and dare I say it, she and her landlady become friends.

The past returns in the form of her father’s death – was he really embezzling from the bank? Two men from her past show up in Prospect and their arrival is quickly followed by a series of events that has Grey suspicious. Emma also realizes that something is afoot, and must travel back to San Francisco looking for answers. The mystery isn’t a brain-bender, but it succeeds in keeping the plot humming along, and allows the couple some time to explore their feelings on the road back to the United States.

Grey remains an enigma for a good portion of the story, albeit a charming one. He is decidedly determined in his fake wooing of Emma and encourages her to “break the rules.” He adores the frontier life, having fled stifling London society to strike out on his own. He says it best when he tells Emma, “Can’t you see it? This is a big land. It needs big dreams, not meddlesome busybodies trying to bind us all to drab little lives. Breath deeply, Emma, spread your wings. On the frontier you’ll learn to fly.”

Unfortunately those honeyed words and optimism fly out the window once he and Emma make love. Not only do they do the deed while Grey is half out of his mind in delirium, afterwards Grey freaks out that Emma is now trying to trap him into marriage. So much for all his talk about living a free life on the frontier! It’s a bit shocking to see the independent, charming hero turning into a jackass in the span of one paragraph. Emma responds by running away – although this reader could hardly blame her. Any more time in this idiot’s company and she would have to shoot him. Frankly, it was her only recourse.

Grey continues to stomp around like a thundering moron for the rest of the novel until a secondary character (a wise, wonderful character) tells him what an idiot he is. These final chapters are particularly well done because Emma has truly become addicted to the frontier spirit by then and tells him exactly what she thinks of his behavior. Unfortunately this whole episode, from the way they first make love to the hero’s behavior afterwards, sinks an otherwise pleasant read. Still, there’s enough promise here for starving frontier romance fans – let us just hope that the romance stands on firmer ground the next time out of the gate.

--Wendy Crutcher


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