The Outcast by Rosalyn West
(Avon, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-380-79579-5
****
In the middle of the Civil War, Federal officer Reeve Garrett goes to his commanding officer to plead for the life of a Confederate spy, scheduled to be shot that morning. The spy is his legitimate half-brother, Jonah Glendower. Despite the fact that Jonah has everything Reeve has ever wanted the family estate, their father's love, and the hand of Patrice Sinclair Reeve loves his brother and doesn't want to see him die. When his commander proves recalcitrant, Reeve goes to Jonah and begs him to save himself by revealing the identities of other Confederate spies. Jonah refuses but not before Reeve figures out who he's protecting and is summarily executed, Reeve attending.

When the war ends, Reeve goes home to Pride County, Kentucky, because he has nowhere else to go. Pride County was staunchly Confederate and has suffered terribly for it. When Reeve returns home, only his father is glad to see him. Patrice Sinclair, in particular, blames him for everything: the loss of her way of life, the death of her future in his brother Jonah, the shattering of her pride. Yet, even as she whips herself into chilly indignation time and again, she cannot deny the attraction between them. Nor can he, for all his awareness of her anger and sorrow.

Romance has been defined as character-driven fiction, rather than plot-driven. It follows that the more complex the characters, the more complex and tangled the story and trickier to resolve the conflicts. Given that, this is one of the more complex and layered stories I've read in a while. Only one character comes close to being a true stock character the charming ne'er-do-well but even he is written with attention to shading and nuance. As for Reeve and Patrice, both are very human, very appealing and completely right for one another. Early on, Reeve considers her:

Patrice was the best the county had to offer, though certainly not the most traditional. She was a rule breaker, a reined-in hellion, chomping at the bit. It would take special handling to gentle her, and a willingness to be thrown more than once.

Not only do we learn something about Patrice in those few lines, we learn something about Reeve and his fitness to live and work in bluegrass country. Further on, we come to see how Patrice uses anger and resentment to keep going, keep fighting the catastrophes that have overtaken her. We also see how Reeve rejects before he can be rejected, the countless slights of his bastard childhood overwhelming any inclination to take emotional risks. The walls between Patrice and Reeve are high, so high I wondered how they would ever come down, so high that when they did, finally, come down, I had tears in my eyes.

A happy ending is a given in a romance, as much a part of the genre as unmasking the murderer is in mystery. A romance that has a reader flipping the pages in heart-clenched anxiety because she's afraid despite reading the ending in advance that all might not work out for the lovers is a rare achievement indeed. The Outcast is just such an achievement.

From the header, "The Men of Pride County," and note on the back cover, my guess is The Outcast is the first in a series. I can't wait for the succeeding volumes.

--Katy Cooper



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