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Cherish by Catherine Anderson
(Avon, $6.50, PG) ISBN 0-380-79936-7
*****
Last spring one of my esteemed colleagues gloated over the fact that Catherine Anderson had come over to the side of contemporaries. I can now reassure all fellow lovers of western romance that Anderson is back where she really belongs: writing some of the best, grittiest, and most intense stories that any of us could wish. Cherish is vintage Anderson.

The west that Anderson recreates is not a pretty place. Rather (and accurately), it is violent and dangerous. As has been her wont in many of her books, the author introduces into this fearsome environment an innocent young woman. The heroine of Cherish is Rebecca Ann Morgan, a member of a strict religious sect (denominated "Bible thumpers" and "cheek turners" by most folks) who is traveling to Santa Fe with her family. The leaders of the Brethren, threatened by the encroachment of the secular world in Pennsylvania, have decided to move their community to the New Mexican frontier to protect their separate existence.

While most of the community has already moved west, the group that the Morgans are traveling with has been charged with bringing west the money gained from the sale of their Pennsylvania land. This will allow the Brethren to pay for the land they have purchased and establish their new homes. The group is attacked by vicious outlaws and all are cruelly murdered, except for Rebecca. She survives because she was away from the group when the attack began and because Race Spencer arrives on the scene.

Race Spencer is a prototypical Anderson hero. Part Indian, he had achieved a reputation as a gunfighter. But now, he is a rancher, and is taking his herd to his Colorado ranch when he comes across the massacre. The lovely young woman he finds amid the charnel house left by the outlaws is in shock. When the killers return, he succeeds in holding them off until his men arrive. He carries Rebecca back to his camp, cares for her, and when she comes to herself and believes that she is still in danger, soothes her fears.

But the outlaws believe that Rebecca knows where the money is and they come after her, placing Race and his men in danger.

The external conflict in Cherish centers on the need to protect Rebecca (and the money) from the ruthless men who are determined to get their hands on the church's money by any means. But what really drives the story is the internal conflict within Rebecca and her relationship with the man who has saved her.

Anderson paints a compelling portrait of a woman who has been driven almost to the breaking point by the horrors she has seen and experienced. There was nothing in Rebecca's experience to prepare her for unadulterated evil. Race becomes her only hope, her only protection, her only security.

Race is eminently worthy of the trust Rebecca places in him. He possesses an inherent nobility of character, despite his past. He comes to love and cherish the beautiful angel who has come into his life, but refuses to take advantage of her neediness. Only when he comes to understand that she needs him as much as he needs her does he make her a permanent part of his life. His care in restoring to Rebecca her faith in God and herself is extremely moving.

There is only one love scene in Cherish, but it is in itself a marvelous example of Anderson's talent as a writer. Race seeks to overcome the inhibitions of Rebecca's upbringing and training and Anderson's descriptions of his methods is both funny and heartwarming as well as extremely sensual.

This is a very intense book. While I read it in the proverbial one sitting, there were actually times when I had to stop for a while to take a breath before proceeding. I have long admired Anderson's talent and a number of her books sit on my keeper shelf. This one will join Cheyenne Amber, Annie's Song and Simply Love there. I sincerely hope that Anderson continues to write western romances, because, in my opinion, nobody does it better.

--Jean Mason


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