The Mail Order Groom
by Sandra Chastain
(Bantam, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-553-58050-7
***
I was just having a discussion the other day about how western romance heroes are never geeks. Sure he could act like a one, but he always turns out to be a lawman or outlaw in disguise. In Chastainís latest, she does write a truly geeky western hero. Unfortunately, James Harold Pickney IV is relegated to secondary status and the reader is provided with the pedestrian romance of a beautiful schoolteacher and a gambler.

Melissa Grayson came to Silver Wind, Colorado, to fulfill her fatherís dream. Grayson Academy was to be a premiere school, teaching youngsters the fundamentals, along with the arts. However, itís been tough going, as Melissa is a beautiful, single woman. Every time she wanders into town, trouble inevitably follows in the form of Black Bart Jamison - a man who knew her deceased father, and has plans to marry her - whether she likes it or not.

During one of her inevitable altercations with Black Bart, Melissa accidentally causes injury to the mayorís son. She is then issued an ultimatum - get married or be thrown in jail. Determined to honor the memory of her dead father, Melissa proposes, sight unseen, to her scholarly, but sickly, pen pal back east - James Pickney.

Lucky Lawrence is a gambler whose luck has just run out. He was hired to rescue a girl whose father lost her in a poker game to Cerqueda, a Mexican bandit. Naturally, Cerqueda is unthrilled when he is bested, and Lucky soon finds himself on the run. He ends up in Silver Wind, on the same train that was supposed to be carrying James Pickney. A case of mistaken identity quickly ensues, and Lucky finds himself saddled with a wife.

What will happen when Melissa finds out her husband is not really James? Can Lucky keep up the charade? Will Cerqueda give up his manhunt? And most importantly - where is the real James Harold Pickney IV?

While The Mail Order Groom does put an amiable spin on the mail order bride theme, its main characters are straight out of central casting. Lucky is the gambler with the heart of gold. He went to Alaska as a youth, looking to strike it rich, only to be shanghaied and thrown on a boat to the South Seas. Upon his return to the States, he learns his mother is dead and his sister has run off with a piano player. He has traversed the west looking for her ever since. This is about as deep as the author explores Luckyís psyche, leaving the reader with a cookie cutter western hero.

Melissa is the beautiful young woman determined to make her deceased father proud. She doesnít want to get married, because her parents were unhappy together. This unhappiness is minimally explained by telling the reader that Melissaís mother didnít like being the wife of a poor scholar. At least Lucky and Melissa have their vague pasts in common.

What makes this story stand out a bit from the pack is the presence of the secondary characters - namely James. He decides to ride to Melissaís rescue because heís sick of being an invalid. Thinking the cool mountain air may do him some good; heís also looking for a bit of adventure. The author also avoids a pitfall by not carrying on the case of mistaken identity for too long, as far as Melissa is concerned.

Readers looking for a comfort read with a western atmosphere may find The Mail Order Groom a nice, if unsurprising, way to spend some leisure time. While I easily found myself flipping the pages, I couldnít help but think how much more interesting and memorable this story would have been with James in the lead.

--Wendy Crutcher


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