Shades of Gray by Wendy Douglas
(Harl. Hist. #602, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-373-29202-3
***
Although I’m pretty certain the author meant to suggest something else by this book’s title, I thought it was apt because it quite accurately describes a story that has almost no distinguishing features. This isn’t a bad book, but if you’ve read more than two post-Civil-War western romances, you’ve likely heard a variation of this story before.

Derek Fontaine, until lately living in Chicago and trying to forget the War Between the States, has made the arduous trip to Texas to claim what turns out to be a dubious inheritance. Richard Fontaine, the man he always thought was his uncle, was actually his father. Dead nearly a year, Richard left Derek his ranch and Derek arrives to find it in pretty rough shape. There are a few hands, struggling to keep things together, and a housekeeper, Amber, rumored to have been Richard’s mistress.

Nobody wants to tell him much, but Derek soon realizes that all is not as it should be on the Double F. Amber is skittish and evasive although it seems clear that she would like to stay on as housekeeper. Derek isn’t sure what he’s going to do about her, but while out one evening checking his property and stock, Derek is shot and, by the time Amber nurses him back to health, the two have formed an uneasy relationship based on mutual attraction and mutual mistrust.

The bulk of the plot is pretty straightforward and involves finding the person or persons unknown who want the owner of the Double F - whoever he might be - out of the way, and Derek’s family troubles.

The romance, unfortunately, is not only completely predictable but revolves around a tired misunderstanding that is willfully perpetuated by the heroine. Undeserving of her reputation, Amber refuses to tell Derek the truth about her relationship with Richard. At first she won’t tell him because she “knows” he won’t believe her any more than anyone else does.

Then she decides that “for once in her life, she wanted someone to believe in her because he chose to. She wanted that trust based on faith.” She must think Derek has a crystal ball in his saddlebag, because she wants him to somehow divine the truth even while she tells him things like “Amber Laughton doesn’t exist anymore. Richard Fontaine’s mistress took her place” and Richard “was a good friend - and more - to my father and me” and that he was “loving and sensitive.” What’s the poor guy supposed to think?

Well, actually, he thinks he’d like her to tell him the truth and asks for it repeatedly. She prevaricates or leaves the room in a huff, so it’s pretty clear that this is the only way the author could think of to keep the story going.

While Amber thinks Derek should take her on faith, she obviously doesn’t feel as though she should give him the same courtesy and clearly doesn’t see any irony in this. In fact, there are a whole bunch of secrets Amber is keeping from Derek and I had no idea why. I wasn’t sure Amber knew why, either.

Naturally, they’re attracted to each other anyway, although it feels like it arrives a bit out of nowhere. When Amber isn’t huffing off they mostly fight it by avoiding each other, which isn’t all that interesting.

Which might explain why I wasn’t all that interested either.

--Judi McKee


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