AKA Alexa Smart:

Roses at Midnight

Desert Hearts by Anna Gerard
(Zebra, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-821-76311-3
I enjoyed reading Desert Hearts. It has lots of adventure, excitement, and breakneck pacing, all of which kept me up way past my bedtime. That being said, all of this left little room for a believable romance between the hero and heroine.

Jessamine Satterly, a strong-willed young widow, has enough to deal with when bank examiner Jacob Hancock strolls into town with instructions from the Territorial Bankers Association to check up on security at the First National Bank of Brimstone. A little over a year before, her husband Arbin was shot dead by the notorious Black Horse Gang during a holdup.

With her infirm father at home in the care of her Aunt Maude, Jess has been managing the bank on her own, not exactly the most feminine of pursuits in the 1880s. But it's also the rough-and-tumble Arizona Territory, and in the middle of a desert, a woman's gotta do what a woman's gotta do. Jess is tough enough and smart enough to handle the day-to-day affairs of the bank, and no smooth-talking, nattily dressed bank examiner can convince her otherwise.

Something about handsome Mr. Hancock nags at her thoughts. She wonders if she has seen him before. Moreover, she's concerned about something he's told her, that he has heard rumors the Black Horse Gang is planning another assault on her bank. And then her bank is been robbed yet again by the Black Horse Gang, just as Mr. Hancock predicted. And the worst of it is that the vicious killers have kidnapped Aunt Maude.

Jess is furious. She's angry that Mr. Hancock minimized the risk of a second robbery, and she's even angrier at the townspeople because they won't form a posse to capture the criminals and find her Aunt Maude. No shrinking violet, Jess decides to hunt down the gang on her own, using a clue she gets from her teller and an old treasure map she salvages from her ravaged bank vaults. But before she can leave town, Mr. Hancock insists on making the trip with her.

I figured out right away that Mr. Hancock wasn't really "Mr. Hancock," nor was he a bank examiner. No, his appearance in Brimstone is more personal. He's really Nick Devilbiss, the older brother of the Black Horse Gang's notorious leader, Rory Devilbiss. Working for Pinkerton Security, he spends whatever free time he has pursuing Rory so that he can make another futile attempt to turn his evil-hearted brother around. Naturally, he doesn't want the lovely Mrs. Satterly to become just another notch in his brother's rap sheet, so he insists on traveling with her -- just until he can get his hands on that map she's got tucked into her boot. Then he plans to leave her safely behind him and use the map to get his hands around his brother's neck.

The adventure in Desert Hearts kept me picking it up during the day to read "what happens next" when I should have been working. I also enjoyed the grittiness of the story: There's lots of cussing, fighting, hard drinking, easy women, and Very Bad Men, not to mention guest appearances of the legendary Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers. (Brimstone is a frontier-style suburb of Tombstone.) I should also warn readers there is a rape scene that Gerard does not gloss over.

The unfortunate casualty in the novel is the romance. From the beginning there wasn't a tremendous physical awareness or emotional connection between "Mr. Hancock"/Nick and Jess. So when they do finally admit they're attracted to each other, it felt a bit abrupt. Also, the love scenes between the two were a tad too purple for my tastes. Had Gerard played up the romance between these two characters and toned down some of the glories of lovemaking, I'd have given this novel a higher rating.

I also had a problem with the Aunt Maude sub-plot. After she has been abducted, hauled through the desert and attacked, Aunt Maude is "saved" by one of the more compassionate gang members, with whom she falls in love. I know that sometimes hostages begin identifying with their captors, but I really didn't fall for this theory in this story, as Maude is a prim, ladylike forty-five-year-old spinster, and this particular guy is a rough-around-the-edges thug who's young enough to be her son.

This was a colorful, immensely readable novel for me, however, despite its incongruities and less-than-satisfying romance. If you like true westerns (lots of action/little romance), I think you'll really enjoy Desert Hearts. Otherwise, read with your boots on.

--Diana Burrell

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