Just This Once

Never Love a Cowboy

Cold Night, Warm Stranger
by Jill Gregory
(Dell, $6.50, PG) ISBN 0-440-22440-3
Cold Night, Warm Stranger. Dumb title. Sorry, couldn't help myself.

The title of Jill Gregory's latest will invariable provoke giggles because it's just so…descriptive. I'm waiting for the day I see a romance entitled "Hunk-a-Hunk of Burnin' Love" or "Big Stud in My Bed." Now what would the cover art look like for those I wonder?

But, I digress…

Cold Night, Warm Stranger is vastly readable despite an implausible start that breaks McGuire's #1 Rule of Romance (no sex before page 50 -- here it happens on page 32.) The "Warm Stranger" in question is one Quinn Lassiter, a notorious gunfighter who stumbles out of a Montana blizzard into the hotel operated by Maura Jane Reed and her two mean and nasty, lowdown brothers. Maura is a virtual prisoner in the hotel, bullied and browbeaten by her brothers into doing all the work while they squander all the profits. Everyone in the town is afraid of the duo, so Maura has no friends, and has never enjoyed the company of a male.

On this fateful "Cold Night," Maura decides to chuck caution to the wind and spend one evening in the arms of a man. That the man is drunk and a legend with his guns doesn't seem to bother the breathless heroine, who takes one look at his cold, dark looks and sees something deeper inside. Maura and Quinn's night turns into more than just a memory when Maura discovers she is pregnant.

Determined to leave her brutal brothers behind, Maura tracks down Quinn to inform him of his impending fatherhood. At first he tosses her out on her ear, insisting he doesn't remember the shabbily-dressed redhead let alone claim responsibility for her current state of misfortune. But slowly the memory of that snowy night in the Montana emerges, and because he's the most honorable kind of gunslinger (ain't they all) he does the right thing and marries Maura.

Insisting all along that it's just a business deal, Quinn sets out to install Maura on his ranch land in Hope, Wyoming. He has no intention of actually settling down to a life with the suddenly-spirited young woman, but insists on seeing her settled and protected before continuing with his gun-for-hire lifestyle. Upon the couple's arrival in Hope, Quinn and Maura learn that the evil Campbell clan is on the warpath. This nasty band has been terrorizing the good citizens of Hope, but any thoughts they might have entertained of Quinn acting as protector are laid to rest when he adamantly refuses to take the job of Sheriff.

The relationship between Quinn and Maura develops along expected lines, with Maura silently wishing for more than Quinn is willing to give, and Quinn fighting his feelings at every breathless look from his wife. Their business arrangement strays into more personal territory every now and then, since Quinn just isn't very good at keeping his hands to himself. He also becomes extremely protective of Maura and their unborn child.

This turns out to be a good thing, as bad people are lurking all over the place, just waiting to pounce. Toward the end of the book, there seems to be no end to the nefarious characters who seem to swarm out of the woodwork and descend on Maura's world all at once. Her brothers put in another appearance, as does the Campbell gang and another, even more treacherous, killer.

Good thing she married a gunslinger, huh?

Maura is able to see through Quinn's steel-eyed exterior to the sensitive man underneath. But I found it troublesome that she seems to care little of Quinn's violent past, and his refusal to give up his "day job" -- which just happens to be killing people for money. The author spends ample time examining Maura's fear that Quinn will be hurt or killed, but little or no thought to the fact that someone is always on the receiving end of his "jobs." Though he does feel remorse over the death of an innocent who caught a stray bullet, he hardly seems bothered at all by the countless other notches on his gun belt. The author strives hard to make us believe that someone with such a cheap view of life could actually turn himself around, and for the most part she succeeds, primarily because of the strength of Quinn's relationship with Maura and the fact that for the first time in years he doesn't run away from his problems.

Though hardly the stuff of which romance classics are made, Cold Night, Warm Stranger is still a mild, entertaining read which should please Jill Gregory fans.

--Ann McGuire

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