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Just This Once

Never Love a Cowboy
by Jill Gregory
(Dell, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-440-22439-X
Indulge yourself this summer, read Jill Gregory's latest novel, Never Love a Cowboy, a western version of Romeo and Juliet. This is a who-done-it with strong elements of suspense and a focus on parent-child relationships, but the emphasis is definitely on the romance. So, no matter how tempted you may be, you need not flip to the last chapter to see if Emma, this novel's Juliet, and Tucker, its Romeo, survive. Hey, it's a romance, not a tragedy.

This is the tale of a sixteen-year-old blood-feud between the owners of adjoining ranches in Montana, which began when Jed Garrettson lost a good portion of his ranch to his neighbor, Win Malloy, in a poker game. Jed, an embittered widower, convinced himself and his sons, Beau and Tucker, that the loss was Malloy's fault, blaming it on a slight of hand rather than his having drunk too much. Recently, Beau was found shot in the back on Malloy land. The bulk of the book involves various characters' attempting to either prove or disprove that Win murdered Beau.

Win's daughter, Emma, arrives home after five years in Philadelphia attending school. Her homecoming is marred by Sheriff Wesley Gill's arriving to talk to Win, followed by Emma's learning of the murder, and Tucker Garrettson appearing, accusing Win of murder while eyeing Emma suggestively. Soon Emma discovers her best friend from childhood, Tara McQuaid, had been Beau's fiancÚ. Ross McQuaid and his daughter, Tara, are continually fencesitting, due to conflicting ties with the warring factions. Sheriff Gill is tormented, since the only evidence points to his friend Win having murdered Beau.

Gregory handles the Eastern factor deftly, quickly establishing that Emma enjoyed and benefited from her experiences there but is anxious to return to her widowed father and their ranch for good. She has received a marriage proposal from a young Philadelphia tycoon but has decided he will have to agree to move to Montana before she considers his proposal seriously. The would-be fiancÚ, Derek Carleton, visits for several days, but does not share Emma's love of the West. During his visit, Emma's feelings for Tucker shift from hatred to attraction as she remembers some of his past good deeds as well as a memorable kiss he stole from her when she was 14.

This book has wonderful, tender scenes between Tucker and Emma, as well as believable tension between them resulting from their loyalties to their respective fathers. Each shows disdain for the other and tries to mask their mutual attraction, but it is clear they recognize each others' strengths, including sensitivity and caring for others who are weaker or less fortunate.

Despite the strength of the romantic element, some of the best dialogue in this book occurs between men. There is an entertaining exchange between Derek Carleton, the Eastern suitor rejected by Emma, and Tucker, who cannot get Emma out of his system but believes Emma does not care about him. Both men are spending an uncharacteristically wasted, drunken afternoon at the town's one saloon attempting to drown their sorrows. It is no surprise that Tucker, whose sensitivity to others less fortunate has been described earlier in the book, feels pity for this other man who has lost Emma. The fun of it is watching them agree that Emma's most egregious fault is her being too independent, not the woman for any man, then observing Tucker's feelings turn to jealousy as Derek's drunken ramblings describe a special party in Philadelphia to which he had escorted Emma..

While there are a few flaws in this book, e.g. ranch foreman Curt Slade is not a well-developed character, just a "black hat" to Tucker's "white," I heartily recommend it. Jill Gregory creates not only a very human hero and a likeable heroine but also very evil villains, with interesting motivations. The best part of this who-done-it is that, until very near the end, the reader really does not recognize the villains or realize how very evil they are.

--Sue Klock

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