Cold Night, Warm Stranger

Just This Once

Never Love a Cowboy

Rough Wrangler,
Tender Kisses

Once An Outlaw by Jill Gregory
(Dell, $6.50, PG) ISBN 0-440-23549-9
With Once an Outlaw, Jill Gregory tries to have her cake and eat it too. I’m not sure I quite understood that expression before, but now I have a better idea of why it’s not a good idea.

Emily Spoon and what’s left of her family have just moved to a remote ranch near Forlorn, Colorado. It’s a new beginning for everyone. Uncle Jake has just finished a six year jail term for robbing a stagecoach. While he was locked up, the other members of the Spoon Gang (Emily’s brother Pete and cousin Lester) were on the lam from the law. Left to struggle alone, Emily and Aunt Ida lost the family farm and were forced to go to toil as servants in a boarding house where Jake’s wife died of overwork and a broken heart.

According to Emily, all of these troubles can be laid at the door of hateful Sheriff Clint Barclay, who put her poor Uncle Jake behind bars.

Now, in Forlorn, they can finally live as a family once more, in a home that no one will ever take away from them ever again. And just in case the men can’t make a go of the ranch, Emily is going to start a dressmaking business that will support them all.

The very night Uncle Jake and the boys leave on an expedition to buy stock, Emily discovers the local lawman skulking around. He’d heard that the Spoons were living at the ranch and, having already rid the community of one outlaw gang, is not anxious to see another move into the neighborhood. She insists they’ve gone straight, but for some reason he’s skeptical.

Yes, it’s Sheriff Clint Barclay, the “worst kind of lawman” - a big meany who has the nerve to put criminals in jail.

Emily hates him. Clint doesn’t trust any of the Spoons as far as he can throw them. And they want each other, bad.

There’s a bunch of stuff that fills in the spaces in around all the hating and wanting. Emily is protecting a friend’s child while his mother flees her abusive ex-fiancé. Every single girl in town and her mother is trying to lure the reluctant Clint into marriage. Clearly some kind of crime is in the offing and nobody, not even Emily, really believes that the Spoon Gang won’t be in the thick of it. She does a lot of hand-wringing, because she just knows that spoilsport Clint will lock her menfolk up again “if they give him half a chance.” And yet, she wants him bad.

I could have liked Clint. Like most of the characters, he sounds like he’s reading a script from a “B” western movie, but at least he’s honest about his attraction to Emily and seems to understand that she might be a nice girl in spite of her family. Then he cold-bloodedly seduces her. He knows she’s innocent, he knows she’s reluctant, he knows he doesn’t want to make a commitment, but he knows he can persuade her to have sex with him, so he does. It was pretty heartless, and no matter what he did after that (and some of it was really nice), he never totally got me back.

The biggest problem, though, is that most of the cast is as dumb as a bag of rocks. In spite of their claims to want a quiet life, all of the Spoons - including Emily - have hair-trigger tempers and go off like a cheap rocket on the slightest provocation.

And Emily, although she knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that her male relatives are outlaws, blames Clint repeatedly for everything bad that happens to them. He ruined their lives - never mind that Uncle Jake was guilty as sin. She’s furious at him for fighting with her brother - after Pete attacks him. She’s pissed that he doesn’t seem to trust her family - of known criminals. Family loyalty is an admirable quality - relentless obtuseness is not.

Sorry, but you just can’t have it both ways. I couldn’t sympathize with Emily’s deception, because it was all self-inflicted. And would somebody please declare a moratorium on that tedious lust/hate thing?

--Judi McKee

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