By Any Other Name

Mother of the Year

Rico by Lori Handeland
(Zebra, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8217-6743-7
I admit that when I saw Rico among my current batch of review books I was skeptical. Not only is it book 3 in a 6 part series, a series written by 2 separate authors, I find the cover dreadful. I should know by now that bad covers tend to happen to good books, and by the time I finished the first chapter, I had completely fallen in love.

Betty Lillian has only two things to call her own, her good looks and her incredible voice. Because she has both, she is under the thumb of a New Orleans saloonkeeper. Betty has done what she must to survive, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t desperate for escape. Therefore, when a hand of poker wins her the deed to a saloon in Rock Creek, Texas, she slips away during Mardi gras festivities with a new name, Lily Fortier, and a companion, a young, stuttering piano player, Jean Baptiste, renamed Johnny.

The minute Lily arrives at her saloon, she runs into members of the infamous Rock Creek Six gang - including the youngest member, Enrico Salvatore, AKA The Kid. Rico is the baby of the group, renowned for the use of his knives and his love of women in general. In turn, women love Rico, except for Lily that is. Why does she look at him like something she scrapped off her shoe?

Lily’s past has done little to convince her that love is a good thing, or that it even exists. To her way of thinking, love is just a 4-letter word that men throw about to get what they want - namely sex. However, Lily sees something in Rico, a sadness that runs as deep as her own, and a past that he’s successfully kept hidden from even his closest friends. How will these two haunted people find their way to each other? Moreover, what will happen when their pasts catch up with them in Rock Creek, Texas?

I adore westerns, and Rico is the most promising one I have read in a long time, namely due to its population of interesting characters. Unlike many series that parade past couples around just for the sake of them being there, Handeland gives them all a purpose. No one is taking up empty space, instead used to move the story along and even make it better.

Lily is a wonderful heroine. She is anything but a lady, and doesn’t think less of herself because of it. Frankly, ladies can get dull, and Lily is anything but. Her cynicism, street smarts, and the mere way she carries herself won me over. She’s had a hard life, but never once did I doubt that she was in charge.

Rico is one of my favorite types of heroes - the younger man who feels the need to prove himself, which he does over the course of this story. Even in the eyes of the men he calls friends, he is “The Kid,” a younger brother type who still has growing up to do. Grow up he does, over the course of 314 pages, Rico really blossoms.

The only minor quibbles I have are towards the end of the story, when some melodrama creeps in, and I found some of the resolutions a bit too pat. There’s also some unresolved issues regarding a secondary character that turns up at this point. I am hoping these will be resolved in a future installment.

Handeland has contributed three books in the Rock Creek Six series, with Linda Devlin picking up the rest. It is to the author’s credit that she can make book 3 a strong, readable stand-alone, as I wasn’t lost or bored for one page. If the other books are half as good as Rico, western fans are in for a big treat. You’ll have to excuse me now - I think I hear the bookstore calling…

--Wendy Crutcher

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