Two Brothers and a Bride
by Elizabeth Harbison
(Silhouette, $3.50, G) ISBN 0-373-19286-X
***
Two Brothers and a Bride offers a small-town twist on a familiar plot. Joleen Wheeler is a waitress in a small diner in a backwater Texas town. Her thirtieth birthday is coming up, and Joleen has snared herself a rich almost-fiancé. Maybe Carl Landon isn't all she thinks she ever wanted in a husband, but he's handsome and fairly solicitous, and the security this marriage will offer goes a long way in Joleen's mind. So why can't she bring herself to say "yes" to his proposal?

Before readers mentally consign Joleen to the role of "golddigger", let me hasten to add that Elizabeth Harbison has done a good job portraying the reality of a woman stuck in a dead-end job in a nowhere town, with little opportunity to change her life. Joleen has been on her own for a long time. She's plodded along taking community college classes while working to support herself, but her dreams of a husband and children are fading fast. Carl offers some hope for at least some security and stability. The fact that he's an up-and-coming politician with well-lined pockets… well… Joleen is sure she can get used to the role of politician's wife. Eventually.

Joleen is scheduled to make a trip to the Landon family ranch near Dallas, but it turns out that Carl is off in Monte Carlo or some such. Yep, the Cad-o-Matic went off in my mind, too, when I read that. Monte Carlo, eh? No matter, because Carl's brother Jake arrives to pick up Joleen and take her to the ranch.

Jake is the antithesis of Carl. Where Carl is smooth and urbane, Jake is rough-hewn and down-to-earth. He's also the family black sheep, and he's in Dallas only long enough to settle some family business, after which he'll be off to look for a ranch of his own in Montana or Wyoming. Joleen's attraction to Jake puts her on the defensive. That defensiveness is increased when she meets her future mother-in-law, a barracuda if ever there was one. Can Joleen's honesty and decency stand up against Carl's ambitions or will he succeed in re-molding her into a perfect wife?

Elizabeth Harbison writes well. The dialogue is realistic and both Jake and Joleen came alive on the pages. It was an enjoyable read. But I did have two problems with the book. First, there's the absence of Carl. He's gone for virtually the entire story, leaving Joleen to defend herself against a shadow and readers to dislike him only based on what we're told about him. Of course, if he'd been in the story more, it would have made it hard for Jake and Joleen to connect. The final showdown between Carl and Joleen didn't quite do it for this reader. Having come to dislike Carl so intensely, I wanted him to suffer more. (Uppity rich guys turn this reader into a yard dog, I guess.) I think that's a backhanded compliment to the author; she made me hate a character I never even met!

Joleen's continued deferment to the barracuda mother-in-law annoyed me, too. The author took great pains to portray Joleen as a woman who had struggled on her own and had come through the fire as a strong and independent woman. Yet when the barracuda buys clothes for Joleen and orders her to wear them, Joleen meekly puts them on, although she knows they look sluttish. While I know that this was meant to show readers Joleen's small-town insecurities, I still wanted her to have more backbone. Sleazy is sleazy, whether in Dallas or Podunkville, and Joleen knew it. So I wanted her to act.

I liked the character of Jake. He's portrayed as easygoing, but no pushover, and he makes it plain he pretty much can't stand his ambitious, grasping family. He does step in to try and protect Joleen, though, and in the course of events finds himself wondering how a genuine lady like this ever got mixed up with his contemptible brother. He's drawn to her. He's just not sure he can settle down. Jake's growth and acceptance lead to a fun ending.

If you like books which feature a small-town gal making good in the big city, Two Brothers and a Bride will please. I'm looking forward to more of Elizabeth Harbison's work.

--Cathy Sova


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