At Twilight by Beth Henderson
(Leisure, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-8439-5330-6
****
Contrary to popular belief, a handful of western romances are still published every month. Unfortunately as the quantity has dropped off, so has the quality Ė leaving diehard western devotees scouring used bookstores for the days when quality ruled the roost. Maybe thatís why this reviewer finds Hendersonís latest to be such a breath of fresh air.

J.W. Walford is not only haunted by his time as a Union cavalry officer, but also for the fact that a notorious band of outlaws, using the Confederacy as a convenient excuse, murdered his wife and committed unspeakable acts against his sister Tess. Both of them hungry for revenge, they have spent the last three years hunting each member of the outlaw gang down. Assuming the identity of a fallen Southern belle, Tess has taken to gambling and going by the name of Diamond to ferret out information. J.W. is the one who has been pulling the trigger, and after he disposes of one of the gang members in Lone Tree, Texas, he has a posse on his trail and a hangmanís noose with his name on it.

With the posse hot on his heels, J.W. comes across a pitiful excuse of ranch where he finds an unconscious woman and her infant daughter. Louisa ďLouĒ Burgess is newly widowed, and thanks her no good dead husband, sheís now indentured to the townís powerful banker. Seems Frank not only got killed for cheating at cards, he also lost the deed to the ranch and threw his wife into the pot for kicks. Seeing J.W.ís arrival as the perfect opportunity, she proposes that they pose as a traveling family to run away from their troubles. Naturally the trouble follows them, and thereís still the Walford familyís quest for revenge to contend with as well.

At Twilight works so well because it has grit. This isnít a western featuring nosey townspeople, quaint misunderstandings, and Little House charm. Louís life is a mess thanks to a husband who left her with nothing, a banker who wants to claim her, and a family that has all but abandoned her. She has a vague notion of heading towards Mexico City and her long, lost mother Ė but this is a woman with few options.

J.W. is a haunted man thanks to a dead wife he has trouble recalling, a dead son he never met, and a sister who is the walking wounded. He is immediately taken with Louís determination and her spunk pulls his bacon out of the fire on more than one occasion. But these are two people playing their cards close to the vest. They are introspective, thoughtful, and careful not only with their charade, but their tattered emotions as well. And ultimately it is the characters and their various emotional states that make this story work.

Henderson also writes in some wonderfully developed secondary players that very nearly steal the show. J.W.ís sister, Diamond, has survived unspeakable horrors due to the war and the outlaw gangís molestation. Her best friend, a free black woman named Nedra, travels with her, mainly to keep an eye on Diamond who is dancing close to the flame. They are both fascinating characters, and I selfishly hope Henderson isnít done with them yet.

The pacing of the story is a bit off at times, with the author spending 100 pages on the first day, then jumping ahead in time for the later chapters. The story picks up after a saggy middle when J.W. and Lou find their way to San Antonio Ė but then the ending comes a little rushed with a couple of loose threads. With the vastness of Texas, and majority of the villains dealt with, itís easy to assume that our couple is able to ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after.

Beth Henderson is not a debut author, having employed the pseudonyms Lisa Dane and Elizabeth Daniels for previous efforts. With the quantity and quality of western romances hanging in a precarious balance these days I hope she continues to explore the sub genre. Her history and sense of place are evocative, her characters fully fleshed, and she has proven her ability to write gritty plots with this latest effort. This is why readers miss the western romance so much, and why itís still viable in todayís market place. Donít miss it.

--Wendy Crutcher


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