Running Wild
by Linda Howard & Linda Jones
(Ballantine, $7.99, PG-13) ISBN 978-0345520784
***
Running Wild is the latest collaborative novel from Linda Howard and Linda Winstead-Jones (here writing as Linda Jones). It's a weird blend of romantic suspense mixed with a standard category romance, and it's only partly successful. At the least, anyone familiar with Linda Howard's work will feel they've read this before.

Carlin Reed is on the run from a stalker - a cop with whom she shared exactly two dates, and who is now out to kill her for leaving him. As the story opens, Brad murders one of Carlin's co-workers, who has borrowed Carlin's coat. Terrified, Carlin packs her car and slips away, ending up in the small Wyoming town of Battle Ridge. She stops in the local cafe where the owner, Kat, sizes up Carlin's situation and offers her a job and a small room to live in above the cafe.

Carlin does a good job of staying under the radar, but eventually winter approaches and Kat can't afford to keep Carlin on at the cafe. She suggests Carlin apply for work as a cook/housekeeper on her cousin Zeke's ranch, since he's been looking for one. Initially reluctant, Carlin decides that a ranch in the middle of nowhere is a good place to hide out. And while Zeke Decker might be attractive, he can just keep his distance.

Zeke is the standard "my ex-wife was a gold-digging bitch and I'll never love again" hero. Nothing new here. He's interested in Carlin and senses that she's in some kind of trouble, and he spends much time musing that she has a great butt. However, Carlin keeps him at arm's length. Zeke doesn't want any involvement, though the idea of sex with her is very appealing.

Since these two basically spend the middle of the book telling themselves they want nothing to do with one another, and the killer is off-stage, that leaves a lot of space to fill. And fill it the authors do, with seemingly endless scenes about laundry, cooking, cleaning, and recipes. Carlin learns to become a good cook. She eventually wades through the endless mountains of laundry that have piled up. The ranch hands come to appreciate her for putting edible meals on the table. Somewhere in there, Carlin decides she just has to have Zeke and their relationship moves to the physical, with plenty of graphic sexual language.

But romantic? No. Interestingly, the most romantic scene in the book, at least to me, is one where Zeke gives Carlin some instruction in self-defense. The fact that he's teaching her how to kick a man's privates through his backbone is ironic, but at least he's showing some care and concern for her instead of moping around being a horny cowboy. And Howard's trademark witty dialogue is missing here.

I did enjoy the resolution, which has Carlin involved in solving her problem, at least to an extent. Zeke comes to the rescue, but it's a team effort.

The story is well written, as you'd expect from two seasoned authors, and the character of Brad is suitably psychotic. I'm just not sure why these two authors teamed up. Based on the size of the cover print, which has Linda Howard's name in huge print, there's some effort to trade on her name recognition as a hardcover author. Linda Jones, perhaps best known for her category romances, steps up to single-title here, but the result is a mixed bag.

As the first in the "Men from Battle Ridge" series, Running Wild is off to a modest start. I'll probably pick up the next book (which is likely to be Kat's story, I think) but readers may come away from this one feeling like they've read a watered-down version of a previous Linda Howard novel.

--Cathy Sova


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