After the Ashes by Cheryl Howe
(Leisure, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-8439-5173-7
Cheryl Howe’s debut novel After the Ashes shows some potential once you get through the initial 100 pages and accept that there are really two different stories here with different characters - even though there is not supposed to be.

Lorelei Sullivan, previously a southern belle, has moved to New Mexico in the 1870’s following her brother, Corey, her only surviving relative. Upon her arrival, she discovers that he is in hiding after being involved in a stagecoach robbery, which he swears he didn’t know about and is not responsible for the deaths that occurred. He blames the Mulcahy gang.

Christopher Braddock, ex-Captain of the Union Army and bounty hunter, has been searching for the Mulcahy gang for years. He had a run-in with Mulcahy in the war and now that he is an outlaw, Braddock has promised himself he will bring him to justice. He tracks Corey down and confronts Lorelei as to his whereabouts. She lies. Then Corey convinces her to “talk nice” to Braddock in his hotel room, which will give Corey a chance to escape.

One thing leads to another, and Braddock becomes ensnared in the beautiful trustworthy eyes of Lorelei and then the effort to determine who is telling the truth and who is the thief. Is Corey as innocent as Lorelei believes or is Lorelei part of the deception? Where are Mulcahy and the gold? These are just a few questions that must be answered. In the course of finding the answers, Christopher and Lorelei fall in love and try to determine whether their love can withstand all these answers they are seeking.

In the first chapter, I made a note about the stupidity of a woman who can be coerced by her pitiful brother into a seducing a stranger. Then I felt better than she couldn’t go through with it, only to discover on page 60 that she is now a willing participant…and in fact the aggressive seducer of this man she thinks is a horrible bounty hunter. But since he has been nice to her, and helped her out on the ranch, he must be worthy of the gift of her virginity, so why not? {Cringe, shudder, and gag were just a few of my reactions!}

At this point, I set the book aside and read two other books. Once I returned, I was determined to get through it. And it did improve. The improvement came about because Lorelei finally got some backbone and started acting more intelligently, like a woman who has lived through hardship and come out for the better. Her biggest downfall was doing impetuous things that always resulted in danger for someone.

Braddock is portrayed as a cold man who had convinced himself that everyone he cared for, including all those men under his command, died. He became invincible no matter what risks he took, but his men always died. When his best friend stepped on a land bomb placed by Mulcahy, his thoughts were sealed and he vowed to bring Mulcahy to justice. He alternates between being a hard-hearted bounty hunter who will stop at nothing to get his man and a vulnerable love sick puppy who will lie, toss his integrity out the window and give up on himself in order to protect Lorelei…who is so much more worthy of everything than he is (or so he convinces himself).

I had a difficult time liking either of these two. Both whined, cajoled and often lied to get their way. Both felt sorry for themselves except when they were together making love. Yet, I saw some growth, particularly on the part of Lorelei, that allowed me to stay with the story. Corey is a snake and I never could accept that he was a good brother in the past, and therefore worthy of Lorelei’s love and trust. What I saw in the story is not a brother to be proud of, nor a character I could feel any sympathy for. Wanting him to be spared is almost essential to understanding much of Lorelei’s motivations, so this element never worked.

Once the hunt for the gang and gold gets underway, the story moves along at a good pace, with many exciting scenes of conflict. The downside is that many of those conflicts occurred because of the stupidity or impulsive action of the hero or heroine.

After the Ashes is one of those stories that a new author will look back on and point to a lot of areas in which she has improved in subsequent books, while still being proud of the “first”. As for now, readers may want to wait for one of those next books.

--Shirley Lyons

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