The Outlaw's Bride by Liz Ireland
(Harl. Historical #498, $4.99, PG-13) 0-373-29098-5
****
If you enjoy Western historicals and like characters that are strong and complex, I think you'll enjoy Liz Ireland's latest Harlequin Historical.

"Plain Jane" Emma Colby is 28 and living the spinster's life in a small Texas town. Her father, the town's doctor, has recently died and made her sole beneficiary of his estate. Her beautiful younger sister Rose Ellen, married and living in Galveston, sends frequent, self-absorbed letters to Emma, begging her to sell the farm so that she can come to Galveston and care for Rose Ellen's family. To say that Emma is unhappy with her life is true, but she's certainly not a woman who's about to let her circumstances plunge her into despair.

Instead, Emma has taken in a young woman from the "wrong side of the tracks" who is pregnant. The father, a member of the upstanding Sealy family, refuses to acknowledge his paternity, so both Emma and Lorna suffer the comments and judgment of their townspeople. Caring for Lorna gives Emma some purpose to her life, and it indicates early on that this spinster isn't afraid of what people think.

Then Emma finds a man near death on her front porch, a man who is shockingly handsome, maybe even more appealing than Sheriff Barton Sealy, Emma's longtime unrequited love. Especially after he calls her "angel" and kisses her soundly before passing out from the pain of his gun shots. Unfortunately, this rugged man looks a lot like Lang Tupper, a known outlaw who has recently killed a man.

Lang Tupper is no outlaw, but the circumstances of the past few weeks sure make him look like one. In an effort to get his wayward younger brother Amos to leave a gang of criminals, this hard-working farmer joins the outlaw group. Before he can convince Amos to leave, Lang is shot by the distrustful group leader during a robbery, where a bank clerk is killed. Since Lang's face is seen by the townspeople, he is blamed for the shooting, but he escapes before being caught and wrongly punished.

Emma manages to remove the bullets in Lang and nurse him back to health. Although Lang tells her he's a gambler named Johann Archibald, she knows that he's Lang Tupper, the face she has seen on all the wanted posters in town -- and that he's no killer. She can see it in his eyes, the way he talks, and the way he treats her. Soon, Lang is helping her plan out a future with the farm -- and Emma can't help but dream that Lang will stay long past his recovery period.

Problems escalate when Barton Sealy and other assorted townspeople start taking an interest in Emma's life. And then Emma's lovely, meddlesome sister arrives, along with her sullen daughter for an extended visit. It's difficult to hide Johann Archibald/Lang Tupper from everyone and her tender feelings for him.

Both Emma and Lang were well-drawn and interesting characters with complex motivations. I especially enjoyed Emma because she was both fragile and strong, and I felt her pain at being a "washed up old spinster" without feeling sorry for her. Lang, while not a total Alpha hero, was an appealing combination of strength and sensitivity, a simple man with a good, strong heart.

The other characters in The Outlaw's Bride were a delight, from the spoiled, selfish Rose Ellen, to the meek and sensitive Lorna. Ireland also did a very nice job with the character of Sheriff Sealy, who isn't really what he appears to be at the beginning of the book.

As for the plot well, it wasn't the most original, but since the characters were so engaging, I fell into the story, eager to see what would happen next, but not expecting to be surprised. And I wasn't. All the loose ends were tied up a little too quickly for my tastes, and because I liked the characters so much, I wish the book had been a bit longer, perhaps spending more time on the reconciliation between Lang and his wayward brother.

The Outlaw's Bride was an enjoyable way to spend my Sunday afternoon, and I hope you think so, too.

--Diana Burrell


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