Rachel and the Hired Gun

Audrey and the Maverick
by Elaine Levine
(Zebra, $5.99, PG-13)† ISBN 978-1-4201-0552-0
I enjoyed Elaine Levineís debut, Rachel and the Hired Gun, so I was looking forward to Audrey and the Maverick.† Itís not quite of the same caliber, however.† Choppy storytelling, an inconsistent hero, and a heroine who canít seem to think ahead make this an exasperating read.

Julian McCaid has left his Eastern background behind and returned to the Dakota Territory to take up the reins of his ranch.†He steps off the train in the town of Defiance and immediately senses that something is wrong.†His suspicions are proved correct when a pretty redheaded woman steals his money, and then heís attacked in a bar by several of the sheriffís men.†Julianís suspicions that the sheriff is behind the many wrongdoings in the area are well-founded.†The sheriff wants to drive Julian off his land.

Julian recognizes the thief.†Sheís Audrey Sheridan, and apparently they shared a dance together a year earlier (this is referenced but no further explanation is given).† Audrey is in a tough spot.† She makes a small living as a laundress, and is caring for a number of orphan children.†The sheriff, who is intent on destroying Julian, is threatening to harm the children unless Audrey does exactly as instructed.†Julian offers Audrey a job as the ranch cook as a way to pay back the money she stole.† Under threat from the sheriff, who will plant two hired hands on the ranch as spies, Audrey accepts, leaving the children in the care of her teenaged brother, Malcolm.

This isnít a bad setup at all for a western romance.†Julian is wealthy, smart, and willing to protect Audrey. When the sheriff sends his thugs to the ranch, Julianís ranch hands are loyal and willing to put up a fight. Audrey, however, has no such spunk.† Even after spending time with Julian and deciding heís a decent, kindhearted person, she wonít tell him the truth. This is annoying to the reader because itís obvious that Julian has the means to bring the kids to the ranch and protect them, if sheíd only think about it, and thereís no real reason she canít tell him the whole story. To complete the ďrescue meĒ fantasy, heís even building a fabulous house, and of course Audrey begins to decorate it and falls in love with it.

Itís too bad the author couldnít have figured out how to spin out her plot without making Audrey appear so clueless. Itís hard to root for her, no matter how plucky and determined sheís touted at being.† Her actions and attitude just donít bear it out.

Julian, frankly, makes no sense much of the time. He wonít court Audrey because has vowed not to marry due to his grandmother being an ex-slave, and if word ever gets out that heís of mixed race, his business partners wonít do business with him, and his wife would be shamed.† At the same time, heís pondering a short list of women back East that might make a good wife.† Huh?† Heís building a fancy house on his ranch, and Audrey urges him to decorate it.† Yet he states that when he marries, heíll never bring his wife to live on the ranch.† So why decorate it?† Stuff like this, which seemed to be inserted at random, was distracting and didnít help give a clear idea of his character.

One aspect that was quite well-done was the setting.†The author uses a number of vivid details to bring Defiance and the Hellís Gulch Ranch to life, and it works.†I almost felt as though I were there with Julian and Audrey.

Audrey and the Maverick was a bit of a disappointment overall, but Iíll give the third book in this trilogy a try.†There are some pals that enter into the picture; one, Sager, was the hero of the first book, and Jace, the other, is probably going to be featured in the next installment.†Elaine Levine has undeniable talent and her voice is a good fit for western romance.† If she clarifies her characters better, sheíll have a winner. †

--Cathy Sova

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