Rachel and the Hired Gun
by Elaine Levine
(Kensington, $3.99, PG-13)† ISBN 978-1-4201-0551-3
New author Elaine Levine offers us a stylish Western romance with a wonderful pair of lead characters, and a promise of more to come.† Rachel and the Hired Gun is a welcome addition to the Western subgenre, which could use more fresh voices like this.

Rachel Douglas is headed west to her fatherís ranch in Idaho, chaperoned by a married couple with children.† One day, their small daughter wanders off and Rachel joins the hunt for her.† Rachel finds the girl, but they are attacked by a wolf.† Salvation comes in the form of a gunman named Sager.† In an inventive opening scene, the wolf is rabid, and only Sagerís quick thinking saves Rachel from contracting rabies.

Sager has been sent by Rachelís father to find her and escort her to the ranch.† He agrees to ride with the wagon train for a few days, until Rachel is used to him and can break from the group.† Their attraction is hard to deny, and when they are spied sharing an impulsive kiss, Rachel is shunned by her chaperones.† She and Sager strike out for the ranch, leaving the wagon train behind.

Sager is a man with a rather brutal past.† He was kidnapped by the Sioux, raised from infancy by the Shoshone, and returned to his father at the age of fourteen, only to find his mother was dead and his father had remarried a vindictive widow with a son of her own.† Believing his father to be responsible for the murder of his Shoshone family, Sager struck out on his own, making his way as a hired gun.† Now heís back, looking for vengeance.† His plan is to seduce Rachel and ignite a feud between his father and Jake Douglas, who owns the adjoining ranch. What he hadnít bargained for was his attraction to Rachel.† To this lonesome loner, her warmth and good nature are irresistible, and he canít bring himself to go through with his plan.

Rachel is just as drawn to Sager.† He treats her with respect, even kindness, doesnít belittle her inexperience, and is handsome as all get out.† Rachel doesnít understand why he withdraws from her, but senses heís a good man.† When they arrive at the Crippled Horse Ranch, Rachel discovers that her father has hopes sheíll marry Sagerís stepbrother, Logan, and the two ranches will be united.† Rachel knows this is impossible, as sheís falling in love with Sager.

There is more to the story, but Rachel and Sager carry the tale with their growing feelings for each other.† Theyíre both likable characters.† Rachel knows sheís in over her head out there on the western frontier and doesnít pretend otherwise, which was a welcome relief from the usual ďI can take care of myselfĒ heroine who ends up in constant danger because of her own foolhardiness.† Rachel is threatened several times, and Sager does come to her rescue, but itís not because sheís placed herself in danger.† And in a charming early scene, Sager even gives her some down-and-dirty advice on self-defense, which Rachel takes to heart without flinching.† Sheís a delightful heroine.

Sagerís turn as the enigmatic loner who secretly longs for Rachel is poignant.† This is one conflicted hero.† Sager quickly realizes that he canít possibly go through with his original plan of seducing Rachel for revenge, so he drops it and concentrates on trying to stay away from her.† Of course, he canít stay away and ends up spending more time with her than he planned, which leads them to friendship, and finally, to love.† Itís a fine journey.† The author does a great job of showing how helpless Sager is where his heart is concerned, even if he tries to fight it.† Rachel is his destiny, as his Indian brother Blue Thunder rather gleefully points out.†

My only caveat is that Sager clings rather long to his ďIím no good for her and wonít stick aroundĒ stance, even when itís patently obvious to everyone around him that heís head over heels in love with Rachel, and thereís nothing preventing him from staying with her.† And I did have a few unanswered questions about the vindictive stepmother, but these were forgotten as the story progressed.

An interesting mix of secondary characters arrives about midway through, and since this is the first in a planned series of at least three books, I have no doubt weíll see them in future volumes. Rachel and the Hired Gun went a long way toward restoring my faith in western romance, and Iím eagerly awaiting the next installment of the series.†† At $3.99 in Kensingtonís Debut line, this is one of the best bargains in romance youíre likely to find.†† †

--Cathy Sova

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