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The Rancher & the Rich Girl
by Heather MacAllister
(Harlequin, $4.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-82591-9
***
Heather MacAllister’s entry into Harlequin’s “Heart of the West” series is a pleasant story with a different twist. Many romances have rich heroes whose love elevates the heroine into the ranks of the rich and famous. As the title suggests, this one has a rich heroine and a less than prosperous hero. A promising premise.

Jessica Fremont belongs to the most prominent family in Lightening Creek, Wyoming. Eight years earlier, her young husband was killed. Since that time she has been trying hard to live up to the standards of her Fremont mother-in-law, Rachel. She has taken charge of the Fremont construction company as well as raising her young son, Samuel. But now Samuel wants to learn how to ride a horse, which causes a problem since his father died in a riding accident. His grandmother is unalterably opposed.

When Rachel thwarts her plans to send Sam to a riding camp, Jessica decides to buy a bachelor cowboy at the Lost Springs Ranch auction so that she can keep her promise to her son that he can learn to ride. She decides to bid on rancher Matt Winston, since Sam had already met the kind cowboy and fallen in love with his horse.

Matt has inherited a ranch in west Texas. It’s a most unusual ranch. The previous owner had allowed circus folks and their animals first to stay for the winter and then to retire to the ranch. So, in addition to the requisite cattle, Winter Ranch has a monkey, a zebra, a tiger and an elephant. The ranch also has problems, since a drought has struck the region and Matt has trouble hiring ranch hands who find dealing with the circus people and their strange critters difficult. Matt hopes to sell his horse, Black Star, in Wyoming to raise some money.

Instead, Matt finds himself hosting Jessica and Samuel for two weeks at his ranch. Jessica’s and Sam’s introduction to the ranch’s unusual inhabitants, both animal and human, adds some most enjoyable humor to the story. Sam becomes more and more attached to the caring Matt, who provides him with needed male attention. Jessica also finds herself becoming more and more attached to Matt, who is far from immune to her attractions. But Matt, who suffered his mother’s abandonment as a child, can see nothing but pain if he admits his growing love. After all, Jessica is a “rich girl” and will surely not want to stay in Texas.

MacAllister has created an interesting hero and heroine. Jessica has suppressed her own warm and impulsive personality in her quest to be a credit to the Fremonts. Her visit to Matt’s ranch completes her reawakening to life. Matt had never had a home until he inherited the ranch. He wants to hold onto it, not only for himself but also for all the circus folk who call it home. He is a kind and caring person, fully worthy of Sam’s and Jessica’s love.

Of course, the problems that threaten Matt’s and Jessica’s romance result from their different financial circumstances and from the machinations of Rachel. Matt is too proud to accept Jessica’s help; Jessica comes to wonder if it is her money not herself that attracts Matt.

I came close to recommending The Rancher and the Rich Girl. I liked the characters and enjoyed the humor. I thought the love story was sweet and the love scenes sensuous. What changed my mind was what I felt to be a too pat and improbable resolution of the conflict.

Still, The Rancher and the Rich Girl is a very acceptable addition to the “Heart of the West” series. Those who have been following this series will certainly want to pick it up.

--Jean Mason


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