Dream Groom
Husband by the Hour
Prince Charming, M. D.
The Sheik's Kidnapped Bride
The Wedding Ring Promise
Wild West Wife

The Rancher Next Door
by Susan Mallery
(Silh. Sp. Ed. #1358, $4.50, PG) ISBN 0-373-24358-8
The Rancher Next Door is the first book in the Lone Star Canyon series, set in Texas. We're advised to "come visit Lone Star Canyon - where romance and passion are as hot as the Texas sun!" Unexpectedly Expecting! (SSE #1370) is to be released in January, with Wife in Disguise (SSE #1383) following in March.

When they were children, Katie Fitzgerald and Jack Darby became friends, much to her family's consternation. The Fitzgeralds and the Darbys had been enemies for generations. Sometimes children cut through the muddle, though, and see the real truth. Their friendship lasted for years, until Katie asked impossible things of Jack, things he couldn't give her and keep his self-respect.

The story starts some nineteen years after Katie and Jack's friendship began. Katie, who's been gone for years, has moved back to Lone Star Canyon. She and her son Shane are beginning a new life here. Things aren't going to go as smoothly as Katie would like, though. There's her bull-headed father, an impossible man, who's already criticizing her about how she's raising a sissy. He's also unhappy that Katie, a physical therapist, is working with Hattie Darby, Jack's mom. It doesn't matter to dear ol' Dad that Hattie and Katie will be working together professionally. No, he's forbidding Katie to have any kind of contact with the Darbys!

The main thing that's causing problems for Katie is Jack. Years before when Katie went away to college, she begged Jack to come with her. What she didn't seem to realize was that Jack couldn't just pick up and go with her. Jack's father had abandoned his family, leaving Jack to be the man of the family, a responsibility which included keeping their ranch afloat. He couldn't just leave with Katie, no matter how much he want to. What seared his heart even more was discovering that Katie married less than six months after she left home.

Katie would love to renew her friendship with Jack, but he's reluctant. Jack has a secret that's festered for years, one that won't allow him to commit emotionally. So Katie is torn between trying to keep peace with her father, a losing battle, and reigniting her relationship with Jack, a battle that will require most of the book.

The Rancher Next Door features protagonists who aren't realistic enough to make the story a recommended book. Katie is nice enough, even though she seems to float through life. She's a single mother, and has had three failed relationships, if you count Jack. Her father is a bullying tyrant, yet you never sense that any of this has really bothered her. She's the flower waiting to bloom, even though there have been floods and droughts in her life. Nothing seems to have really touched her deeply.

Jack Darby is a stock romance hero, a tormented hero who's torturing himself. His life hasn't been that easy, but when a character decides that he's finished with love after a botched attempt, that he'll never subject himself to that kind of pain again, and that he's better off alone, I just wanna slam the door in his face and let him wallow in his own self-made grief.

The Rancher Next Door just didn't ever catch my interest. Katie and Jack lack depth, Jack in particular. Katie's son and Jack's mother are written with more realism, more spark and with more interest than Jack and Katie. Here's hoping that you'll find more to keep you interested in Lone Star Canyon that I did. This is one Texas story whose characters seemed as flat as West Texas itself.

--Linda Mowery

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