Montana Sky by Nora Roberts
(Putnam, $23.95, R) ISBN 0-399-14122-7
Nora Roberts' latest hardcover release is a contemporary ensemble romance, a departure from her usual style. Instead of one main hero and heroine, there are three pairs. By using a wide-angle approach, she offers her readers an interesting story told over the space of one year.

Jack Mercy, a Montana rancher on a grand scale, has died and left his ranch to his three daughters. The girls are the products of three marriages, and none of them know the others at all. Brought together by the funeral and the reading of the will, they are stunned to hear the conditions attached -- in order for any of them to inherit, all three daughters must live together on the ranch for one full year. If any breaks the conditions, all forfeit their inheritances, which will total in the neighborhood of six million dollars each.

In less capable hands than Roberts', this might have been a real groaner of a plot premise. But she does such a good job of introducing the dead rancher as a cold, unloving, Montana Machiavelli that we can easily picture him trying to reach beyond the grave to control the lives of his children. And Roberts wisely leaves him in this frame of reference, never trying to redeem him.

Oldest daughter Tess is a Hollywood screenwriter. She, of course, wants nothing to do with the ranch and makes it plain she'll be gone one day past the year deadline, with a check in her hand. Middle daughter Lily is running from an abusive ex-husband, and the ranch looks like a dandy place to hide out for a while. Youngest daughter Willa was raised on the ranch and regards it as hers, and these unknown sisters as interlopers and leeches. Of course they come to care about each other, and of course each finds love along the way.

But all is not well on the Mercy Ranch. Someone or something is killing the livestock. Then, dead people with no scalp left start turning up. Could the killer be Lily's crazed ex-husband? Someone with a vendetta against the evil Jack Mercy? Or some lunatic from outside the ranch community? Roberts can keep a secret with the best of them. Have fun guessing!

One of the pitfalls of writing an ensemble book is that the reader never gets to know the main characters very well. We get flashes of insight into each of the sisters, but not much depth. The heroes are great guys, but we know them even less well. We meet these people and share a year with them, and maybe that's enough for most readers, but they were interesting enough that the characterizations were somewhat frustrating because they were so limited.

The insight we do get is fun, though. The sisters grow and change plenty, especially Willa. When she finally realizes she's been used as a trophy all her life by her father, her reaction sets up one of the funniest scenes I've read in a long time. I laughed out loud and then went back and re-read it.

The dialogue in this book is one of the standouts. We get to know these people far better by what they say than by anything they do, and they are made to sound human and natural in every respect.

A word of caution to romance purists: Roberts' recent forays into mainstream fiction have become increasingly gory. This book is not a romance per se - it's a mainstream suspense novel with three romance threads. Accept that going in or prepare to be disappointed.

If, however, you're a fan of thrillers, this one is gripping. The ending surprised me, the romance was satisfying, the story was well-told, and I think Roberts' fans will thoroughly enjoy this latest effort.

--Cathy Sova

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