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A Stranger's Wife
by Maggie Osborne
(Warner, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-446-60529-8
*****
Once again Maggie Osborne has created an absolutely unforgettable heroine, one of those rough, brave, and totally unusual women who people her books. And in this Pygmalion story set in the old west, Osborne has outdone herself. Lily Dale's metamorphis seems utterly improbable and utterly believable. And in the process, she redeems the hero. What more could a romance reader want?

Lily is certainly a diamond in the very rough. As the book begins, she is being released from Yuma State Prison for Women in New Mexico territory, where she has served five years for armed robbery and assault. Osborne doesn't pull any punches. Lily done it. She is also an unwed mother who dreams only of going home to Missouri to see the daughter she turned over to her aunt when she was convicted and sentenced to prison.

But Lily discovers that her freedom comes with a hitch. She is told that she has been pardoned into the custody of Paul Kazinsky, a powerful Colorado politico. She is told that unless she does what Kazinsky wants, she will find herself behind bars once again.

What Kazinsky wants is for Lily to masquerade as the wife of his friend Quinn Westin for the next seven months. Quinn is the leading candidate to become the first governor of the new state of Colorado. Unfortunately, Quinn's wife Miriam has left him and the scandal surrounding her disappearance could cost Quinn the election. It seems that Lily is a dead ringer for the missing Miriam. When the election is won, Lily will receive enough money to allow her to live in luxury in Europe, far away from the site of her masquerade.

Given no choice, Lily embarks on the process of learning to be a lady, a hard task but not impossible given her quick intelligence and determination. Paul is her tutor, but it is Quinn who fascinates her. While she has sworn off men (it was a man who got her into the trouble that cost her five years of her life), her pretend husband's good looks and intriguing personality prove hard to resist.

For his part, Quinn is confused about his feelings for this woman who looks so much like his prim and proper wife, but who is so completely different in personality. While the real Miriam was cold and distant, her double is warm and sensuous. The sexual electricity between the two is palpable, but both know that their time together is limited.

Osborne details the problems that Lily faces as she takes on another woman's persona and life in a masterly fashion. Gradually, Lily begins to discover more and more about Miriam and to uncover her secrets. And as her knowledge increases, she begins to wonder more and more about Miriam's flight and to question why Quinn has made no effort to find his errant wife. What was Miriam's fate?

For his part, Quinn increasingly chafes against the restrictions that politics places on his behavior. He has groomed himself to be Colorado's governor, but it appears that he cannot speak of the issues he considers of foremost importance because he cannot alienate his political backers. And he begins to wonder if the goal is worth the personal price he must pay, the price of his soul.

Osborne creates marvelous heroines, but she also creates great heroes. Quinn is a man torn between ambition and what he knows in his heart to be right. Lily's love awakens his better self and he discovers that there can be love and joy and, yes, happiness. Yet their relationship is bittersweet because it must end. And when he discovers that Lily actually believes he would go to any end to achieve his goal...well, let me say that the climax of this book is absolutely riveting.

I have enjoyed all of Osborne's western romances, but I feel that this one is far and away her best. The writing is first rate, the story is great and the characters are flawed people I came to care about. So, this one is a keeper for me.

--Jean Mason


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