Jeb Hunter's Bride by Ana Seymour
(Harlequin Historicals, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-373-29012-8
Jeb Hunter's Bride was a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, the plot premise - orphan girl and her brother sneak along with a wagon train by disguising her as a man - was promising. On the other hand, the author sacrificed the heroine's intelligence in order to make the plot elements tie together.

Nineteen-year-old Kerry Gallivan and her thirteen-year-old brother are orphans. Their late father had planned to take the three of them to California and start a ranch. Before he died, he outfitted the family with a Conestoga wagon and arranged a place for them in a wagon train led by Jeb Hunter, a well-known guide. But it seems that a single woman is considered unwelcome in a wagon train. In order to pass muster, Kerry cuts her hair, smears her face with dirt, and dresses in pants to fool Captain Hunter.

Right away, Kerry exhibits a tendency toward the stubborn and stupid. Jeb advises them not to load their wagon too heavily, but Kerry refuses to leave her father's heavy tools behind and crams the wagon full. Two days out of Independence, she sprains her ankle and is found out by a neighboring wagoneer, Scott Haskell. He promises to keep her secret and assist her on the journey. Captain Hunter, meanwhile, is bothered by something about "Kiernan" but can't quite put his finger on it.

At their first river crossing, Kerry stubbornly insists she can drive the team across even though Scott has offered to ride with her and help out. Just because she's a woman doesn't mean she isn't capable! Kerry's not capable enough to know her own strength limitations, though, and this bit of stupidity is rewarded when the wheel breaks, the overloaded wagon capsizes, and Kerry is thrown into the river. Jeb Hunter notices that Kerry's wet shirt is now clinging to some rather interesting curves when he saves her from drowning. The gig is up. Kerry will be left at Fort Kearney if Jeb has his way.

Why was it necessary to have Kerry's identity discovered only by a) making her act like an idiot and b) having Jeb need to rescue her? This is what I meant by sacrificing her intelligence to make the plot string together. It moved the story along, but the cost to her character was too high for me.

Of course, Jeb won't have his way, and the rest of the story continues in predictable fashion. I think that was my main disappointment with this story. It was very predictable, and Kerry's reckless stubbornness didn't endear me to her in the least. Her naivete in thinking she'll just "build a ranch" once she gets to California didn't help, either. Jeb never came alive for me; he's predictable too, in that he's blaming himself for his late wife's death and sure he can never love again.

I had the most sympathy for the character of Scott, who falls for Kerry and is rebuffed in turn. He deserved better for his troubles in trying to keep Kerry alive and safe. Maybe he'll get his own book.

Ana Seymour's previous historicals have been entertaining reads. Jeb Hunter's Bride fell flat for me, but I'll look forward to her next effort.

--Cathy Sova

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