A Cowboy’s Code by Alaina Starr
(Sil. Sp. Ed. #1272, $4.25, PG) ISBN 0-373-24272-7
A Cowboy’s Code is a perfectly nice, gentle love story with a lot of admirable elements. While it didn’t exactly light a fire under me to recommend it to others, I can’t say that it wasn’t an enjoyable read.

One of those admirable elements is good, sturdy conflict. Emma Reardon is a journalist who grew up on a dirt-poor farm. Hating the way of life that staked her family’s future on the whims of weather and fate, she’s reinvented herself as a big-city girl with a life of utmost security based around a steady paycheck and frugal habits.

Now she faces a challenging assignment -- she’s to get the scoop on a successful rancher and horse breeder and let the readers of the business and financial magazine she works for know all the secrets to his success. To Emma, “successful rancher” is a kind of contradiction in terms -- she knows all too well that everyone’s luck runs out eventually in the insecure world of agriculture. But a job’s a job, so off to the ranch she goes.

Where she finds a very reluctant interviewee. Nick Barlow is a third-generation rancher who loves the land and the way of life with every fiber of his being. He has no interest in publicity, and furthermore, his divorce settlement is at last close to being finalized. A profile in a national magazine that portrays him as outrageously prosperous might throw a wrench in the works.

So we have two kinds of conflict between our hero and heroine -- immediate and long-term. In the immediate sense, Emma wants her story, while Nick wants nothing to do with it. In the long term, these two people have opposite life goals -- Nick can’t imagine doing anything but ranching, while Emma can’t imagine ever going back to such a punishing way of life.

With such obstacles, it seems that their relationship is doomed to end before it ever really begins. But a series of “accidents” that reek of evil intent begin to happen to both Nick and Emma, and the two are brought and kept together to discover who might be behind the threatening incidents.

And of course, they begin to discover more and more about each other, as well. After some really childish and totally unrealistic behavior in the first two chapters, they settle down and become rational and reasonable adults-- always a pleasure to read about. Both are initially wary, but interested in spite of themselves, and as they grow closer, they communicate effectively and try to work out their problems in a mature way. I liked this.

In fact, I liked both of these characters. Nick is really just your basic romance hero with all the right characteristics: he’s attractive, strong, successful, brave, resourceful, kind, and honorable. Not exactly unique, but perfectly acceptable. Emma has more layers that are revealed as the book goes on, and she’s a believable and interesting character. When you add in points for maturity and honesty, you get two people who you certainly don’t mind reading about. And while two nice people don’t necessarily make for a lot of high drama, the conflict is strong enough to keep the story interesting.

I also liked watching Emma get to know Nick’s ranch. Her prejudices against his way of life are old and deeply-held, and it’s interesting to see her perceptions shift gradually as she considers the new information her experiences give her.

The “mystery” element of the story is more problematic. It takes Nick and Emma way too long to figure it out -- or even have suspicions in the right direction. Meanwhile, the culprit is fairly obvious to the reader, so they both come off looking pretty thick. Since this mystery business is a device the author uses to move the story along, I have to take off points -- this is a romance, yes, but when the mystery figures so largely in the storyline, it requires a more skilled execution.

Furthermore, while I didn’t mind reading this book, I also didn’t mind putting it down. It lacks a certain fire that makes for a truly compelling read -- and that’s not because the love scenes are so subdued (although they are so toned down, and written in such vague and flowery language, as to be almost unnecessary). It simply didn’t draw me in. I never found myself wondering about the story or thinking about the characters when I wasn’t reading. But it does have those admirable elements -- strong conflict, appealing and mature characters, and a nice, steady pace -- so it’s certainly a pleasant enough way to spend a few hours.

-- Ellen Hestand

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