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The Outcast

The Outsider by Rosalyn West
(Avon, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-380-79580-9
Fear versus trust. It's at the heart of The Outsider, the engrossing second book in Roslyn West's "Men of Pride County" trilogy.

Both Hamilton Dodge and Starla Fairfax are crippled he physically, she emotionally. Both have arrived in Pride County, Kentucky with an agenda. Dodge is a Yankee banker fulfilling the legacy of a dead friend, determined to help the people of Pride through the pain of Reconstruction while building a life for himself. The bullet lodged near his spine, courtesy of a group of local nightriders, only serves to heighten Dodge's determination to succeed.

Starla Fairfax, a one-time belle of the ball, has returned to Pride County after a mysterious four-year absence. For all her seemingly forward ways, Starla is actually a scared and tired little girl, hiding horrifying memories and destructive secrets behind a smile and flirtatious facade.

Dodge is immediately attracted to the vivacious Starla, and sees through her smile to the pain that lurks behind her eyes. When he discovers that she is pregnant, he offers her a solution to benefit them both. They will marry but live together as brother and sister, since Dodge is convinced that the spinal cord injury that keeps him on crutches and in near constant pain has robbed him of any carnal capabilities. Starla's baby will be his way of carrying on the family name.

Starla is shocked by his proposition, but in no real position to say no. She can't go home. Her brother Tyler's has repeatedly pleaded with Starla to stay away from the family homestead and her father. The very thought of that vicious old man turns Starla's skin white. But how can she marry a man she doesn't know. What will he want in return? Will he be like all men, demanding all and returning nothing? Or can she believe his claims of friendship and his promises of trust?

It's an internal tug-of-war that makes for some compelling reading. Dodge patiently begins to strip away the emotional bricks that Starla has built around her heart, but it's a slow process. In the meantime, Starla's father, brother and other unsavory characters are determined to cause the death of the Yankee intruder. I lost track of how many times the poor guy got beat up. This was where The Outsider faltered somewhat. The slow build to Dodge and Starla's relationship is forced to take a backseat to plot machinations that were begun in the first book of the series, The Outcast, and are destined to be resolved in the final entry (due out late 1998). When the emphasis shifted from the burgeoning love between these two wounded creatures to the outside influences that threatened their union, the story began to lose its momentum.

There is also a curious lack of history for an "historical" romance set in the south during what is arguably one of that region's most traumatic eras. The Reconstruction? I wouldn't have known it. There is little sense of time and place, perhaps because the Pride County scene had been set (so to speak) in the first book in the series (which this reviewer has not read).

But to be completely fair, author Rosalyn West's dialogue is as truthful and honest as her place descriptions are bland. The author's words fairly zip from the tongues of the two protagonists, making for some lively encounters that go a long way towards illustrating the fears, hopes and romantic dreams of our hero and heroine.

A happy ending is a given. But in the case of The Outsider there are one or two unresolved issues that will compel many a reader to anxiously await the final chapter in the "Men of Pride County" trilogy.

--Ann McGuire

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