Irish Devil

River Devil

The Southern Devil
by Diane Whiteside
(Brava, $14.00, NC-17) ISBN 0-7582-1210-0
Jessamyn Tyler Evans was forced to sell her family’s Tennessee horse farm during the Civil War to care for her ailing father. It’s now 1872 and she gets word that the new owners wish to sell the estate, along with the prized horseflesh, to her odious cousin, Charlie Jones. However according to the terms of the original sale, Jessamyn has six months to match the sum the owners originally paid her father, and purchase the estate, along with the horses, back. With yellow fever season almost upon Memphis, Jessamyn, now a penniless Army widow, goes looking for a legendary stash of gold her uncle used to wax poetic about. But for that she needs a husband…

Morgan Evans hasn’t been terribly pleased with Jessamyn ever since she thwarted a spy mission he was on during the war. He has vowed vengeance on the woman he was supposed to marry one day, and is determined to drive her wild with lust and desire. It also certainly didn’t help matters that Jessamyn married his Union officer cousin, Cyrus, following the war. Now Jessamyn is in town for the reading of her Uncle’s will and she needs his help. Her Uncle left treasure maps to a legendary stash of gold in Colorado to both her and the villainous Charlie. She needs that gold to save the family horse farm and she’ll do just about anything in order to get it – including selling herself body and soul to Morgan.

Whiteside spends a large portion of this book setting up back-story, and readers not familiar with the Devil series will likely spend several chapters a bit lost. Admittedly, even having read the first book in the series, it still took this reviewer a long time to figure out how it all ties together. In a nutshell, Charlie Jones is the villain in the first book The Irish Devil, and Morgan works for William Donovan, the hero from The Irish Devil. Also the first quarter of the book is set during the Civil War detailing Morgan’s service as a Confederate spy and Jessamyn’s betrayal in thwarting his plans.

It is during this back-story where the novel stumbles – namely in Jessamyn’s character motivation. She was born and raised a lady in Tennessee – the heiress to a dynasty. Morgan and her future husband, Cyrus, were good family friends. Yet when Morgan shows up in the course of spying, he learns from her father that Jessamyn has Unionist sympathies. How did that happen? Well we don’t really find out. Sure she was allowed to have opinions and discuss politics – but that’s hardly a good enough explanation for a girl whose father served in the Confederate army and one who grew up in a slave state. It is easy to see why she is upset with Morgan for placing her dying father in danger (he would be thrown in prison for harboring a spy if the Union soldiers found out), but she almost seems more upset by the fact that he’s a Rebel spy. In fact whenever she utters the words “rebel” or “rebellion” she does so with a distasteful sneer.

Also the slavery issue is glossed over considerably. Morgan fights for the Rebels, but sets all of his slaves free. He muses that this should please Jessamyn’s father – who despite owning a horse farm in Tennessee apparently doesn’t own slaves. However, there are people of color working on the farm, so is he paying them wages or what? This is frankly a nit-picky detail, but one that further muddies the waters. Yes, the Civil War was about more than slavery – but I had a hard time believing in the politically correct relationship that Jessamyn and her father had with their servants.

Once the story gets out of flashbacks and moves into the present it really picks up. Morgan doesn’t believe for a minute that the gold exists but is determined to prove to Jessamyn that he’s not a scoundrel. Also, he’s determined to have his revenge, and since she agrees, he is more than willing to burn up the sheets with her. And boy howdy, do they ever! Given Morgan’s desire for revenge, the early sex scenes do play heavily into Domination/submission – which makes it hard to feel much romance. However over the progression of the story, both characters soften, they discuss their past, and the reader can see that they never really stopped caring about each other.

There is a lot of back-story, a number of secondary characters and plenty of history in Diane Whiteside’s latest. While reading, I couldn’t help thinking that it would have worked a bit better if it had been a throwback to the grand romantic sagas from 20 years ago. One hundred more pages would certainly have added to fleshing out motives and more time could have been devoted to the treasure hunt. As it is, I found this story a pleasant, sexy diversion – but one that doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny should the reader decide to dig deeper.

--Wendy Crutcher

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