Outlaw Bride

Jenna Kernan
February 2008, Frontier/Western Hist Romance (1850s California)
Harlequin Historicals, #883, $5.99, 299 pages, Amazon ASIN 0373294832

Grade: B-
Sensuality: Warm

Jenna Kernan's Outlaw Bride is a tough book to grade. It has many truly likable aspects, but there are others that distracted me. As in others of her stories, Kernan writes about characters who’ve been hit hard. Three years ago, when coming to California, Cole Ellis’s wagon train got trapped in the early snows on the Cascade mountains. He made it out alive, but was unable to save both his wife and daughter. (The events narrated here are closely based on the historical Donner Party in 1846/47.) He has been a broken man since then, and so, in order to end his life without committing suicide directly, he stole the mayor of Sacramento’s horse and let himself be caught. As the story opens, he is on a prison ship awaiting his hanging.

Bridget Callahan’s wagon also got stuck in the snow on the Cascades. She managed to climb down the mountains, but her family remains up there with very little food, and it’s only November. Nobody in town is suicidal enough to join her on a rescue mission, but she plans to set out anyway. To get advice from a wilderness specialist, she visits Cole in prison. He tries to to dissuade her while giving her some advice, but mostly he wants to be left alone. To get rid of her, he promises he will accompany her if she can get him out of his cell. To his huge surprise, Bridget deftly steals the warden’s keys and frees Cole.

A man of his word, Cole helps Bridget get the equipment they'll need and steals horses for them to ride. At first he remains reluctant to take on another mission after failing so disastrously before, but he changes his mind when he learns that not only are two adults (Bridget's sister and brother-in-law) at risk, but also an 11-month-old baby girl.

I have no knowledge whatsoever of survival training and wilderness travel, but what Jenna Kernan describes of climbing the mountains in the snow makes for compelling reading and fascinated me throughout. The insertion of some scenes written from the point of view of Bridget’s sister Mary tells us about the fate of the people up on the mountain, and adds even more suspense in the story. I found this particularly poignant as the author keeps the reader guessing for a long time how many would actually survive their ordeal.

Bridget and Cole fall in lust at almost first sight. Neither is a virgin, but both have been celibate for a fairly long time. Neither is the type for a short fling either, and they have no time for dallying, anyway. So what we have here are two people instantly attracted to each other who don't act on that attraction for some time. Instead, they get to know each other better as they work together – few situations show you more clearly what the other is like than being stuck in a snowstorm together all night. When they finally do have sex, it is hot and completely fits with the circumstances.

Bridget is a strong woman who can’t permit herself to act TSTL, because that would risk her family’s lives. So she does as she is ordered (with one understandable exception) and accept’s Cole’s expertise. Both Cole and she are deeply scarred by events in the past, and I liked the way that their pasts are slowly revealed while they learn to trust and open up to each other. Cole is a very responsible man, which makes his burden of having lost his family even harder to bear. I thought that his relationship with his dead wife and the way he deals with his memories were particularly well-handled.

The book features a Big Secret and a Big Misunderstanding. The Big Secret is kept for too long, which aggravated me, but at least the character keeping it pays for that. The Big Mis is actually well-handled, because we see very clearly how it develops from the different view of love the hero and heroine hold. Neither view is presented as wrong; they are just too one-sided and thus mutually exclusive. Both characters have some growing up to do before they can get together again.

Up to page 243, this seemed an excellent novel. Then the setting and the mood changed, and everything got caught up in a different sort of conflict. I accept this was necessary for wrapping up the plot, and kudos to Jenna Kernan for not just handing us a deus ex machina,, but the last few chapters still felt sadly flat compared to the ones before. There is one short scene in which Bridget gets dressed for a special event that is utterly brilliant in its mixture of hilarity and horror, but that’s it. The change in mood was just too much for me. In addition, in the last pages Bridget is made into something close to a saint, which was unnecessary and annoyed me a lot. I like my heroines with some shades of gray, thank you.

Had it not been for the ending, Outlaw Bride might well have been Keeper material. As it is, it earns a qualified recommendation. The final decision to recommend it rests on the fact that throughout much of the story it is unputdownable. Only in the end, which is mercifully short, did it disappoint.

-- Rike Horstmann

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