by Ruth Langan, historical (1994)
Harlequin Historical, $3.99, ISBN 0-373-28845-X
In an Union prison camp in Ohio during the year 1864, the Confederate soldier known as the Preacher by his fellow prisoners is rescued from a brutal prisoner guard by prisoner known as the Gambler. The Preacher is Ethan Montgomery and the Gambler is Quin McAllister. If their nicknames aren't dead giveaways by now, this is how two very different men, one a gambler and one a dreamer, meet for the first time. As days pass, Ethan tells Quin about his wife Cassie and his daughters Jennifer and Rebecca and Quin ends up falling in love with Cassie without having even met her in person.
Cut to three years later when the Civil War is over. Quin receives a letter from Ethan asking him to come join him and help run a mine that Ethan has found. Quin sobers up, packs up his card, and gets on his horse. However, instead of Ethan, he finds Cassie and her family living in the middle of nowhere with Ethan supposedly being away in the mountains and having left his family to fend for themselves. What is going on? It isn't long before he learns the truth: Ethan passed away a few months back and the only way Cassie can fend off a villainous neighbor from seizing her home is by pretending that Ethan is still alive. Quin ends up staying with the Montgomeries (Cassie, the two daughters, and Cassie's suspicious mother Luella) to protect his late good friend's family. He's already in love with Cassie so things are not going to be that simple for all of them.
Ruth Langan's Angel has many things that are done right. The characters are very likeable people. Quin is a rather familiar noble ne'er-do-well who shines as a reluctant hero when he's given the responsibility to care for the ones he has come to love. Cassie always has a clear head (with one exception) and she is tough even if she's also out of her league in dealing with the bad guys. She also reads people and situations very well to the point that she ends up being the voice of maturity that Ethan needs to hear when it comes to dealing with his own inner demons. The exception is her insistence on remaining in an isolated farm with her mother and daughters when danger lurks just because Ethan, who she knows suffers in his mind after the War, made her promise to stay and make the mine prosper before he died. I find it hard to believe that an otherwise intelligent woman like Cassie will choose to martyr herself and her family to her late husband's final wish without seeking help from the Sheriff. When towards the end a secondary character finally rides to town to bring the Sheriff to arrest the bad guys, I feel like slapping my forehead and wondering why nobody thought of doing that early on in this story.
The two daughters are adorable while Luella is actually a well-developed character who eventually comes to accept Quin as the good guy. Cassie and Ethan have really good chemistry together. The characters in Angel are on the whole very well portrayed. They come off as likeable good people who are trying to survive in the confusing and often heartbreaking aftermaths of the Civil War.
Apart from the contrived insistence on Cassie's part to live in the middle of nowhere when danger is near (which is, I suppose, necessary or there will be no story), the author also makes a big mistake in allowing Quin to be so wrapped up in his self pity party about how he doesn't deserve love that the man actually leaves the Montgomeries a few pages before the last, only to hastily reunite with them for a happy ending after experiencing a rushed epiphany that gets to him where countless reassurances from Cassie that she loves him fail to. By that point, the story has had so many external conflicts in the second half or so of this book that Quin's annoying "I'm a bad man, so, after having sex with you and making you believe that there's hope for the two of us, I'm leaving! Byeeeee!" stunt is one non-stop event too many to be thrown in my face like that. When the author is still piling on the drama a few pages before the last page when she should be winding things down for some reassuring quiet time between the main characters, that's when I start to wonder whether Ms Langan has been carried away by the excitement of her story and doesn't know when to stop.
Nonetheless, for the most part Angel is a very enjoyable Western romance that manages to balance external conflicts and internal drama very well. Even the rushed pile-up of action scenes towards the end remains very readable and as much as I dislike the contrived "See ya! This bad man is leaving for your own good!" stunt that Quin pulls at the end, I do sigh at the happy family reunion at the end because I really like the characters and have been rooting for them to be happy all along. Their emotions for the most part feel real and no matter how stereotypical some of Quin's issues can be, Ms Langan deals with them well enough to make me sympathize with that poor man. Another nice touch is how Ethan isn't sabotaged so that Quin comes off as a better person. At this moment Western romances aren't experiencing a renaissance so anyone looking for a good Western hankie-read may want to give this book a closer look if they come across it in the UBS or something.
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