Harlequin Historical, $6.50, ISBN 978-0-373-29887-7
Historical Romance, 2016
If tropes are ingredients, then Harper St George has whipped them up and prepared a tasty dish all the same in The Innocent and the Outlaw. It won’t necessarily stump or astound readers who are familiar with Western romances, but I personally find this an enjoyable read all the same.
All Emmaline Drake wants is some peace and quiet. Her stepfather is Ship Campbell, an infamous bank robber, and her stepbrother is following the man’s footsteps when he’s not boozing and generally being a nuisance. It is up to her to provide some stability to the girls in the family, and she works at the local saloon to earn some money. She tries to save what she can of her wages every month, in hope of one day having enough money to take herself and her sisters out of town, but she doesn’t see that happening anytime soon.
Then one day comes our hero Hunter Jameson and his brother, looking for Ship, and poor Emmaline knows that she can now kiss goodbye to any semblance of peace and tranquility in her life.
The title of this book is pretty accurate, by the way. I half-expect the author to reveal that Hunter is some lawman gone undercover, but it turns out that both characters are on the wobblier side of the law. These characters have familiar baggage, and their relationship takes on a familiar path of she trying to run away, he tackling her, the physical contact making the two of them feel a little… happier, and so forth. I roll up my eyes later in the story when the author has Emmaline, abetted by a madame, auctioning her virginity for some much-needed funds, as it is so obviously a forced effort to get these two to bump uglies, but on the whole, the story moves along very well. The pace is good, the villains aren’t too much of a cartoon character, and the resolution to the whole thing manages to be sweet without being too convenient or over the top – the whole thing is generally solid from start to finish.
The characters are fine, too. Hunter is who and what he is, but he is never cruel or petty – he is, in fact, a pretty nice guy at times. Emmaline may be painted as an innocent, but she is no passive dingbat. She tries to do something about the situations she finds herself in. She may not always succeed, but the author is pretty convincing in telling me that this is because Emmaline is out of her depths, rather than because our darling lacks brainpower or the plot needs her to be in a position of weakness for the story to be more “romantic”. The chemistry is believable, the emotional conflicts feel like natural results of their character and emotional progression, and these two people amazingly enough manage to go through the whole same old song and dance without making me feel like I’m suffocating under a mountain of “Been there, read that!” T-shirts.
I think a big reason why The Innocent and the Outlaw is a success with me is because the author serves the same old tropes up in a manner that feels organic, natural. Some stories feel like they are cobbled together to accommodate the tropes rather than the other way around, but here, the tropes are part of the story, rather than being the story, if I am making sense here. It also helps that there are some variations to the same old here that keep the story from seeming too stale.
Anyway, this one is fun, well-paced, and it can also deliver an unexpectedly heavy emotional punch when I least expect it to. All in all, a howdy-hey giddyap-go kind of Western romance!