Justice at Cardwell Ranch

B.J. Daniels
October 2012, Series Romance
Harlequin Intrigue #1377, $5.25, 224 pages, Amazon ASIN 0373696442

Grade: C+
Sensuality: Kisses

Do you remember high school? I'll admit my years there are mostly a blur. Those memories have been replaced with others that are far more valuable to me. What happens, though, if an unfortunate event holds you stuck there?

Jordan Cardwell has returned to Montana for his twenty year class reunion. He hadn't planned to. In fact, he had plenty of reasons to never set foot in the state again. His return six years ago led to murder accusations and an estrangement with his sister. Dana was supposed to be the sole inheritor of the family land since she is the only one their mother trusted to keep the land. None of that matters to Jordan now. What does matter to him is the phone call he received from a former class mate regarding his best friend Trevor's suicide twenty years ago. Jordan is very interested to hear any new evidence that would point towards murder. To that end he arranges to meet his caller somewhere off the beaten track. Moments before Jordan gets there his contact is shot. Jordan is in time to hear him say only the word "Shelby" before the man dies.

Deputy Liza Turner has been tailing Jordan since she first spotted him on his family ranch. Now she finds him standing over a dead man. She knows he couldn't have done it, but she sure is suspicious of the fact that dead bodies always turn up when Jordan Cardwell comes to town. She and the sheriff question Jordan but the information he provides isn't the kind that will lead them straight to the killer's door. However, he does know all the players in the twenty year old case that supposedly led to this murder. She doesn't want to work with him but she's not opposed to using him to solve her case. Every moment she spends with him, though, is fraught with danger. Her life might be safe in his hands but she seriously doubts her heart will be.

It's obvious that the setting for this novel is much beloved by the author. Fond references to cowboys and cowgirls, as well as a lauding of ranch life and the importance of family land staying in the family are sprinkled liberally throughout the story. This could easily have become annoying but the small town atmosphere works very well as a foil for the mystery. As Jordan and Liza try to solve the case the fact that everyone knows everyone becomes vital to the resolution of the mystery. It is clear that several people know pieces of the puzzle but only one knows everything. Who is that person? And just how far will they go to keep their secret?

The suspense is what kept my attention, with the romance coming in a pale second. Part of this is because a lot of story time is given over to Jordan's sister Dana, and her husband Hud. Dana, guardian of the family land, has two young children and is pregnant with twins. She finds herself on bedrest early in the story. Just while she is trying to relax, her sister Stacey walks through the door. Hud, who is the town sheriff, is happy to see neither Stacy nor Jordan. In his mind, the two always bring trouble. Stacy does bring a surprise with her - a baby daughter,. Now, just when their growing family demands their attention, Hud and Dana find themselves solving mysteries surrounding both Jordan and Stacy. All of this uses many, many pages that could have been devoted to Liza and Jordan. Given how short the novel is, the author didn't have the space to spare. The end result is that we have a sweet romance building which suddenly blows into a full out love story. The lack of page space with the two leads leaves us wondering just how that happened.

Fortunately, the author has a breezy, clear writing style and interweaves her story well. This makes the added story lines pleasant distractions as opposed to irritants. That and the interesting mystery enable me to say this book is slightly above average. I wouldn't rush out to buy it, but if you have the time and are looking for a light read,it just may fill the bill.

-- Maggie Boyd

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