This is a story that had a lot of potential, but the author took a bit too long to get the story in gear in the beginning and then shifted it into neutral for too long in the middle. It's not a good sign when the plot starts showing itself at page 200. However, that it held my interest for that long says something about it. There were quite a few fresh elements that I had not yet encountered in the old skool stuff, and so I kept reading. I'm glad I persevered, but when I finished the book, and despite a satisfying ending, I knew it could have been so much better.
The story begins by dropping the reader right into events. Louisa Boyd is in seclusion in San Diego, waiting to have a baby. There are references to past events aplenty, so much so that I felt I should know what was going on and wasted a bunch of time researching if this was a sequel. Not the case. We then have about 160 pages of backstory about Louisa and her two childhood chums, Marshall Hudson and his illegitimate half-brother Andrew Sutton. It was often interesting, but I wondered just where it was all leading.
Heroines get abused all the time in the old skool rippers, but Louisa Boyd is the first heroine I've come across who is really and truly damaged. She's been messed up since childhood. Her mother was an alcoholic and insane, her father was negligent and cold and more than a little perverse. When her mother died, Louisa suffered years of sexual abuse by her father, and Louisa's odd habit of lighting fires as a child when playing with her friends becomes a ritual of cleansing. I never thought the column headed "Heroines--Pyromaniacs" would ever have something in it. Her father calls her "a born whore" and her own easily-ignited desires make her feel like a tramp and loathsome creature. She hits the bourbon when she's depressed and believes that her fate is pretty much mapped out because of her parentage and her own corrupt soul.
The hero of the story, Andrew Sutton, also has a few demons of his own. As a young man, he becomes a sailor on his father's shipping line and then jumps ship at the horrendous conditions, changes his name to Aaron Sumner, turns pirate and adventurer, and is dedicated to bringing down his old man and those he's in cahoots with. He loves and tragically loses a fair tavern wench called Juliet, scarring his heart and causing no end of distrust and dismay for Louisa later on when they meet up again. He's driven by hate and revenge and refuses to let himself be vulnerable ever again.
Andrew is also a dead ringer for his half-brother, Marshall (also Louisa's lover and father of her child), and he's enlisted by the American government to infiltrate a plot by Marshall's father (among others) to seize California as an independent republic and funnel arms and money to the South in the coming conflict. Because Marshall and Louisa are a couple, Andrew and Louisa have to feign being a couple themselves, something they don't need to fake very long. They fall into bed together quite readily since she looks at him and sees Marshall, and he's always had a hankering for his old playmate.
So they go to Monterey to the den of the conspiracy, but once there, that part of the plot took a back seat to the constant bickering and make-up sex between Louisa and Andrew. While the author did what I thought was a good job of creating these two characters, the motions they went through were conventional and repetitive for far too long (well over 100 pages and perhaps even 200 and change). The story ground to a halt as Louisa and Andrew kept going back and forth, with Louisa being the more annoying of the two. There was a fine cast of secondary characters (namely the Machiavellian head of the conspiracy, Peter Melville), but the author didn't flesh them out or give them much to do.
About 150 pages from the end, the plot once again picked up and it ended all very satisfactorily with the couple reuniting and the fresh twist of justice not entirely being served (one I didn't mind since in real life powerful bad guys often escape Hollywood's Clichéd Justice System). Still, the huge sag in the middle really brought the book down as a whole. A pity, since the concept of a rogue California on the eve of the Civil War is awesome story material. I just wish the author had done more with it.
In the end, I think the book suffered from the lopsided ratio of the elaborate backstory and psychological baggage suffered by both hero and heroine to the rather anemic plot. It hasn't turned me off this author, however.
Wherever the beautiful Louisa Boyd traveled, across the blue, ice cold eastern seas or the gold, sun fired western mountains, she could never truly leave the passions and madness born in the mists of her home -- the Louisiana bayous. Nor could she leave its young men who knew only the laws of desire and conquest -- men who, in a French vineyard, defended her innocence, and in an American desert, saved her life... and the new-born life of a child destined to be Louisa's triumphant gift of love to a brave man and a great continent...