Hard Candy by Mary Lynn Baxter
(Mira, $5.99, R) ISBN 1-55166-440-2
As a poor, part-time college student, Blythe couldn't believe that handsome Mark Lambert, son of the wealthy and prominent Lambert family, would be interested in her. So when he asks her to marry him (and keep his little secret about stealing his Mother's diamond necklace to pay his gambling debts), Blythe agrees but only after Mark promises never to gamble again.

Years later, Blythe knows she has a loveless marriage and a faithless husband. But her love of the landscape company she and Mark have developed, Designs by Lambert, keeps her going. That is, until Mark is murdered and she learns that he had taken every cent of the company's money to pay his gambling debts.

Now she has to fight her sister-in-law for control of a company that is close to bankruptcy. Worse, Detective Ryker Delaney, a man with a grudge against the Lamberts, is hounding Blythe. Ryker is determined to put the Lamberts in their place.

And just because he finds Blythe Lambert attractive, doesn't mean Ryker won't arrest her for the murder of her husband, if he can come up with enough evidence to link her to the crime. Ryker also thinks the Lamberts know more about jewelry stolen from Design by Lambert's clientele than they are willing to admit.

There's a lot of well developed suspense in Hard Candy and for the most part I thought it was a very intelligent story. Ms. Baxter does a wonderful job of placing the reader in Blythe's shoes. I truly felt the tension build as Blythe's entire world starts crumbling around her. And just when you think things can't get any worse for Blythe; they do.

I did, however, have a problem with the romantic side of this tale. Blythe and Ryker spit, hiss and sniff around each other for most of the book. Given the story line, I can't say that Blythe's and Ryker's reactions to one and other do not make sense. Blythe's husband, no matter how big a louse, has just been murdered, and Ryker his own past and present issues to deal with.

But while the spitting, hissing and sniffing is interesting for about the first 100-plus pages, by the second 100-plus pages, it becomes tiresome. By then I just wanted their relationship to progress to another level any other level.

My other problem with the story line was that it seemed rather implausible that Blythe, when she learned about the stolen jewelry, never even considered the possibility that her late and unlamented husband might have been involved in the thefts. Blythe found Mark stealing diamonds from his mother. How much of a leap would it be to consider the possibility that he might have had something to do with the jewelry stolen from the clientele of Designs by Lambert?

Hard Candy offers smart, intelligent plotting. Unfortunately, it gets sidetracked by a slow-moving romance and some implausible facts. However, lovers of suspense will definitely appreciate how Ms. Baxter expertly builds and sustains the tension surrounding the heroine's fate until the very end of the story.

Footnote: Hard Candy gets an "R" rating for the rough language (not for the sexual content, which is minimal and occurs toward the end of the story).

--Judith Flavell

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