The Bodyguard's Bride

Lonesome No More

A Family Secret



Millionaire in Disguise

A Real Hero

Texas Royalty

What the Heart Knows

Sweet Mercy by Jean Brashear
(Harl. Super #1339, $5.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-71339-8
A heart-broken painter meets a well-meaning Vegas show girl and learns to love again? Sounds like a cliché churner as well as a Kleenex wringer. But to my pleasant surprise, Sweet Mercy doesn’t sell its readers short. If you're in the mood for an emotional and heart-warming read, it may be just the thing.

Gamble Smith left his East Texas hometown several years ago when his wife died. Turning his back on family, friendship and hope, he has been pursuing his career as a painter in New York City. He is, however, unable to cut off all ties. When someone offers to buy the dream cottage he built with the love of his life, he hesitates. And when he learns his mother is in a coma, he returns home.

On Gamble's first night back, he meets Jezebel Hart, who is currently managing the town bar for an old friend. The two of them sleep together, never expecting more than one night of comfort and consolation. The trouble starts as soon as Jezebel realizes the condom they used broke. Before she has time to consider the possible unintended consequences, Gamble discovers she is the bidder on his cottage. He turns against her, accusing her of using her body to get hold of his long-abandoned house.

Gamble is self-righteous, sanctimonious and unnecessarily cruel-- traits that normally would turn me off immediately. And yet here, Gamble's behavior is part of the very credible process he must undergo before he can shed his grief and live again. Indeed, it isn't long before Gamble not only apologizes for his behavior but also opens up to Jezebel and the promise she holds.

A stripper with a heart of gold, Jezebel is another one of those characters who would normally have me gritting my teeth. So I am rather reluctant to admit that out of this hackneyed figure Brashear fashions someone I care for. Jezebel may have survived the sticks and stones of abandonment and foster homes, and the wandering hands of more than one male, but words, especially when they come from Gamble and his ill-informed family, do hurt her. She is nevertheless realistic enough to understand why and strong enough never to wallow in self-pity. And when apologies come, she is neither so self-abasing as to forgive instantly, nor so haughty as to slam all doors.

Her possible pregnancy aside, Jezebel has already come to terms, at the onset of the book, with all the bad cards life has dealt her. There is, therefore, much less emotionally at stake with her than with Gamble. Still, her genuine insecurities, her sheer cussedness and her belief in life shine through the pages of the book, providing it with a solid center.

The prose is lyrical, but it does occasionally turn purple. One example: "Her skin was a feast, her curves a banquet, her hair a glory." Yes, there is something poetic, even biblically so, about these metaphors - until both the inconsistency and the excess makes you stop and wince.

I also take issue with a minor plot line that justifies Jezebel's presence in Three Pines: she witnesses a murder and needs to lie low temporarily. There were enough hints dropped to make me think danger was just around the corner. When nothing happened, I felt slightly had.

That said, hats off to Jean Brashear for breathing life into well- worn character types and spreading a rainbow of color over a tear- jerking plot.

--Mary Benn

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