Once Around

Sleeping Alone

The Day We Met by Barbara Bretton
(Berkley, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-425-17190-6
The latest novel from veteran author Barbara Bretton was a pleasant surprise. While I wasn't paying attention, this former category romance author turned into quite a strong writer, with more maturity and depth than I remembered. There are no earth-shattering surprises in The Day We Met, and the second half of the book fails to live up to the promise of the first half, but reading it is still a satisfying experience.

Maggy O'Brien thought she would celebrate her 35th birthday quietly. But the single mother of two, who holds down a part-time job while pursuing a college degree, is kidnapped by her sisters, who surprise her with a makeover, haircut, and a limousine trip to an all-expenses paid weekend at an Atlantic City casino hotel. Her sisters order her to have an adventure, but they don't believe she will really have one. Maggy knows that her family considers her a responsible but dull matron. She usually thinks of herself the same way. And yet.

At home she was the strong one, the one who grabbed the baseball bat she kept under her bed and crept out into the hallway when Charlie heard a funny sound during the night. The one who captured the big brown spider in Nicole's room and set it free in the backyard because although they didn't want to kill unwelcome visitors, they didn't have to live with them either. The woman who did those things was an Amazon. She could leap tall buildings and bend microwavable Pop-Tarts with her bare hands.

She was still that woman tonight. She couldn't escape her if she tried. That woman was key to her survival. But she was also a woman she'd almost forgotten about, a woman who liked to be held close and flirted with by a man who knew how to do both those things exceedingly well.

Fortunately, just as Maggy is rediscovering the woman within, Conor Riley is discovering Maggy. Conor is a policeman whose partner -- and best friend -- was recently killed in the line of duty. Trying to escape his guilt, Conor also visits Atlantic City, where he sees and immediately is drawn to Maggy. In the make-believe world of the casino, the two begin a passionate affair. The couple realizes that they both live in Central New Jersey, close enough to keep their relationship going when the weekend is over. But do they want to subject this romantic interlude to the bright lights of reality? Can their newly found happiness survive the suspicion and close scrutiny of their families? Will Conor stop feeling guilty about his partner's death long enough to believe he is worthy of Maggy's love?

The portion of the novel set in Atlantic City is powerfully romantic, yet humorous, as Maggy repeatedly acts out of character due to the sudden strong attraction to Conor. Bretton's style is somewhat akin to Jennifer Crusie's, although her humor is more gentle and her characters' emotions have more intensity.

But when the two return to their respective homes, the novel stumbles a bit. An examination of how their relationship withstands the normal pressures of real life would have been interesting. But Bretton throws in too many subplots -- the trial of the man who murdered Conor's partner, a dangerous escapade by Maggy's rebellious teenaged daughter -- and the emotional punch is diluted. Also, in the effort to show that Maggy and Conor are "soul mates," Bretton makes them almost too perfectly matched. They understand each other perfectly, never fight, and even like the same kind of donuts. Granted, there is plenty of external conflict to keep them apart, but even soul mates should have some differences of opinion.

Fifteen years ago, I met my future husband on a quiet beach in Florida during an impulsive vacation. When I returned to reality, I too had to face the skepticism of family and friends who dismissed our relationship as "just a spring fling." Now, after twelve years of marriage and two kids, I'm still a sucker for books in which two people meet entirely by chance and fall in love while they are away from their familiar environments. So perhaps I'm a little biased where this plot is concerned. But I think any readers who appreciate well-written contemporary romances will look favorably upon The Day We Met.

--Susan Scribner

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