John Leo “Mac” MacBride, marine archaeologist, has a big problem on his hands. His beloved stepbrother, Will, has been charged with embezzling funds from his company, Bonnard Financial Consultants. Making things worse, Will’s partner, Frank Bonnard, was also arrested and subsequently died from a heart attack. And Frank’s daughter, socialite Valerie Bonnard, has disappeared to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where Mac is sure she’s living the high life on ill-gotten company funds.
Mac decides to visit the Outer Banks and try to figure out just where the money went so he can prove Will’s innocence. He’s surprised to find Val Bonnard living in a run-down beach cottage, not a luxury house. Managing to pass himself off as a handyman, he’s able to get close to Val. What he finds is more intrigue – and none of it what he’s expecting.
Val is unprepared for the condition of the beach house she’s inherited from her great-grandmother, but is determined to make it habitable. Her beloved father is dead, his creditors are hounding her, and this is a place where she can escape. Unfortunately, her “career” as her father’s hostess has ill-prepared her to deal with leaking roofs and flooded floors. Nor does she have much money, it all being tied up by the embezzlement investigation. Mac’s offer to work in exchange for a place to sleep seems heaven-sent.
As Mac and Val get to know one another, Mac finds himself doubting her guilt. But where did the money go? And what will Val do when she finds out Mac isn’t a handyman at all, but a man trying to prove her culpability? Thankfully, the author allows Mac to clue Val in before the end of the book, so she can be a vital part of the resolution. And Big Misunderstandings are absent altogether. Hallelujia!
Mac is a suitably driven hero, reluctantly coming to admire the very woman he’s supposed to be investigating. His ambivalence is palpable as he tries to stay away from Val but finds himself drawn to her anyway. When Val takes on outside cleaning jobs in order to put food on the table, Mac is thrown for a loop, and his chivalrous side kicks in as he offers to help her. It’s one thing to wish the spoiled socialite would be kicked in the teeth by a little reality; it’s another to find the woman you’re growing to care about is working herself into a state of exhaustion.
Val is a bit more problematic. Her efforts to take care of herself and her willingness to do some grunt work are laudable, but it’s hard to overlook that she’s thirty years old and has been getting by on her social graces (hence the title) and is only in the Outer Banks because she’s running from the hassle of creditors and investigators. Her great-grandmother left her the cottage, but she’s only visited it once, when she was seven years old. As hard as the author works to make her a regular person, capable of normal hard work, the aura of “spoiled, useless socialite” is hard to shake off. In the end, one can’t help rooting for Val and her happy ending, though.
Social Graces is an entertaining romance with two very likable characters in the lead. Dixie Browning prefers writing about realistic people facing tough situations, and her stories are always a welcome change from the series romance usual. Curl up with this book and a mug of your favorite hot beverage, and you’ll be cozy for several hours, at least.