Trust Me Once

Twice Burned by Jan Coffey
(Mira, $6.50, R) ISBN 1-55166-919-6
Proving that sex and secrets aren't just the provenance of small southern towns, Jan Coffey has set this fast-paced potboiler in a small (fictional) Pennsylvania town. Works pretty well, too.

Lea Hardy was just a child when she and her older brother Ted came home from school and found their parents' dead bodies - their father killed their mother and then himself. Lea would have left the town of Stonybrook and her family home behind her forever, but brother Ted marries Marilyn Foley, a Stonybrook native and official town slut.

Ted and Marilyn separate; they are fighting each other for custody of their two little girls when Marilyn is murdered - the girls are killed that same night when their house is set on fire. Ted is charged and convicted of the crimes. Lea knows her brother would never hurt his children. Ted is completely despondent over losing his daughters; he doesn't care that he's been convicted of a crime he didn't commit.

Lea does care; she is determined to get Ted a better lawyer and appeal the conviction. Lea is a social worker and doesn't have much money; in order to finance Ted's appeal she will have to sell their childhood home in Stonybrook.

Unfortunately, renters have pretty much trashed the place over the years and no one wants to buy it. Fortunately, Lea's always been handy around the house and she decides to fix it up herself. Lea has also received an anonymous note concerning Ted's innocence. Going home may help her discover what really happened the night of the murders.

So twenty years later, Lea returns to the small town of Stonybrook and she doesn't receive a warm welcome. Some residents think a Hardy means trouble, especially the local sheriff. However, Lea finds an ally in her neighbor, Mick Conklin. Mick is divorced and has just gotten custody of his troubled teenage daughter, Heather. He turns to Lea for advice on handling Heather.

Mick would like to help Lea in return, but Lea isn't used to having anyone help her. Despite her attraction to Mick, Lea intends to stick to herself and work by herself. However, after Heather saves her from an unknown assailant, Lea accepts the help and concern of both Mick and his daughter. And she wonders whether she was attacked because she's a Hardy or because she might be getting too close to Marilyn's killer.

Few characters are more deserving of a happy ending than Lea. She overcomes a horrific childhood trauma; becomes a social worker and helps others; rearranges her life so she can care for her aunt who has Alzheimer's and then puts everything she has into helping her brother.

And Lea's nice in a down-to-earth kind of way-not a goody two-shoes; it's easy to root for her and nice-guy Mick. I also liked the mystery and suspense in Twice Burned. There is a long list of possible suspects, all with motive and opportunity, who could have killed Marilyn. The ending is full of surprises and suspense.

--Judith Flavell

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