Christmas Pie

Cooking Up Trouble by Emma Craig
(Love Spell , $5.99, PG-13) 0-505-52398-1
Emma Craig is known among readers as a writer who serves up her stories light and frothy with a pinch of humor. In Cooking Up Trouble, part of Love Spell's "Faerie Tale Romance" line, Craig dishes up more of her standard fare -- with a diabolical extra ingredient.

Let me warn you -- our heroine, Heather Mahaffey, while not a "too-stupid-to-live" type of character, isn't exactly the sharpest knife in the kitchen. What she lacks in brainpower, she makes up for in looks and spunk. When the darkly handsome and mysterious Phillipe St. Pierre arrives in the windswept town of Fort Summers in the New Mexico Territory, Heather's father, a garrulous windbag, brags to him about his daughter's cooking talents. It just so happens that Mr. St. Pierre - rich Mr. St. Pierre - needs a cook out on his sprawling ranch, and before you can yell out "Order up," Heather is hired and standing befuddled in the middle of his kitchen.

Heather is simply a terrible cook. So terrible that her culinary disasters are legendary among townsfolk, including a Mrs. Van der Linden, who also works out at Mr. St. Pierre's ranch. The old housekeeper has it out for Heather, and she's determined to show her new boss what a mistake he has made by hiring Heather. Heather, on the other hand, is determined to make a go of her new job. Various mysterious disasters have befallen her family in the past several days, so she must earn some money for them. Besides, she has her mother's cookbooks how hard can cooking up three squares a day be?

Luckily, she's not put to the test. Not a meal into the job and a mysterious mustached man appears in her kitchen with an offer she can't refuse. This D. A. Bologh promises her that he'll cook for her for a month, and then ask her for payment at that time. Heather, with that little brainpower problem I mentioned, fails to specify what that payment will be, but she agrees to the bargain, although she doesn't trust D. A. Bologh.

Everyone's surprised at the meals Heather begins turning out even Mr. St. Pierre is taken aback by the delicious meals so reminiscent of his New Orleans background. But breakfast, lunch and dinner aren't the only tasty dishes surprising his senses. He noticed from the beginning how pretty and adorable Heather Mahaffey was, so he begins to pay some interest in her. He calls her to his dining table to inquire about ingredients and cooking methods. He asks her opinion about menus and guest lists for parties. And he simply can't understand why such a talented cook gets so nervous and panicked whenever he questions her about cooking.

Heather's equally taken with her boss, but his constant inquiries about her cooking are scaring the devil out of her. Not long into her agreement with D. A. Bologh she realizes she's way over head and needs to find a way out of her predicament. Besides, her strange cooking companion is beginning to freak her out - he can whip up an elegant meal in minutes, and have the whole kitchen cleaned up in seconds. And he can disappear in a puff.

It's a classic tale of man selling his soul to the devil, and for me, it was the most interesting ingredient in the story, though I tend to like my romances without supernatural elements. The backstory of why D. A. Bologh appears on the ranch was more interesting than the love relationship between Heather and Phillipe. Beyond physical attraction to each other, I couldn't understand why Heather and Phillipe would want to be in the same room together. She was not in his intellectual league, and he seemed too distant and moody for someone with her lightness of spirit. Indeed, whenever Phillipe begins listing Heather's charms, his thoughts usually go back to the time he spied on her in the ranch's bathhouse.

The dialogue in Cooking Up Trouble was a problem for me. When I read lighthearted, humorous historicals, I'm looking for some sparkling repartee between the hero and heroine. Not so with this novel. The conversations between Phillipe and Heather were excruciating, with Phillipe's "I see's" and Heather umming and ahing her way through conversations. I wondered if the "I sees" were intentional (after all, Phillipe's big problem in the book is that he doesn't see), but combined with Heather's Valley Girl-speak, it managed to annoy me.

Dialogue aside, Cooking Up Trouble offers an interesting twist on a classic literary theme, and if you're a fan of Ms. Craig's, I think you'll enjoy her retelling of the tale. She has a very distinctive voice, which sounds loud in clear throughout the novel, and she sprinkles her own brand of humor throughout.

--Diana Burrell

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