Holding the Dream by Nora Roberts
(Jove, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-515-12000-6
Nora Roberts fans who were disappointed by Daring to Dream (including Romance Reader editor Dede Anderson) will be glad to know that Holding the Dream, the second book in her latest trilogy, is vintage Nora. That means strong characters, snappy dialogue and a lively love story.

The Dream trilogy revolves around three women who are as close as sisters -- Laura Templeton, Kate Powell and Margo Sullivan. Kate Powell is the adopted daughter of Thomas and Susan Templeton, owners of a luxury hotel chain based in Big Sur. Unlike glamorous Margo, the Templeton housekeeper's daughter who found true love in Holding the Dream, Kate is goal- oriented, practical and efficient - your basic anal retentive personality. As a CPA with a top-notch firm, Kate has almost realized her lifelong dream of becoming a partner and making her adoptive family proud of her. So what if she lives on fast food and guzzles antacids to soothe the frequent stomach pains? She has worked hard to get this far.

Kate is a mostly silent partner in Pretenses, a second-hand boutique founded by Margo in the first novel of the trilogy. Kate manages the business aspect of the store (and drives everyone crazy with her color-coded filing system) but leaves the selling to the other two women - she isn't a "people person."

Then suddenly Kate's world comes crashing down. First, she finds that her father, who was killed in a car accident when she was a girl, was under a cloud of suspicion for embezzling money when he died. Then Kate herself is accused of financial impropriety on the job and is asked to take a leave of absence. For someone who has always based her self-confidence on her accomplishments, this is devastating.

Kate's unexpected ally during this crisis is Byron De Witt, a manager in the Templeton hotel chain. A southern gentleman with strong notions of honor, tradition and loyalty, Byron finds himself unexpectedly attracted to the prickly and argumentative Kate.

I couldn't remember reading a romance with an accountant heroine before and it was fun to watch Kate the Control Freak let her hair down as she learns that "emotions don't add up in neat columns." Through her romance with Byron, she allows herself be vulnerable for the first time in her life and reluctantly lets him help her with her professional and physical problems. She still needs to be in control of their relationship and panics when Byron tells her honestly that he is in love with her. An exasperated Margo reminds her, "It isn't an audit, it's a love affair - relax and enjoy it!"

I thought Byron was a little too perfect, with no faults at all, unless you count his tendency to act like a knight in shining armor when Kate is doing her Lone Ranger imitation. Maybe Nora wanted someone solid to balance out all of Kate's rough edges, but it would have been more interesting if he had shown a few idiosyncrasies as well.

I've read that Nora is the only girl in her family - she has only brothers and has two sons. It's even more impressive, therefore, that she has such a feel for the relationships among women. Together, Kate, Margo and Laura have complementary skills that make Pretenses a surprising business success. The teasing, fighting and baiting that occur between the three women is only secondary to the love and support they feel for each other. Their scenes are the liveliest in the book. My favorite involved the fabulous Margo's transformation of Kate from blue-suited professional to push-up- bra-wearing temptress for a charity event.

So far, this trilogy doesn't have the atmosphere and drama of the Born In... trilogy or the uniqueness of the J.D. Robb futuristic mysteries, but it's still Nora in her prime. Here's hoping that Laura's story, Finding the Dream, will also be a winner.

--Susan Scribner

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