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Wild Designs

Stately Pursuits by Katie Fforde
(St. Martin's, $22.95, PG) ISBN 0-312-18668-1
Rising star Katie Fforde's fourth contemporary romance offers more of what her growing legion of fans have come to expect: a down-on-her-luck but plucky heroine, a host of engaging secondary characters, non-explicit sex, and plenty of sly British humor. I almost subtracted one heart from the rating because of a slightly boorish hero, but decided that the novel is still a highly recommended read.

Hetty Longden has just been dumped in the most humiliating fashion. Her boss/boyfriend Alistair intentionally allowed Hetty to catch him in bed with another woman because it seemed like the "best way" to tell her that the relationship was over (or, as he says, "I had an important meeting in the afternoon and couldn't handle any extra hassle"). Unemployed and heartbroken, Hetty retreats to her childhood home until her well-intentioned mother declares that "if you can't be happy, you may as well be useful." A distant uncle of Hetty's mother needs a housesitter for Courtbridge, his large country estate, while he is in the hospital. Upon her arrival, Hetty quickly finds out that she has taken on more than she has bargained for. "Housesitter" doesn't even begin to describe her responsibilities and challenges.

The mansion is beautiful but run-down, with numerous repairs needed. Despite that fact, it is periodically opened to the public for house tours. The locals look upon the house with great affection and believe it could, with some improvements, become even more of a historical attraction and perhaps a host site for guests or artisans. Courtbridge could be the key to the countryside's economic revival.

There are several problems with this ambitious plan, however. First, Hetty discovers that Uncle Samuel is up to his ears in debt and that the loan is past due. Then she learns that Samuel's heir wants to sell the property to a developer who will replace Courtbridge with an amusement park. The local residents are obviously hostile to this idea and refer to Samuel's nephew, Connor Barrabin, as "Conan the Barbarian." When Hetty and Connor come face to face, they realize that they are on opposite sides of the fence regarding the future of Courtbridge. However, they soon discover they are well matched in other ways. Now Hetty faces her hardest task convincing Connor to give up his Barbaric ways and preserve the estate, while avoiding another heartbreak.

In the two months since I reviewed Katie Fforde's Wild Designs, I read her first two novels, Living Dangerously and The Rose Revived. By now I consider myself kind of an expert on her work. She never fails to create heroines who are down but not out, whose ability to build a social network and find their true calling be it gardening, sculpting or construction is at least as rewarding as their ability to find their true love. Her humor is always on target, as when she describes Hetty's first meeting with Connor:

Conan the Barbarian may have smiled. Or it could just have been a random rearrangement of the stubble-covered creases and folds that surrounded his mouth. There was a glimpse of white, which was almost definitely a set of teeth.

The one problem I have with Fforde's work is her heroes. They tend to be on the rough side, and Connor is no exception. Hetty describes him as "terribly domineering, a totally unreconstructed alpha-male. Not even just 'new' but Cro-Magnon." Hetty and Connor spend most of the book at cross-purposes and it was difficult for me to understand how she could be in love with such a dour, inarticulate brute. Even when he finally admits he loves her, Connor is so tongue-tied he can't find the words. I suppose if you go for alpha males you might consider him endearing. From Fforde's quick dismissal of the two SNAGs (Sensitive New-Age Guys) who try to court Hetty, I can tell that alphas are her cup of Earl Grey. And to be honest, I must admit that Conan the Barbarian does have some redeeming qualities, such as a love of music, and that when he makes amends to Hetty for treating her abominably he does so in style.

Stately Pursuits is so much good-natured fun that my lukewarm reaction to Connor couldn't really put a dent in my enjoyment. I began my review of Wild Designs by comparing Katie Fforde with Alexandra Raife, but now I think she is closer to a British version of Jennifer Crusie, minus the sex scenes. I'll admit to a sense of letdown that I've now completed all of Fforde's published works to date, but eagerly await her next novel.

--Susan Scribner

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