Dead Heat by Jacey Ford
(Berkeley Sensation, $7.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-425-20461-8
***
I'm not sure what is worse in a romance novel: a hero who is too good to be true or a heroine whose actions don't match her alleged intelligence quotient. Dead Heat has both. Together they weigh down a well-written and suspense-filled story.

Private investigator Daphne Donovan has been hired by a middle-aged businessman to find an explanation for his younger girlfriend's strange behavior. What seems to be a standard cheating spouse case is, in fact, quite different. Far from indulging in more passion on the side, Nicole is doing her best to get her older man to propose. By the time Daphne realizes this, a murder/suicide turns her initial investigation into something involving terrorists and biochemical weapons. And just when she begins to think she has to go up against the threat on her own, in walks Sam Bryson to provide all the backup she needs.

After seeing Daphne once, the ex-Navy SEAL decides she's the one for him and goes out of the way to make sure she gets the message. They do have a lot in common, including a past in risk-intensive professions and a lot of guilt about not making the world much safer than it is. He is supportive when she goes after the bad guys, understanding when she needs some time to herself and encouraging when she wants to play a hunch. And it's not just words either: he cooks breakfast, helps her sort through smelly garbage and literally bails her out when she's picked up by the police. An Alpha male in touch with his sensitive side, this guy is too good to be true and too contrived to appeal to jaded readers like me. Frankly, I prefer heroes with a flaw or two. Besides, I'd rather see characters grow into love than fall right into it.

Fortunately, instant love isn't one of Daphne's problems: she needs a bit more convincing to acknowledge that Sam's the man for her. Unfortunately, she has her own shortcomings as a character: most notably, she doesn't live up to her reputation as a top-notch FBI agent. Here's a woman who almost stopped the 9/11 attacks (something that continues to haunt her and understandably so). And yet she repeatedly blunders in ways that has me doubting her background in investigation. What kind of an educated adult woman couldn't calculate the beginning of pregnancy? (And I'm not talking about knowing the exact date of her last period; I'm referring to simple menstruation matters.) Then there's the fact that Daphne mentions her past at the Bureau when filling out an application as part of her undercover operation. No, doing so doesn't get her into any hot water - at least not where her investigation is concerned - but that doesn't redeem her stupidity.

Daphne's thoughtlessness on this occasion probably wouldn't annoy me so much if the rest of the time she weren't so desperate to keep her past a secret - to the point of climbing out a toilet window to avoid probing questions from a date. Anything wrong with a simple "no comment?"

While the heroine and the hero don't make it into my roster of well- formed characters, the supporting cast is much more plausible. The villainess, in particular, is complex and convincing. She has a clear sense of personal ethics, however heinous her acts. This, along with a couple of red herrings that keep the suspense going, some interesting twists and the final chase, pulled the book up from the two hearts I was initially certain it deserved. And so, while it is definitely not a must read, Dead Heat gets passing marks.

--Mary Benn


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