The Ultimate Romantic Challenge
by Katherine Garbera
(Brava, $14.00, R) ISBN 0-7582-1243-7
It’s a frequently told tale: he’s the CEO of the big heartless corporation, sent to buy out her small, successful family business. She resists. They are attracted to each other and mix business and pleasure. It’s certainly possible to breathe new life into this story, but that would require more imagination and creativity than is on display in The Ultimate Romantic Challenge, as well as characters with depth and consistency, a more readable writing style, and fewer distracting bloopers.

Sterling Powell represents the hotel chain that wants to buy the family-owned resort, Haughton House (a buyout is what it appears to be, but it is referred to as a merger). He also wants Alexandra Haughton, architect of the resort’s success, to work for his company. He is expected to arrive in time to make his presentation at a Monday meeting, but shows up unexpectedly on the prior Friday, intending to wear down Alexandra’s obvious resistance.

Alexandra’s reluctance to turn over Haughton House to a faceless corporation has more to do with her personal life than her business sense. She can’t let go of the resort because it has become her life, just as the Haughtons have become her family. Alexandra is a family member by marriage only – an all too brief marriage – to the eldest son, who died after a mere year of wedded bliss. In her early 20s at the time, Alexandra was only able to pull her life together by focusing on the hotel and building a rigid routine and lifestyle from which she does not waver. Beginning with his unexpected Friday arrival, Sterling is clearly going to upset her perfectly ordered life.

From his first appearance, Sterling has a high ugh factor. He immediately decides he wants her, although it isn’t clear if he wants her to be his employee or his bed partner, or both. He muses that he isn’t above using his sexual prowess to bend her will or bind her to him, so dazzling her between the sheets that she is too befuddled to see things clearly. Ugh. Turns out he’s not far wrong, though; Alexandra does lose the ability to think when wrapped in his arms and kissed witless. Okay, ugh on her, too. And she sticks with the “it’s just sex, I don’t need or want anything else” refrain way beyond reason. Double ugh. So much of this book is second verse, same as the first: It was more than sex for him, he hadn’t felt this out of control since he was a teenager, he had secrets of his own. For her: It was just sex, she had no more to offer, routine was her protective armor yadda yadda yadda. This has a throw the book against the wall repetition level.

How can there be room for so much repetition when the vast bulk of the story takes place over a three- or four-day period? He arrives on Friday, they’re in bed together Saturday night, there’s al fresco sex on Sunday, and a board meeting on Monday. This is not a timeframe that says “You are my mate for life” to me. If you removed just a portion of the repetitive declarations, there would have been plenty of room for actual events or story, for showing instead of telling. Maybe even room to clear up a few confusing issues, such as the hints at his “not living up to his potential” background that are never fleshed out. Or what happened to Alexandra’s love of routine, which starts out sounding like borderline OCD but melts away in less than 48 hours (she bemoans the loss but does little to halt it). Or the big one: Sterling doesn’t ask, and no one provides the answer to the obvious question, “Gosh, that’s young to die. How did he die?” about Alexandra’s late husband. You think that is going to be the big hairy secret, but it’s not – we just never find out.

Then there is the host of annoying errors, like two women go shopping, driving off in a Mazda Miata, but one later notes that two women helped her choose her clothes – where’d they put a third person in that car? And there’s her mysterious hair, which hung in soft waves down to the middle of her back, then was shoulder-length, then just brushed her shoulders. And her two brothers-in-law, who are some sometimes called her brothers. Or annoying distractions like melt-away undies – if you detail every item of clothing as it comes off, you can’t leave out crucial elements.

Finally, the writing style is a serious distraction. The author is clearly a big fan of the simple declarative sentence; sadly, these serve as enablers of her propensity to tell, not show. She also has a fondness for the sentence fragment, which can be an effective device. If used sparingly. Very sparingly, especially if longer, with confusion and incorrect antecedents and gerunds disguising the incompletness.

And never across paragraph breaks. You get the picture. The final deciding factor in the one heart rating? This is a big Brava book, so you’d be wasting $14.00 instead of six or seven. Big ouch, fragmentally speaking.

--Laura Scott

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