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Scandal's Captive

Halfway to Paradise by Nessa Hart
(Avon, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-380-80156-6
Halfway to Paradise is the first Neesa Hart book that I've read. A quick search showed that she's written categories and also writes historicals and Regencies under the name of Mandalyn Kaye. Those of you who like her historicals and Regencies will probably want to read her contemporary books, too.

At the airport, young widow Maggie Connell watches a tender reunion between a soldier and his family and is reminded painfully that her soldier is never coming home. Mourning after almost a year, Maggie, an interior decorator with a new business, is still having trouble coming to terms with her husband's death. Boarding a plane for Boston, she is seated next to a man who will change her destiny.

Widower Scott Bishop, a Dallas architect, is aware of his seat mate's distress. His compassion draws Maggie out. On the flight, they discover that they share a common bond, that of recently losing a spouse. They also discover that they're bidding on a new multimillion dollar real estate project in Maggie's hometown of Cape Hope.

Another common bond they share and one they'll never know about is that they have guardian angels who've joined forces. Mark Connell, Maggie's deceased husband and Annie Bishop, Scott's deceased wife, are novice guardian angels who meet for the first time as they invisibly observe Scott and Maggie's meeting. Even from the other side, Mark and Annie are sad, seeing the ones they left behind. They're not sure what their mission is, but they do know that helping Maggie and Scott is part of their destiny, too.

Ryan, Maggie's seven-year-old son, can see Mark and now Annie. His ability to see and talk to them occasionally gets him in hot water. Nobody believes him, but he treasures the visits. He's a charmer who accepts Scott into his mother's life. If only Maggie and Scott were as accepting of each other as Ryan is of Scott.

A humorous thread involves seven-year-old Ryan's love for hockey. Scott, seeing Ryan's distress as the father/son hockey game approaches, volunteers to be on the dad's hockey team. We know that he hasn't been on skates since childhood, and it was roller skates, not ice skates. Those of you who understand hockey and ice skating will appreciate Scott's sacrifice as he tries to learn to skate in a week, with the goal of impressing Ryan, even though he knows that he'll be skating beside some Boston Bruins players. As a Texan, I was really impressed that a fellow Texan would want to get on thin blades and try to stand up, much less move on the ice.

We've essentially got two love stories about letting go and accepting new choices. Annie is Mark's voice of reason, persuading him that Maggie deserves a new life with Scott and that Ryan needs to bond with a 'new dad.' Slowly and with subtlety and with more shadows than substance, Annie and Mark begin an ethereal relationship. Both mourn what they've lost and are unsure of their ultimate celestial goal, but this twist of seeing two 'angels' grow to care for one another is a wonderful spark.

While a scorecard isn't necessary to keep track of the players, I did occasionally find myself reading about the 'angels' without being aware that we'd switched from the terrestrial to the celestial. While I liked Halfway to Paradise and have to give it points for originality, I'd have to include disclaimers about Maggie.

Scott has his hands full with Maggie. She misses Mark but is also angry, angry that he died, angry that she immersed herself in his career to the detriment of her own, and angry that he didn't say goodbye. What controls her more than her anger is her fear, a fear that she'll fall in love with Scott and he'll either take over her life or die, leaving her behind.

Scott is the stabilizing force in his relationship with Maggie, kind and understanding. How he deals with Maggie's insecurities is amazing. I don't remember the last time I met a hero who was so compassionate and gentle. With Mark and Annie's 'relationship', Annie is the one who's level-headed and centered on what's best for the 'living' characters. If opposites attract, then these four are now well-matched.

Halfway to Paradise takes place nearly a year after the death of both spouses. The continuing grief felt by all the characters is treated intelligently and honestly, allowing us to grieve with them, especially since we're meeting both the living and the 'angels.' Had Maggie not been so hard headed, so insistent in keeping Scott at arms' length, both emotionally and physically for most of the book, then this story would have been easy to recommend.

--Linda Mowery

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