As Sally Tyler Hayes:

Cinderella & the Spy

Dangerous to Love

Spies, Lies & Lovers

Wife, Mother...Lover?

Twelve Days by Teresa Hill
(Signet, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-20145-0
It's hard to believe that Teresa Hill (under the name Sally Tyler Hayes) also writes Silhouette Intimate Moment category romances that feature bold, adventurous characters. The hero and heroine of Twelve Days are so passive that I wanted to shake them. I'm giving Ms. Hill an extra heart for focusing some very needed attention on the child welfare/foster care system, but as a romance, Twelve Days does not satisfy.

Rachel and Sam McRae have been married for twelve years, but their time together has been anything but blissful. Rachel is the youngest child in a loving, close-knit family. She would have married Sam, an orphaned loner, even if she hadn't been pregnant, because she was so in love with him. But just a few months after their hasty marriage, she lost her baby and the chance to have any more children. A few attempts at adoption failed. The last straw was when a foster child they had grown to love was returned to his mother, despite her questionable parenting abilities. Since then, their marriage has been hell.

Now as the Christmas season approaches in the picture-perfect town of Baxter, Ohio, Rachel is in a deep depression. To make matters worse, she's just overheard Sam's phone conversation with a friend, and has learned that he plans to move out of their house after Christmas. Then the doorbell rings, changing everything. It's her aunt Miriam, a child welfare worker. Accompanying her are three children, ranging from a baby to a pre-teen girl. The children have been found in a hotel room alone, and they refuse to say who their mother is or where she has gone. There's nowhere else for them to stay - can Rachel and Sam take them in just until Christmas is over?

Rachel wants to say no. This is just too close to her dearest fantasy, but she knows she will become attached to these children and then have to let them go. Frankly, she can't stand one more goodbye. But she reluctantly agrees to keep the children. Then she's faced with several dilemmas: can she come out of her blue funk long enough to give the kids the Christmas they deserve? Does she have the will to fight for her marriage as well? There are only twelve days until Christmas, so she has to act fast.

I'll mention the novel's redeeming qualities first. I applaud Ms. Hill's realistic portrayal of the child welfare system. Through Rachel's Aunt Miriam, the reader learns about its many shortcomings: the shortage of foster parents; the rules and regulations that force caseworkers to return kids to less than ideal parents, even though they think there's a good chance they will be abused or neglected; and the heartbreaking task that foster parents take on, knowing that they will probably have to say goodbye before they are ready. Thanks for the spotlight on a national tragedy.

But even after acknowledging Twelve Day's noble intentions, I have to say that the romance falls flat. It's hard to believe that Sam and Rachel have been married for twelve years, and that they were once madly in love. They don't communicate with each other and barely interact at all. Both spend way too much of the novel moping. There's a lot of martyr-like brooding - I'm no good for her/him, I only want her/him to be happy, so I'll leave/let him leave. Even after Rachel and Sam start to open up to each other, they fall back on that self-pitying routine much too easily and too often. There's very little zip between the couple - she's depressed, and he's withdrawn. Instead of an uplifting romance, the reader feels bogged down in their morass of misery.

I will admit that the kids are sweet and fairly realistic. And if you're in the mood for a holiday romance (in October?), there are some heartwarming scenes featuring Rachel's new and extended families decorating the tree, opening presents and generally enjoying the spirit of the season.

By the end of the book, Rachel does find a spine and discovers she has purpose and meaning in life. And when it looks like the three children are about to leave, she demonstrates some character growth by realizing she can be sad without falling apart. Sam also has his moments, as he finally accepts the truth that the orphan who nobody wanted has found a real home in Baxter.

Then the "happily ever after" comes along, and without giving away the plot, I will say that Rachel and Sam get all they ever wanted, at someone else's expense. This twist makes the ending feel slightly creepy and bittersweet at best.

If Teresa Hill wants to move beyond the category genre, she might want to observe the success of Katherine Eagle or Suzanne Brockmann. Both authors stayed close to their category plots, but gave their single title books more complexity and depth. Judging from reader and reviewer comments, Teresa Hill's categories are very well-liked. Why she had to take the leap into the mainstream with this soggy mess is beyond me.

--Susan Scribner

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