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Amethyst and Gold by Kate Holmes
(Zebra Bouquet #5, $3.99, PG) ISBN 0-821-76295-8
Amethyst and Gold is an early entry in the new Bouquet line of category romances. If this book is any indication, Zebra is off to a strong start. Category romance readers, check them out.

Dr. Melisande Merrick has landed a dream of a research job -- four months in Rio de Janiero to scrutinize the journals and diaries of immigrant women. To this shy history professor, the chance to study in such an exotic locale is a thrill beyond measure.

On one of her first days in Rio, Melisande goes to the famous beach at Ipanema, where a thief steals her towel, sandals, and eyeglasses. Melisande is stuck. She can't possibly cross six lanes of busy traffic without her glasses, and nobody around her understands English. Blind as a bat -- my kind of gal.

She finally runs into Alex Robeson, a handsome stranger who carries her across the street and then offers to buy her a fruit drink. They seem to hit it off, and Alex promises to call Melisande once she's established in her temporary apartment. Only weeks go by, and Melisande decides that it was all a game, Alex wasn't interested in her after all.

Then they run into one another at a cocktail party. Alex rather high-handedly insists on taking her home so she won't be out on the streets at night, and then asks her out to dinner. Melisande doesn't know what to make of this guy. He acts like he's interested, but should she get her hopes up again?

Alex has reason to be wary. President of an international jewelry company with mines in Brazil, he's used to women turning avaricious as soon as they find out what he does for a living. He's drawn to Melisande -- she seems different, honest and fresh, but can he trust it? His attraction to her frightens Alex, yet he can't stay away.

Against the backdrop of Carnaval, these two people gradually come to know one another. It's a bit of a rocky road, however. Alex unwittingly insults Melisande by treating her as he assumes a woman wants to be treated -- offering her expensive jewelry as gifts. Melisande stays in character by throwing them back in his face. It was a treat to see this quiet mouse of a teacher transform into a bit of a termagant when the situation warranted and knock Alex of his high horse.

The characterizations are first-rate. Alex comes across as a genuinely decent person who is truly apprehensive about Melisande wanting him for himself, and Melisande is natural and sympathetic. I really wanted them to succeed, and I believed in their developing romance.

The book does have a couple of quirks. Melisande is going to Rio for four months and doesn't know a single word of Portuguese. You'd think that an obviously intelligent woman would at least know how to ask where the bathroom was. Not speaking the native tongue was part of the initial set-up, of course, but it didn't have to be quite this extreme to work. It made her seem a bit on the clueless side.

And the word "beautiful" is overused to the point where it loses its impact. Everything in this book is beautiful -- the scenery, the people, the costumes of Carnaval, the jewels, the restaurants -- and before long, I was left with the impression that these folks would slit their throats if, god forbid, they gained five pounds or found a zit on their chin. The poverty-stricken favelas of Rio are given no more than a short couple of paragraphs of attention, and then only to show that Alex is a good guy and donates lots of money to the poor. As a portrayal of Rio, it seemed pretty, well, romanticized.

But these quibbles didn't detract from what was a solid read. Amethyst and Gold is going to win some fans for the new Bouquet line, and I for one will be looking for more.

--Cathy Sova

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