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Mr. Right Next Door
by Arlene James
(Silh. Romance #1352, $3.50, PG ISBN 0-373-19352-1
****
Silhouette's ongoing He's My Hero promotion which promises 'A protector, a provider, a friend he's every woman's hero . ' certainly delivers the goods in Arlene James' Mr. Right Next Door. Not only is the title clever, but the book caught and held my attention from the get-go, no easy task over the Christmas holidays.

Denise Jenkins is a driven career woman who's got a five-year plan. She's going to be at the top of the executive ladder. Why not? She's got nothing else in her life but a crotchety old cat. Years before, Denise was forced to make a choice. Her louse of a husband demanded that she either terminate her pregnancy or lose him. Bye, bye, hubby. Her eight-year-old son was the center of her life until he was killed in a senseless tragedy. She's seen what comes of loving and losing and wants no part of any kind of intimate, caring relationship.

What she does need is a favor from her landlord, Morgan Holt. Denise's boss is a lech of the first order and is making harassing noises. To stave off his very unwelcome advances, she asks Morgan to pretend to be her boyfriend when she and her boss meet a client. Quickly agreeing, Morgan warns off the boss, who bows to Morgan's threats of total annihilation if the harassment continues. Now that Morgan's gotten her out of an uncomfortable situation, Denise doesn't want to see him anymore. He's coming too close to breaking through her emotional shell. Her refusal to see him doesn't jell with what Morgan wants. He's seen a glimpse of the warm, tender woman that Denise keeps hidden. Now he's intrigued.

Intrigued though he may be, Morgan is striking out with Denise. About to give up, he meets Denise's boss at the gym, with the boss mentioning that Denise is still talking about Morgan at the office. The stinker! She won't have anything to do with him, yet is still using his name for protection. This is all the encouragement Morgan needs. The siege is about to begin.

One of my reasons for preferring category romances is that, by their very length, they have to condense the details of real life. They are really escapism in its finest form. A story does come along which occasionally is able to tackle real life issues with depth and a great deal of emotional impact. Such is the case with Mr. Right Next Door. Death, its aftermath and our subsequent recovery, albeit hesitantly and cautiously, are handled with delicacy yet with a gut-wrenching pain. I almost never cry in a book, yet found myself tearing up here.

Denise, for a great part of the story, is isolated emotionally by choice. It's hard to really like her. Morgan overshadows her with his compassion, his humor, his tenacity. Yet when the tables are turned and Morgan has to face life's greatest tragedy, we find out that she really has a core of solid inner steel. These two grow to be each other's strength.

Both Morgan and Denise are realistically portrayed, with warts, wrinkles and basic inner goodness. Be prepared for more realism and depth than is usually found in a category romance. For the short time it will take you to read this story, my guess is that you'll be immersed in their lives and their ultimate destination of happiness and companionship. I was dragged unwillingly at first by the force of Morgan's goodness, but soon I was staying up with them by the fact that I was fascinated with these two people. I think you will be, too.

--Linda Mowery


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