Knight in White Stetson

The Virgin Beauty by Claire King
(Silh. Int. Mom. #1038, $4.50, PG-13) 0-373-27108-5
I purchased Claire King's first Silhouette Intimate Moment novel, Knight in a White Stetson, after hearing so many wonderful things about this new author's writing ability. But you know how TBR piles grow on you, and soon the book became buried under more "must reads." Reading King's second novel makes me want to dive into my pile for that first book and start reading. Right now. King's skill with characterization and her overall style are very much reminiscent of Ruth Wind's category romances.

All 6' 2" of Grace McKenna has arrived in Nobel, Idaho, eager to take over the Nobel County Veterinary Clinic, which she has just purchased with her parents' help. It's a small town, so a little gawking at the new vet is to be expected, but Grace still hates being stared at. She's terribly self-conscious about her size, and she is good at keeping to herself and shutting others out - especially men, who usually make her feel clumsy and unfeminine, even freakish. So when gorgeous (and tall) Daniel Cash blusters into her new office, she's doubly on guard.

Not everyone's thrilled to see the new doc in town. Daniel regards the tall female vet as the crushing blow to his dream. The veterinary clinic was supposed to be his, until an unproven accusation ended his chances at becoming a doctor. The scandal cost him his wife, his reputation, and any chance to serve as the Nobel County vet. Though he is physically attracted to Grace, he resents what she represents to him - a glimpse of what life could have been had the cards been dealt differently. He needs desperately, however, to convince everyone that he has moved on with his life - that he's a successful family rancher, working alongside his troubled brother, Frank. He'll be damned if he loses that.

The electricity between Grace and Daniel is palpable, even at their first meeting. I found myself reading slowly, enjoying the intensity of their confusion, their initial dislike intertwined with their strong physical awareness of each other. One thing King does is jump back and forth between character's thoughts, but she does it so skillfully that I didn't find it confusing at all just very, very intense.

As the story moves forward, Grace appears less of the clumsy wallflower, thanks to Daniel, who is not only is bigger than she is, but who is "grace-less" in his attitude and actions. There's nothing subtle about him: he is rough-edged, homespun, and irritatingly gruff, but with enough baggage that it's easy to forgive him for his fumbling ways. His innate tenderness finally comes through, and Grace slowly begins to trust a man for the first time in her life.

Many times, this book left me squirming and uncomfortable, especially when Grace and Daniel were figuring out how to trust each other. As I said, Daniel isn't the most sensitive guy around, and I found myself wincing at some of the excuses he used on Grace for why he wasn't able to commit to her after the first time they made love. It's a tribute to Claire King's talent that she creates characters that aren't merely brutish or wimpy.

Yes, there is a virgin (Grace) and a cowboy (Daniel), but in King's hands, these "old standards" seem fresh, appropriate, and interesting. As I mentioned before, Grace and Daniel aren't exactly lovey-dovey with each other for most of the novel, so if you're turned off by lots of heated arguments, angry outbursts, and messy departures, this story may not be your cup of tea. But if you like your romances intense, heated, and topped off with a bit of mystery and scandal, give The Virgin Beauty a try.

--Diana Burrell

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