As Constance Laux:

Devil's Diamond

Reinventing Romeo by Connie Lane
(Dell, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-440-23593-6
Connie Lane, who also writes as Constance Laux, has produced an intelligent and likeable book with intelligent and likeable characters. Unfortunately, Reinventing Romeo didn't engage me enough to be a keeper. In fact, I went out of town for the weekend and left it behind without a second thought. Because of that reaction, I can't give it a strong recommendation.

Here's the setup: billionaire playboy Alex Romero knows that he's put his life in jeopardy by agreeing to testify in a high profile case against some nasty underworld criminals. But he didn't expect that in order to stay alive, he'd have to take on another identity for four long months. He must pretend to be a steelworker named Stanley Tomashefski, and live in godforsaken Cleveland, Ohio with a female FBI agent posing as his wife.

When I read the back cover synopsis, I groaned with dismay. The plot sounded too cliched and predictable to work. But I give Connie Lane credit; she doesn't take the cheap or easy way out. The FBI agent in question, Kate Ellison, doesn't walk around in her underwear and fall into the playboy's arms the first chance she gets. She's a consummate professional who has been working on this case for several years and is willing to do anything, including babysitting a spoiled rich guy, to close the books on it. The fact that Alex is stunningly attractive and powerful is only mildly distracting. The fact that she sees the real person behind the facade, and likes what she finds is cool too - she's got it all under control. She's really ticked off, however, because Alex, who doesn't take the situation seriously enough, keeps trying to slip away from her surveillance to check in with his various business enterprises.

Kate doesn't let herself become romantically involved with Romero, despite the attraction, for most of the book, which is a double-edged sword for the reader. On the one hand, it establishes Kate's credibility as an FBI agent and smart, sensible woman. On the other hand, it keeps the romantic tension at a low level, and makes it a little too easy to put the book down.

With only a minimum of charged foreplay or sexual banter, the story focuses primarily on Alex's shock at landing in the heart of blue-collar America without fine wine, haute cuisine or personal assistants. Alex and Kate are confronted (or hounded) by their well-meaning but tacky neighbors, Earl and Marge, who insist on showing their new friends the highlights of Cleveland - namely the bingo parlor, bowling alley and Knights of Columbus pork-and-sauerkraut dinner. The culture clash is amusing, and it's fun to watch the snobbish Alex come down from the clouds and learn how to mingle with Real Folk. However, if the author profile hadn't mentioned that Connie Lane herself was a resident of Cleveland, I'd think that she was being just a tad bit patronizing of poor Earl and Marge, who come off looking more like overdrawn sitcom characters than real people.

As for the titular "Romeo," it's nice to see a billionaire with some cultural differences instead of the typical WASP. Alex becomes more human as the novel progresses, although he wasn't a bad guy to start with. But Lane doesn't provide the reader with any information about his background or childhood. He's commitment-phobic, but there's no explanation for that either, other than the fact that he's a guy. A little more exploration of how he reached his pinnacle of success would have given the book some welcome depth.

With touches of screwball comedy and two decent characters, Reinventing Romeo is a promising start for Connie Lane in her single title contemporary debut. My advice to her is to ratchet up the tension a few notches next time, without losing that talent for creating strong heroines, and she'll be well on her way to a four-heart romance.

--Susan Scribner

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