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Undercover Groom

After Midnight by Merline Lovelace
(Onyx, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-41072-6
Merline Lovelaceís latest military romantic suspense novel is a quick, enjoyable read. Lieutenant Colonel Jessica Blackwell has taken on a new job at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle, despite her unhappy memories of living in the area as a child with her single mother. She has barely unpacked her belongings when she is visited by Walton County Sheriff Steve Paxton, who wants to know why realtor Ron Clark committed suicide shortly after his wife overheard him mention Jessí name to an unknown telephone caller. As Jess only met the man one time when she picked up the keys to her new condo, she canít imagine how she could have directly or indirectly caused his untimely death. She does notice that Steve is very attractive, despite her long-held distrust for policemen.

But Jess has little time to worry about the sexy sheriff and his pointed questions. Her job as the head of the largest supply squadron in the Air Force involves multiple challenges, including cleanup of an illegal dump of paint solvent that cost her predecessor his job, disciplining a technical sergeant who fell off the wagon, and overseeing the delicate transfer of millions of gallons of aviation fuel. Steve isnít about to leave her alone, however, especially when an additional suspicious death also appears to be linked to Jess. Steveís instincts tell him that she isnít a murderer, but he canít be sure. When an attempt is made on Jessí life, it becomes obvious that someone isnít happy that she has returned to Walton County. But is the danger tied to her current position at Eglin, or to the event that drove Jess and her mother out of town many years ago?

Iím not a big fan of military novels, but I there is something very refreshing about a competent, no-nonsense heroine like Jess, the absolute antithesis of the ditzy screwball comedy ingťnue. She can command an entire squadron, free herself from mortal danger, and still look good in her formal dress uniform at a black tie party. She may have had a difficult childhood but sheís made something of herself and is nobodyís victim.

Steve Paxton is a decent if generic hero who pursues the reluctant Jess with admirable persistence. Thereís a fleeting reference to a lousy first marriage, but Steve is another character who doesnít live in the past, and heís more than willing to take another chance on love.

The plot occasionally gets bogged down with technical details, and I learned a little more about fuel additives and residue than I wanted to know, but the story generally moves along quickly. The threat from Jessí past and the challenges of her current position gradually converge, and the novelís climax is exciting and suspenseful, leading to an abrupt but satisfying ending.

If After Midnight is missing anything, it is that elusive spark of magic that elevates a good story to an unforgettable read. While I liked Jess and Steve, I never felt fully invested in their relationship. But overall, I was impressed by Lovelace, who has made the transition from category romance to romantic suspense novel with greater ease than many authors. If military suspense was my favorite genre, sheíd be on my A list.

--Susan Scribner

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