Scent of Roses by Kat Martin
(Mira, $7.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-7783-2326-6
I have not read Kat Martin before, and after this book I would look for her first in Mystery before wandering over to Romance. Scent of Roses is a fascinating ghost story interrupted repeatedly by a pesky little romance.

Liz Conner has returned to the grubby agricultural town in California where she grew up. San Pico was her refuge after a divorce from a man who not only bedded other women, he carred them (you know, in a car Ė that should be a word if it isnít), and he did this when and where she was likely to catch him with his pants down. Liz didnít particularly want to return home, but her sister and father were there. Then the sister moved, the father died, and Liz was still there in the apartment that looks like she moved in last month. At least she is doing work she really cares about, using her social work degree to provide counseling to individuals and families. Liz, no mystery why, has some trust issues.

One person she might have trust issues with is Zach Harcourt. Back when he was a looking-for-trouble high school dropout, he humiliated her with a public groping that earned him a slap in the face. He was drunk, he was high, and he was soon to be headed to prison after a drunken blackout ended in a fatal car crash. His two-year prison sentence got his head screwed on straight and he went on to earn not only his GED, but a law degree as well. Zach and his successful law firm are in L.A., but he spends considerable time in San Pico working at Teen Visions, a program for troubled youth that he founded after his own redemption and success. He is also a frequent visitor at the nursing facility where his father has been since a nasty fall left him physically and mentally impaired. Old dad is a piece of work. He brought Zach to live on Harcourt Farms after essentially buying him from his mom, who was the elder Harcourtís long-time mistress. Zach was left to the tender mercies of his fatherís wife and legitimate son. Zach, no mystery why, has some commitment issues.

How to bring these trust issues and commitment issues together? Hereís how: one of Lizís clients is a troubled teen placed at Teen Visions. Zach takes a shine to him. The clientís sister lives at Harcourt Farms, where her husband works. This sister is having some anxiety issues that are causing Lizís client to worry and might cause him to drop out of Teen Visions. Liz offers to help. Zach insists on helping. Unfortunately for Liz, her social work degree isnít much help in dealing with Mariaís issues, as they appear to be caused not by anxiety, but by the haunting of their house. Specifically, by the freezing cold, eerie sounds, suffocating scent of roses and, ultimately, appearance of a ghostly apparition with a warning Ė essentially, ďget out of the house.Ē Zach and Liz band together to help her clientís sister.

That feels convoluted, doesnít it? But once it gets cranked up, the paranormal mystery rolls along quite nicely. Clues are uncovered, smart deductions are made, the pacing is adept (until the very end), and Zach and Liz comport themselves respectably, bringing in outside brains and muscle when appropriate. The mystery itself is creepy, interesting, sad, and definitely not for the squeamish; it is made all the more so by the end notes that it is loosely based on a true set of circumstances.

The strong mystery, however, could not overcome a romance that fell short in many respects. It was grindingly repetitious Ė okay, I get that she/he had never felt that way before about any other man/woman, she/he was unable to control her/his desire, etc. etc. Really, donít need to be told that more than half a dozen times. It didnít help illuminate matters that there was no discernable reason why they felt that way, except that he was hot, hot, hot and no man had ever made her feel like that beforeÖnow Iím doing it. Every encounter between them ended with her reminding herself that he was the Lone Wolf, that he wasnít going to make a commitment, that she must resist him and protect her heart Ė and she does, until he comes along again and lays a hot one on her, and she is again brainless putty in his oh so skilled hands. But skilled in a very oblique way Ė this is just barely a PG-13.

Sadly, in the end, even the mystery got out of whack. There were so many details to tie up that about half a dozen of them had to be resolved in the last 10 pages. There was such a rush to finish that it felt like the author got bored with the story. Or maybe she realized that she had wasted so much space with filler romance that she needed to pick up the pace at the end.

So, unusual as it may seem, Iím going to recommend that you skim what would usually be ďthe good stuffĒ and concentrate on the other stuff, because itís pretty darn good.


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