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White Hot by Carla Neggers
(Pocket, $6.50, PG) ISBN 0-671-56770-5
****
Carla Neggers has written a clean, crisp story about lovers who find themselves reunited after a ten-year separation. They're reunited because they find themselves embroiled in a mystery involving jewelry heists. On my romance-o-meter scale, White Hot tips more into the mystery side than the romance side.

I will admit that this mystery did tie all of its loose ends up quite nicely. When all of the facts are known, balanced and analyzed, the bad guy's identity makes sense. So mystery lovers can expect a topnotch story. But romance readers are hereby warned that, while the romance doesn't take a backseat to the mystery, the mystery is the reason for their collaboration and its resolution is their main purpose. The fact that they become a couple is as gradual as breaking in those uncomfortable shoes, then suddenly realizing one day that – hey, the shoes are comfortable.

A tip about a series of hush-hush jewel thefts has led journalist Jeremiah Tabak back to Molly Lavender, who's returned to Palm Beach from Boston. Ten years before, twenty-year-old Molly was enjoying spring break on Florida's Gold Coast when she had a whirlwind affair with twenty-six-year-old journalist Jeremiah Tabak. Molly was a convenient entrée into a beach culture involved in drugs. While Molly was oblivious to everything, Jeremiah saw what he needed, so much so that his story netted him accolades. Knowing that Molly's youth and their disparate backgrounds would work against them, Jeremiah lied to Molly, telling her that his only interest in her was the story. She boarded a plane back to Boston, hating Jeremiah and experiencing her first broken heart.

Now she's returned to Florida to start her own P.R. business with the help of her godfather, world renown tenor Leonardo Pascarelli. (Can you say . . . Luciano Pavarotti?)

Jeremiah has received a tip from Croc, his young snitch, that there have been several unreported jewelry thefts among the rich and famous and that Molly, a guest at all of the functions, is the common denominator. So Jeremiah has no choice but to butt into Molly's life. He knows that he's not really after a story this time. He's lost his reporters' objectivity. One of his goals is ferreting out the truth, but being around Molly is not so bad, either.

Molly is a delightful heroine: feisty, intelligent and just a wee bit suspicious about Jeremiah's reentry into her life. She still believes that ten years ago he used her unscrupulously. When Jeremiah comes to her quarters, she forgets that she has a dart board set up in another room, with his picture as a target. When she does remember the incriminating piece, she knows she's been found out. Whoops. She tries to bluff her way out . . . unsuccessfully. Yes, she's very affected by Jeremiah's reappearance. Her aim is not too bad, either!

One of Jeremiah's charming quirks regards his pets: a turtle, a lizard and a snake. They reside on his kitchen table, except when he's expecting company. Each time he comes in, he sniffs, trying to make sure that they haven't caused his apartment to smell reptiley. He really watches Molly's face when she comes in, looking for that telltale nose wiggle. I found his concern to be so human and just downright sweet. At the newspaper office he's teased about keeping company with reptiles, teasing he accepts with equanimity.

An interesting cast of secondary characters is in place, all of whom play an important part in the resolution of the jewelry heists. An especially interesting character is that of Helen, an aging, chain-smoking reporter. Jeremiah keeps telling himself that thirty years down the road he won't be like Helen, but his introspection is sometimes painful. Also, I had no idea 'whodunit' leading up to the denouement, but the resolution made comfortable sense. Nothing seemed contrived. I liked that.

Jeremiah has more emotional baggage than does Molly, but Neggers never belabors the point. We know why Jeremiah is reluctant to commit to a relationship, but it's not an excuse that he uses excessively or with relish. Reluctance is not the same thing as contempt.

What White Hot lacks is Neggers' sensuality, an element that she's displayed in other books. If the romance had been one step ahead of the mystery instead of being on equal footing, then my typing finger would have been on the five so fast it would have been a blur. This is a really good book. It just needed a little more 'oomph' in order to be a keeper. The balance scales weigh more heavily on the mystery side. Nonetheless, I recommend it enthusiastically.

--Linda Mowery


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