The Baby Bargain
by Peggy Nicholson
(Harl. Super. #929, $4.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-70929-3
When my children were teenagers, I could bond with another parent of a teenager in the fifteen minutes we stood in the supermarket checkout line. Unfortunately for Dana Kershaw and Rafe Montana in Peggy Nicholson's The Baby Bargain, their teenagers simultaneously bring them together and set them at each other's throats.

Dana Kershaw has more burdens to carry than any one person should be asked to bear. Shortly after she and her husband bought a dude ranch in Trueheart, Colorado, her husband was killed in a skiing accident, leaving her pregnant and guardian of her husband's 13-year-old son. Now, one year later, she is struggling with grief, a dude ranch that is too much for one person to run, a mortgage two months in arrears, and a stepson who resents her bitterly.

Besides mourning his father, Sean Kershaw wishes he were back in San Diego with his mother. He doesn't fit into Trueheart at all. His only friend is Zoe Montana, two years older than he is, a senior, the editor of the yearbook, and almost as much of an outcast as Sean. It is Zoe who precipitates a crisis when she decides to do a little scientific investigation into sex.

Zoe's widowed father, Rafe Montana, is a rancher with dreams for his brilliant daughter. Zoe has been accepted into Harvard; she plans to become a doctor. When he discovers a pregnancy test kit in the weekly groceries, he is furious with his daughter and -- especially -- with the sexual predator who has gotten her pregnant. He locks Zoe in her room and storms out to confront Dana and the animal who molested his daughter. He does not expect to come face to face with a gangly 14-year-old who cannot yet trust his voice not to break.

The scene has been set for a drama that explores the characters of the four participants. Of the four, Zoe brings the least baggage to the crisis, yet it is her stubborn determination that directs the course of events. She refuses to have an abortion, she will not give her baby up for adoption unless she can be sure it will go to a loving home, and she never wavers from her plan to attend Harvard. If she gave in a little too easily to the very strict grounding her father imposed, well, I could suspend some disbelief in an otherwise well-drawn character.

Nicholson's greatest strength is in her delineation of the four main characters. In particular, she makes the growing attraction between Rafe and Dana convincing despite their rocky beginning. Nicholson avoids the trap of having either Dana or Rafe slip from disagreement into the sort of spitefulness that makes a romantic future unlikely. Because the two managed to be at loggerheads without descending into the unforgivable, I was able to believe in the chemistry between them.

Besides her expert characterization, Nicholson used her setting to advantage. Dana's sensitivity to the Colorado countryside and Sean's introduction to cowboying placed the action securely in the West, to the benefit of the story.

I have no hesitation in recommending The Baby Bargain to readers of all ages, but I do think that the parents of teenagers will find it especially enjoyable.

--Nancy J. Silberstein

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