Dear Maggie

Of Noble Birth

Snow Baby

Taking the Heat by Brenda Novak
(Harlequin, $6.50, G) ISBN 0-373-83570-1
Even though the basic premise of a woman falling in love with a wrongly convicted convict is hardly new, Taking the Heat doesn't feel stale because the characters are honest and the story is compelling. Although this book is categorized as a romance, I think it qualifies as romantic suspense.

Taking the Heat's heroine, Gabrielle Hadley, tries to do the right thing. She divorced her ex-husband and best friend because she couldn't love him the way he deserved to be loved.

Because she could never abandon her baby daughter, as her mother abandoned her, and because she won't allow her ex-husband to support her, Gabrielle takes a job at a prison in Florence, Arizona. Florence is the town where her mother is living and Gabrielle plans to contact her, when she finds the opportunity and the courage to do so.

Gabrielle's first week on the job is an eye-opener. Her supervisor, Sergeant Hansen, doesn't do a thing when a bunch of inmates gang up on fellow inmate Randall Tucker. In fact, he seems to be enjoying the fight. Tucker, a karate expert, can easily hand two men but four is too many, even for his skills.

Gabrielle refuses to sit by and watch four men beat Tucker to a pulp. Instead of receiving praise for her heroism and devotion to duty, Sergeant Hansen takes Gabrielle to task for helping to end the fight. And she is turned down flat when she asks that Tucker receive medical assistance for his injuries.

Sergeant Hansen thinks Tucker deserves to be beaten. Tucker was convicted of killing his wife, even though her body was never found, and Hansen thinks Tucker is arrogant because he has money and an education. Complaining to Sergeant Hansen's supervisor makes things worse: Tucker is transferred to another, tougher prison. Gabrielle is one of the prison officers assigned to handle the transfer.

Tucker escapes after the car they are riding in crashes with a pickup truck. Gabrielle goes after Tucker because it's her job and because she knows he will die in the desert without water. Tucker quickly turns the tables on her when he takes her water, but he can't leave her to die.

Randall Tucker doesn't know what happened to his wife; he just knows he didn't kill her. A jury thought he was guilty because he and his wife were having problems and because her blood was found in their garage.

Tucker lost his wife and his freedom, and he lost his young son to foster care. Now that he's been given the chance, he's determined to stay free and get to his son. But Tucker can't leave Gabrielle to die in the desert. Prison has changed him, but not to that extent. Tucker knows Gabrielle is a danger to him, not just because she is a prison guard but because she makes him vulnerable.

Her physical beauty stirs Tucker and her inner beauty and strength are too appealing, he starts thinking about the man he used to be before he was sent to prison. Tucker knows prison has changed him and not for the better.

What I liked most about Taking the Heat is the honesty of the main characters. Most of the things they do make sense because the author does a decent job of allowing you to see what makes them tick.

I liked that Gabrielle's ex-husband, David, is a great guy. Makes for a nice change since ex-spouses in romances are usually not so nice. It's easier to make them villains - no regrets about leaving them.

David is wonderful and it's difficult to understand how Gabrielle could leave a loving husband who adores her and their daughter to live in a trailer and work in a prison. Of course, the author reminds you that loving someone and being in love with someone are two entirely different things and that being in love is not something you can force.

While I think Taking the Heat is a decent read, I also think this romance has enough suspense to be categorized as romantic suspense. Since I like both romance and suspense this works for me: I really liked Tucker and Gabrielle's desert adventures - a good mix of romance and suspense. However other romance readers might be looking for slightly more romance in their romance reading.

--Judith Flavell

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