Twice Upon a Time by Emilie Richards
(Avon, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-380-78364-9
*****
Anytime a romance novel makes me think twice in addition to helping me escape reality, it automatically goes into the "special" category. Twice Upon a Time was one of those rare books. Emilie Richards' ability to write strong category, historical and contemporary romances leads me to believe there is nothing this woman can't do.

Mary Kate McKenzie is a young, quiet novitiate who works with the Sisters of Redemption at Eden's Gate, an old Victorian mansion. Since the death of her only living relative, Mary Kate has helped the Sisters carry out their mission to help troubled youth by bringing them to this picturesque Ohio town and rehabilitating them through work in Eden Gate's gardens.

However, one disturbed youth doesn't want Mary Kate's help, and starts a fight. In the fracas, Mary Kate is bashed on the head with a shovel and almost dies on the way to the hospital. Her recovery from a coma is considered miraculous.

But the Mary Kate who awakens has no recollection of her life before the injury. She only knows what the Sisters have filled in about her background. What's more, she seems to have undergone a personality transplant. Instead of her previous placid, beatific behavior, she displays an unduly amount of anger, hotheadedness and selfishness. Could the traumatic head injury have changed her entire disposition?

Then the unthinkable happens. Mary Kate discovers that she is pregnant (I'm not telling you anything that isn't on the back cover blurb, don't get mad!). How could a quiet woman who lived a virtuous life and apparently had no boyfriends have gotten, well, knocked up? If she doesn't remember the father of the baby, and he doesn't come forward, what will she do about her pregnancy?

Enter Charles Casey, cynical hotshot city journalist, who has taken a temporary sabbatical at a small newspaper to recover from some traumatic life events. Casey visits Eden's Gate to write a feature story on the Sisters of Redemption and their selfless work. After hearing about Mary Kate's saintly qualities, he is surprised that in their first encounter, she almost beans him with a shovel and spends most of the time spitting insults at him. While he does not find this short, red- haired spitfire at all attractive, there is something about her that reminds him of someone he loved and lost.

Eventually, Mary Kate and Casey become unlikely friends. Of course they are not attracted to each other, and Mary Kate has enough problems without starting a relationship, but she does come to depend on Casey as she struggles to find the father of her child and plan for her future.

Twice Upon a Lifetime shines with polished writing, sharp dialogue and well-developed characters. But what set this book apart for me was the unerring depiction of Mary Kate's dilemma as she strives to define herself. Is she the sum of the past experiences she does not remember but has been told about repeatedly? Or is she the new, emerging personality who doesn't take gruff from anyone? How can she carve a new life for herself when she has no foundation to build on?

I was halfway through this novel before I realized that it was a sequel to Once More With Feeling. Readers of that previous novel should immediately rush out to their nearest bookstore and grab a hold of this one. But I found that my lack of familiarity with its predecessor took nothing away from this installment. Likewise, most readers will grasp the answer to Mary Kate's puzzling personality changes within the first hundred pages, but that doesn't matter either. The journey to the self-discovery is much more important than the eventual destination.

And oh yes, the love story is strong too. While Mary Kate and Casey are friends long before they are lovers, theirs is a love built on mutual support and respect that, in its own way, is as romantic as any love-at-first-sight plot. Any relationship that is based, in part, on a mutual love of baseball is okay with me. Richards finds just the right mix of humor and poignancy when Mary Kate and Casey finally open their eyes to the truth.

Pick up Twice Upon a Time. You'll laugh as the woman who hates the sight of worms finds a way to bring an entire town together over a community garden. You'll empathize with her as she struggles to find direction for her life and her unborn child. You definitely will close the book satisfied and uplifted.

--Susan Scribner


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