Born In Fire
Born In Ice
Born In Shame
Captive Star
Carolina Moon
Considering Kate
Daring To Dream
Finding the Dream
From The Heart
Heart of the Sea
Hidden Star
Holding the Dream
Inner Harbor
Irish Rogue
Jewels of the Sun
The MacGregor Brides
The MacGregor Grooms
The MacGregors Alan~Grant
Megan's Mate
Montana Sky
Once Upon a Castle
The Perfect Neighbor
The Reef
Rising Tides
River's End
Secret Star
Tears of the Moon
True Betrayals
Waiting for Nick
The Winning Hand

As J. D. Robb

Ceremony in Death
Conspiracy in Death
Holiday in Death
Immortal In Death
Loyalty in Death
Rapture in Death
Silent Night
Vengeance in Death
Witness in Death

The Villa by Nora Roberts
(Putnam, $25.95, PG) ISBN 0-399-14712-8
I'm starting to think that Nora Roberts is a lot like Mark McGwire. Both of them hit home runs so frequently and effortlessly that their fans feel cheated if they produce a double or, god forbid, a single. Their standard is so much higher than other people's that it's easy to take their accomplishments for granted. Nora has been so prolific in recent years that some of her releases have, understandably, been much stronger (the Sea Swept trilogy) than others (The Reef), and a bit of a "Nora backlash" has accompanied her well-deserved success. Fortunately, The Villa is arguably the best Nora Roberts hardcover since Montana Sky.

The primary setting for the novel is the California wine country. There, Tereza Giambelli rules a century-old family business that traces its roots back to Italy. For many years, La Signora has been the undisputed leader of Giambelli wines, with the help of her second husband, Eli MacMillan. But now it's time for a change. At a family gathering, Tereza announces that her granddaughter, Sophia, and Eli's grandson, Tyler, will work together for a year. If their performance is satisfactory, they will become co-presidents. A new Chief Operating Officer, David Cutter, will be brought in from a competing winery. New responsibilities will be given to Sophia's mother, Pilar, and her father, Tony, as well as Don Giambelli, the cousin in charge of the Italian vineyards.

This unexpected shake-up creates a variety of reactions, mostly negative, from the family. Elegant, outspoken Sophia Giambelli, head of public relations, hates the thought of having to collaborate with the taciturn vintner Tyler MacMillan. The disdain is very much mutual. The only thing they agree on is that they both hate the idea of reporting to a new COO. And Tony and Don, both weak men with an eye for the ladies, realize that their days of getting by on the family name are numbered.

But the changes reverberate even further. Soon, both love and death find the Giambellis and the MacMillans. Sophia has more opportunities than she dreamed of to prove her leadership ability and her loyalty to the family.

We've encountered this story before - polar opposites forced to work together, discovering first their attraction and eventually their love - but Nora Roberts does an admirable job of making the plot feel fresh. The novel's setting, the lush vineyards, provides a strong romantic backdrop to the story. The characters and Roberts' trademark lively dialogue do the rest. Sophia is one of Nora's feisty (note I didn't say "perky") heroines, with an Italian temper to match her warm heart and dark beauty. While she has always been close to her mother, Pilar, she has had a more tense relationship with her father Tony, a manipulative charmer and womanizer. She sees herself as strong and totally independent, the polar opposite of Tony. She takes her lovers wherever and whenever she wants to, thank you very much, and she doesn't ever lose control of the situation, until she gets involved with Tyler. Roberts has created strong women before who don't believe they have to apologize for their healthy sexuality, but Sophia is one of her best.

One of Nora's undeniable strengths is her ability to create memorable, realistic characters. The Villa is filled with too many interesting secondary characters to detail, but several stand out. Pilar, Sophia's mother, provides a gentle contrast to her fiery daughter. Those of us more mature (i.e. middle-aged) readers will identify with her love story. Maddy Cutter, David's 14 year old daughter, is a smart, annoying teenager who resents the move from the family's New York City home to the middle of nowhere in California for her father's new position as COO. Having been abandoned by her mother, Maddy is in no hurry to trust any of the Giambellis, but gradually her prickliness gives way to interest, and her quick mind comes up with innovative ways to expand the company's products. I hope someday Nora writes a romance - even a category - for Maddy when she's grown up enough to handle it!

Of course, as with all of Nora's hardcover novels, there's a villain involved. Those readers who are a bit queasy with the gore in some recent novels will be glad to know that the killings, for the most part, are much more civilized and far less bloody. While I didn't find the villain terribly interesting, I was hoping for a surprise twist at the end, and Nora didn't disappoint me. Do yourself a favor and resist that urge to read the last few pages ahead of time.

Nora's hardcover novels used to be auto-buys for me, but lately I found I can wait until I get a copy from the library (no way am I waiting for the paperback release a full year later!). I'm glad I got an advance copy of this one, though. I'd say it's "vintage Nora."

--Susan Scribner

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