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Half Moon Bay by Meryl Sawyer
(Zebra, $6.50, R) ISBN 0-8217-6144-7
The challenge to anyone who writes romantic suspense is to sustain the feeling of dread and uncertainty when every reader knows that the story will end happily. Meryl Sawyer almost pulls this off in her latest book, Half Moon Bay. Her villain who seemed quite menacing through most of the book turned out to be pathetic rather than dangerous. When the feeling of threatening doom lessened, so did the effectiveness of the plot.

As the story begins, Amy Conroy is in a heap of trouble. She is on the run from her corrupt boss, Dexxter Foxx. She had gone to the FBI to detail Foxx' shady dealings and had been placed in a safe house guarded by a federal marshal. One night as she went next door to rescue an abused dog, the house blew sky high, killing her guard. Fearful that she will not be safe in protective custody, she flees, taking the mistreated dog.

Amy has a hard time disappearing. She has an port wine birthmark on the right side of her face. So she has made her way all the way from Seattle to Florida by sneaking rides in the trunks of cars. Outside of Miami, she hops in the trunk of a car driven by a hard looking blonde. Here her luck ends. The car is rear-ended by a tanker truck, and she wakes up in the hospital, with her jaw wired shut, her hand and leg in a cast and her face bandaged.

Everyone assumes that she is the owner of the car, Shelley Ralston, and the hospital authorities contact the only name they can find in the belongings, Matthew Jensen.

Matt has just quit his job as managing editor of Expose magazine, which he had turned from a rag into a hot selling, respectable newsmagazine. He has come to Florida to seek refuge with his best friend and college roommate, Trevor Graham. The last thing he wants is to have anything to do with Shelley Ralston, a woman who had become obsessed with him after a single date and who had literally stalked him. But he finds he cannot abandon the severely hurt woman.

It is Matt's voice that pulls Amy from the depths of her coma and Matt's presence that comforts and, in one instance, protects her. When Matt informs Amy that he will pay for her reconstructive surgery if she promises to leave him alone, she is shocked. But she agrees.

Trevor steps in to help the injured woman and the surgery removes any trace of her birthmark. So Amy continues to pretend to be Shelly; what better way to hide from her pursuers?

When Matt sees Shelly again, he is hard pressed to recognize her, but assumes that surgery has changed her appearance. But what has changed her behavior? And why does he find himself attracted to her? Amy (or Shelly, as she is now called) certainly has every reason to fall for the man who was her only comfort in her darkest hour, although she does have some trouble adjusting to her new, glamorous persona.

Sawyer sets her story against the backdrop of Key West, which allows her to paint in all its strange colors this vibrant if off beat place. Her secondary characters are all shall we say unusual. Trevor is a lost soul whose family cut him off when they discovered his homosexuality. He has since lived his life by taking in all sorts of strays, who make for interesting reading. I particularly enjoyed Bubbles the body piercer who makes her living selling alien abduction insurance.

The romance part of Half Moon Bay is just fine. Matt and Amy/Shelly are the kind of hero and heroine we always root for and the sexual tension between the two first crackles and then explodes.

But Sawyer didn't pull off the suspense part nearly as well. The villain ended up seeming smarmy and almost pathetic rather than threatening. Nasty, yes. Menacing, no.

Applying the trusty old pick up/put down test to Half Moon Bay suggests that this is a perfectly acceptable romantic suspense novel, but that it lacks the intensity to make it memorable.

--Jean Mason

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