Elusive Passion

A Seductive Offer by Kathryn Smith
(Avon; $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-380-81611-3
This is a cautionary tale. It shows us how easily a book of considerable charm and readability is undermined by the hackneyed conventions and tired plot devices that inhabit too many romance novels.

One moonlit night, while the troubled Earl of Braven - known to his friends as “Brave” - is out walking the grounds of his estate, he hears a scream. Rachel Ashton, neighbor and daughter of his father’s closest friend, has somehow fallen into the river (swollen into a raging torrent by recent rains) and is clinging for dear life to a rock.

Brave rescues her and takes her to his house. While they’re warming up and drying out (and Brave is trying to ignore the glimpses of shapely limbs and “succulent flesh” that keep peeking out from the blankets in which she is wrapped) Rachel confesses that she may not be able to thank him wholeheartedly for saving her. Her stepfather is anxious to sell her into marriage and it looks as though she’s doomed to wed the highly unpleasant Viscount Charlton.

Rachel flippantly asks Brave if he’s in the market for a wife but, in fact, she doesn’t wish to marry anyone. In a few months she will be old enough to receive the inheritance her father left her. This will allow her to escape the stepfather who hates her and take her mother away from the man who beats her unmercifully.

Brave, profoundly guilty over the death of Miranda, his former fiancée, initially declines to be of assistance because he is so clearly unfit to protect anyone from anything. When Brave discovers how corrupt a character Charlton really is, however, he knows that, having failed to save Miranda, he cannot abandon Rachel. Rachel finds that, under her stepfather’s management, her inheritance has disappeared. If she is to liberate her mother and escape Charlton, she must accept the protection of Braven’s name and title.

In the beginning I found this story captivating. For one thing, Rachel is described as “a good-sized, healthy girl” and when Brave has to carry her part-way home after rescuing her, he’s huffing and puffing a bit with the exertion. A little later, when Brave gets a look at her feet, his first reaction is “Good lord, they’re huge!” I couldn’t help smiling and I couldn’t help but be charmed.

The protagonists are very likable, the secondary characters add color and interest, I could sympathize with Rachel’s difficulties, and the story moves along effortlessly in the early chapters and resisted efforts to put the book down for mundane things like sleep.

I even willing to forgive the fact that Brave’s main objection to emotional involvement with Rachel was that, wallowing in self-inflicted guilt over the death of Miranda, he’s decided He Must Never Love Again. This tiresome motivation is not only overused, but authors force characters to cling to it far beyond the dictates of the situation. People in romance novels (unlike in life, where most people are desperate to fall in love regardless of past experience) usually insist they Must Never Love Again despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and the urgings of their own hearts. This is only fun if you’re attracted to characters who are deliberately obtuse.

Even so, I was enjoying myself. The story clipped along and the sexual tension warmed up nicely, if not with any particular subtlety.

Until I realized that the author was going to up the frustration ante with Romantic Laryngitis. This condition is typified by characters who refuse to talk to each other, thereby creating childish, annoying misunderstandings. On at least two occasions, Brave declines to ask a simple question (What did you mean by that?) or make a simple statement (I love you, too) that would have resolved everything.

Great, we get a longer book, but we spend all the extra time wanting to kick the hero.

Although I think Kathryn Smith shows a lot of promise, both of her books feature men who will Never Love Again. Frankly, before I pick up the next one, I’ll be checking to see if she’s managed to think of something new. Actually, I’ll be checking everybody for it.

--Judi McKee

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