Mr. Hyde’s Assets
by Sheridon Smythe
(Love Spell, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-505-52356-6
I don’t know why some authors go to so much trouble to set up plot situations that seem designed to make my eyes roll. Maybe it’s supposed to be a “hook,” a catchy selling point, something to make this one stand out from the crowd.

I get that. I understand that there are a lot of books hogging shelf space out there, and I can see how distinctness can be considered a virtue. After all, it’s hard to sell concepts like “deeply-rendered characters” and “engaging dialogue” in the confines of a back-cover blurb, and so much easier to catch the eye with an outrageous plot description.

But the sad fact is that when you start from an outrageous plot, you often have nowhere meaningful to go. You’re left with infinite contrivance and implausible plot developments one after another just to make the setup work.

That’s the story with Mr. Hyde’s Assets. The plot hinges on the eyebrow-raising idea that Candice Vanausdale, a wealthy widow, has been unwittingly fertilized in vitro with the sperm of a stranger, rather than that of her just-departed husband. The stranger, of course, is our hero, Austin Hyde, an easygoing starving artist who just happens to have the bod of an Adonis. He doesn’t know it, and she doesn’t know it, and they’ve never even met, but they’re in the process of making a baby together.

Rather than copping out with the simple “mix-up at the lab” explanation, the authors (Sheridon Smythe is a pseudonym for the writing team of Sherrie Eddington and Donna Smith) introduce the character Dr. Jack Cruise, nicknamed “Dr. Jekyll” by his half-brother Austin. (Get it? Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? The authors go to great pains to emphasize and re-emphasize this cutesy pairing).

A “mad scientist” type known for his disastrous childhood experiments on frogs and other creatures, Dr. Jack runs the fertility clinic Candice and her late husband patronized. He’s responsible for the sperm swap, for dubious reasons and rationalizations I won’t detail here. (Don’t even ask me why Dr. Jack had a vial of Austin’s sperm handy -- something about test samples or somesuch).

When Austin learns the truth, he’s ready to murder his hapless, havoc-creating half-brother, but decides on a somewhat saner course. He’s not sure he’s ready to be a father, but he does know that he wants to ascertain Candice Vanausdale’s fitness as a mother to his child. See, Austin has issues about rich women who raise their children via nannies and boarding schools (springing from his own childhood, of course), and he’s determined not to subject his unintentional child to that kind of cold upbringing.

However, springing the truth on Candice seems a bit harsh, especially when she’s already got so many worries on her mind -- namely, a nasty inheritance lawsuit with her late husband’s relatives, financial troubles, and the unwanted attentions of a host of pesky tabloid reporters. So instead, he decides to get to know her through subterfuge, by taking a job as her handyman/bodyguard.

The first half of the book is rough going, as the reader endures one unlikely situation after another and scenarios that seem crafted solely to give Austin the opportunity to deliver cutesy one-liners. Sample scene -- shy, introverted Candice is coaxed into the “outrageous” activity of changing her clothes in the car while Austin drives. Once she’s changed, he prods her to call him by his first name, rather than the formal “Mr. Hyde.” Her response? “Give me one good reason I should.” It’s an unnatural flow of dialogue, and awkwardly inserted only so that Austin can come back with, “Because you just took your clothes off for me.”

Also unpleasant in this section of the book is Austin’s creepy, fatherly attitude towards Candice. He’s determined to loosen up the prim-and-proper widow so that she’ll be a nice, warm mother to his child. So he begins to instruct her, smugly giving her life lessons while winking at her and, at one low point, actually chucking her under the chin. I kept expecting him to call her “Kitten” and tell her that “Father Knows Best.”

The second half of the book improves as Candice -- browbeaten into timidity by her obsessive-compulsive late husband -- begins to come out of her shell and find some backbone. Thus, Austin has fewer opportunities for chin-chucking and begins to treat her like an adult. They actually start getting to know each other, and the book picks up speed. The pattern of implausible developments and cute scenarios doesn’t exactly disappear, but it ebbs down to a more acceptable level, and I found myself enjoying the reading and fairly satisfied with the final payoff.

Still, it’s a long pull through an ocean of groaners to get to the enjoyable part. Reading time is precious, and as I mentioned, there are lots of books crowding the shelves out there. I can only recommend the ones that don’t make me cringe through the first half, so I’d advise you to think twice about Mr. Hyde’s Assets.

-- Ellen Hestand

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