Karen Templeton is so wry that caraway seeds must leak out of her books. Playing for Keeps combines that sharp humor with keen characterization, resulting in a delightful contemporary romance, marred only by a Big Secret that is kept under wraps for too long. This Silhouette single title comes on the heels of Templeton’s successful Red Dress Ink release, Loose Screws, and indicates why she’s rapidly ascending my list of favorite authors.
In the book’s foreword, Templeton notes that she usually eschews romantic suspense in favor of stories about average, ordinary people finding love in the midst of laundry and child care worries. Her heroine, Joanna Swan, is a single mother of three kids who maintains an amicable relationship with her charming but irresponsible ex-husband Bobby, while trying to eke out a living crafting custom-made Santa Claus figures. When her mother drags her into Albuquerque’s newest toy store, Playing for Keeps, she meets store owner Dale McConnaughy and sparks fly. Problem is, he’s an ex-major league baseball player who is doggedly determined to avoid serious relationships and she’s a smart-mouthed control freak who has taken an equally strong oath to steer clear of any more Peter Pan clones.
Needless to say, their respective vows are futile in the face of strong chemistry and the advent of true love. Dale finds himself becoming involved not only with Joanna but with her parents, twin sons and adolescent daughter as well as with Bobby and his pregnant fiancée Tori. Pretty heavy stuff for a guy who has successfully avoided any entanglements since his troubled childhood. Meanwhile Joanna tries to convince herself that she can handle Dale being her “gap guy” between Bobby and the hypothetical mature male she will eventually marry. Dale turns out to be kind, generous, patient with her kids and of course a great lover, but he refuses to discuss anything about his past. As Joanna tries to decide if she can accept Dale’s limitations and Dale tries to figure out how he came to be mixed up with so many people, the deep, dark secret comes to light in a surprising way.
Before I wax enthusiastically about the novel, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two things that bothered me. First of all, the book cover is hideously garish. Templeton should demand that Silhouette give out free book jackets to hide the deranged-looking female who looks nothing like Joanna. Second, when Joanna’s best friend tells baseball-ignorant Joanna that Dale pitched “at least 20 no-hitters,” I hope she’s supposed to be exaggerating. A bit of research would have easily revealed that the career record for no-hitters is 7 by the revered Nolan Ryan. If Dale had really pitched 20 no-no’s, he wouldn’t be living in semi-obscurity in Albuquerque, he’d be world-famous as the Bionic Pitcher.
But if you can get past those snags (and the baseball error did bother me for a while), you’ll find a sparkling romance between two different people who just can’t help falling in love. Their banter is sexy and playful, but in addition to heavy flirting they communicate well, even when Dale is telling Joanna that there’s no way in hell he will talk about himself. And his reticence may be frustrating, but who can resist a guy who owns his own toy store, pays special attention to Joanna’s quiet, slow-learning son, and brings Joanna chocolate ice cream when she’s felled by a bad cold? Joanna, while sometimes too outspoken for her own good, is a strong heroine who raises three children, supports herself with her own creative skills and never bad-mouths Bobby in front of the kids.
Bobby Alvarez is another reason for the book’s success. It’s refreshingly different and surprisingly poignant to see a divorced couple who obviously still care about each other. Bobby could have easily been portrayed as an irresponsible jerk, but Templeton takes great pains to let the reader see his point of view. Through his interactions with Tori, Joanna and his kids, Bobby finally starts to see the impact of his careless actions on other people, and he makes a tremendous effort to become a better person so that his relationship with Tori will be more successful than his marriage to Jo. I found myself rooting for a happy ending for him just as much as for Joanna.
The novel manages to be sweet and romantic despite realistic portrayals of single motherhood and the first, less than earth-shattering lovemaking between Dale and Joanna. Of course most single mothers aren’t able to stay home and make charming but expensive crafts to support themselves, but this is fiction after all.
The novel takes a very sudden somber turn in the last 50 pages when Dale’s secret is revealed, and the insertion of deep pathos into what was up to then a humorous, lighthearted story is slightly awkward. But until that melodramatic climax, Playing for Keeps makes few missteps. Grab a copy, cover up the front, and dig in.