Naughty or Nerdy? by Elise Title &
The Husband Hotel by Darlene Gardner
(Harl. Duets #68, $5.99, G) ISBN 0-373-44134-7
Harlequin’s latest offering of romantic comedy features likeable characters and well-done hotel settings. Unfortunately, several misunderstandings and characters that are bad liars hold both stories back.

Veteran author Title starts things off in Naughty or Nerdy? Judd Turner was a geek in college who had a desperate crush on gorgeous Lucy Walker. Unfortunately, Lucy already had a boyfriend, star football player Kyle Warner. Therefore, Judd played second fiddle, putting up with Kyle in order to befriend Lucy, who spent a good amount of time crying on his shoulder because Kyle was a jerk.

Now his 10th year college reunion has rolled around, and his boss is pushing him into attending. Judd is now a private investigator that has grown from a geeky duckling into a hunky swan and his firm has been hired to look into a possible embezzlement scheme. Naturally, Kyle Warner is the suspected bad guy, and Judd’s boss has the perfect plan to seize him. She’s going to transform hunky Judd back into geeky Judd, complete with strategic padding, fake braces, and an awful haircut. Kyle is sure to let his guard down around a man who’s no threat to his macho persona.

However, Judd hates the idea. For one thing, he’s worked hard to leave his geeky past behind, and he’s even more determined when he learns that Lucy is now engaged to Kyle. So not only does Judd have to nail the bad guy in an uncomfortable disguise, he also has to control his urges to come clean with Lucy. Sure, she wouldn’t have fallen for geeky Judd in college, but what about hunky Judd 10 years later?

Title’s story works on several levels, the first being that I really liked Judd and Lucy. Who hasn’t wanted to attend a class reunion, new and improved, upstaging all those who wrote you off? Lucy now has a job in TV news, and immediately knows that Judd is not all he seems. He may not want to tell her what’s going on, but that doesn’t stop her from doing a little investigating on her own - and what she discovers is that she has feelings for Judd Turner, strategic padding and all.

What ultimately dims this story is the constant barrage of “little misunderstandings.” Judd can’t come clean to Lucy because what if she’s in on the embezzlement? Lucy can’t open up to Judd because she doubts her feelings, and after all, she is engaged to another man. These “little misunderstanding” are relatively tolerable, until they form a “big misunderstanding” towards the end, which almost finds the book landing against the wall.

In The Husband Hotel, relative newcomer Gardner features a likeable heroine and interesting setting, but also loses footing in misunderstandings and a secondary character that needs knocked upside the head.

Cliff Patterson is a father who is beside himself. His daughter has recently taken a job as resident hotel manager at the Excursion Inn and she claims to have taken the position in order to find a husband! His girl can’t get married yet, she’s only 24 and her twenties are for concentrating on her career! Therefore, he enlists the help of Jay Overman, who will pose as the hotel’s new handyman and thwart off eligible suitors.

Jay doesn’t really see what the big deal is, but Cliff once helped his family out in the form of a no-interest business loan, so he feels some obligation. A civil engineer, he has been running from the family business, Lace Foundations (as in female underwear), since he was a kid. Jay even designed the revolutionary Impeccabra on a dare - still who wants to be known as the Bra Prince?

Tara has no intention of marrying. In a fit of exasperated sarcasm she told her father she was husband hunting. Still, her hormones can’t help but notice the sexy new handyman she’s hired, even if he isn’t telling her his whole story. How’s she going to make the Excursion Inn a success with a distraction like Jay walking around? Moreover, how is Jay going to keep Tara away from men, when he’s one of the men panting after her?

The resident hotel manager angle was a nice, unique touch, and Tara is a smart girl who seems to know what she wants. However, her inability to tell her old man to get a grip was perplexing, and Cliff’s overbearing persona made him wholly annoying. Jay is an okay sort of hero, except he seems to fit the mold of all looks and no brains. The guy is clueless for most of the story, and the fact that he’s the world’s worst liar doesn’t exactly make his mission smooth sailing.

Even with nice hotel settings and likeable characters, I found this latest Duet’s offering lukewarm. Fewer misunderstandings and one less interfering father would have gone a long way in moving this entry up a notch.

--Wendy Crutcher

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