by Elizabeth Bevarly, contemporary (2008)
Berkley, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22085-6
If you told me three years ago that I would be agonizing whether to give a book by Elizabeth Bevarly a keeper grade, I would have you pegged as one of those creepy people who knock on people's doors and deliver pamphlets on some weird religion founded by an obese preacher. Well, the joke is on me, I suppose, because here I am, and here it is, Ms Bevarly's Fast & Loose.
Is it the moon? I don't know, but reading this story, I feel as if... I don't know, as if I am reading my first ever contemporary romance by Jayne Ann Krentz. Elizabeth Bevarly has actually mellowed considerably when it comes to her brand of humor, in the sense that once she wrote those over-the-top wacky contemporary romances, but with Fast & Loose, she seems to have come to a full circle. This one reminds me more of the style of her early books for Harper, back before Harper ate up Avon in those dark ages. What I am saying here is that this book has not just great humor but also some unexpectedly hard-hitting moments of romantic endearments. I look at the author's photo - it's the same woman, definitely. But this one is... wow, it's like a story by a completely different author.
Of course, this may be bad news to you if you prefer the author's brand of wacky comedy that she wrote for Avon and Silhouette, but if you also enjoy the humorous stylistics of Jayne Ann Krentz's older romances, you may find yourself as charmed by this one as I am.
Set in Louisville, the land of horse-mad people, we meet Cole Early, a self-made man who became rich and famous after he trained some of the best Thoroughbreds to win races in the country. Expecting to make a successful splash in that year's Kentucky Derby with his prized baby Silk Purse, he unfortunately experiences the first bump in his road to fabulous success when he realizes that he may very well have nowhere to stay in Louisville. Every hotel and inn within the city is fully booked. Fortunately, there may be one place that he can stay: he can rent a house of one of those locals who prefer to flee the city when the horse-mad barbarians arrive at the gates.
Lulu Flannery, a glass artist, rents out her place because she could use the money, but little does she know that the boorish but cute fellow she bumps into early in the story is the same man that rents her place. She lives with her friend for the duration of the Derby, you see, and confidentiality clauses prevent the agent who handled the rental process from revealing the identity of the owner to the tenant and vice-versa, so Cole and Lulu don't really know who the other person is until much later in the story. Cole Early has no idea that the charming not-usually-his-type lady he has taken to call "Craggedy Ann" is the same woman that owns his rented home. Cole is also fascinated by the woman who owns the place he is renting. He is intrigued by the glassware, her journal of erotic scribbling, and her underwear. Things will come to a head when he discovers that Craggedy Ann and the mysterious woman he is infatuated with is the same person.
Yes, Cole commits some pretty huge acts of invasion of privacy here, which I'm sure will not amuse some readers, but I personally feel that Lulu is asking for it. If she is stupid enough to rent out her place without password-protecting her computer, locking her underwear drawer, and taking her journal with her, then she deserves what she gets. Show me one guy who swears that he will not snoop around a woman's underwear drawer, especially when he suspects that the woman in question is the hot babe in a bikini whose photo he sees around the house, and I will tell you that he's lying. And no, Cole doesn't do... things... to her underwear, which I suppose we can thank Ms Bevarly for, heh.
Still, the romance between Cole and Lulu is pretty endearing even if Lulu behaves like a typical twit heroine. Oh, she just happens to write raunchy erotic fantasies in her journal and she also happens to like sexy underwear, but the moment she has a powerful orgasm with the hero, she will go, "No! This is not me! We can't do it again!" like only a tedious Harlequin Blaze dingbat romance heroine could. Fortunately, she doesn't pull this stunt that long, and when she finally comes to her senses, she does it by coming to the correct realization, that it's by compromising, not by forcing the man to be someone he's not, that they will get to make the relationship work. I really like how Ms Bevarly has her characters realize all the correct things that they need to consider before they can make a happily ever after work. I think Barbara de Angelis will definitely approve.
Cole is a fun hero. He starts out as this arrogant know-it-all type, but by the last page, he's a charmingly besotted hero who can't think of a better kind of heaven than taking a break from it all and enjoying some quiet time with the wife. He's the perfect fantasy of that rich and handsome fellow that ends up being completely at the wife's beck and call, although he'd have you know that he's still a man with all his private parts intact, thank you very much - and Ms Bevarly makes Cole a charming and adorable fellow in the process. Cole isn't angst-ridden, but he still has a nice balance of rough edges and smooth polish that makes him an endearing kind of hero.
The humor is great. There are plenty of fun one-liners here, and I love how they make me laugh without turning the heroine into a fool in the process - something that I always wasn't fond of in the author's older books. I especially love how Cole naughtily sets things up so that he can get into Lulu's pants once he realizes that she's not letting him get some that easily - I love a man who doesn't give up and I really enjoy how Ms Bevarly manages to pull this scene off without making Cole come off like a creep. Instead, I find myself thinking while reading that scene that I can really, really, really get to like Cole if he was a real fellow.
There is also a very nice secondary romance between Lulu's friend, a woman who is determined to marry a rich man for security, and a man who is all she is looking for, except for the money part. This one could have been an annoying morality tale about how women who want to marry for money are whores, but instead Ms Bevarly turns this one into a charming story of Bree Calhoun's coming to her senses and giving the really sweet fellow who loves her the TLC he deserves. I find Bree a more interesting heroine than Lulu, actually, mostly because Bree is a flawed heroine while Lulu is a Harlequin Blaze cliché. But still, Cole brings out the best in Lulu when she's with him, so Lulu is not that bad.
The thing that has me torn about giving this a keeper grade is the way the story doesn't come together as well as I'd have liked. It's the way the author has Lulu being this Harlequin Blaze cliché, which would still be fine were not for how the clichéd parts of Lulu's character don't really make sense. For example, Lulu loves naughty underwear and leaves around a journal full of raunchy writing for lonely men to read on cold and lonely nights, how sweet of her, but Lulu's personality in this story isn't one that I would associate with erotic fantasies and clichéd black silk panties. It will be more believable if Lulu is shown to be, say, a sensual woman who is looking for a way to lose her inhibitions, but instead Lulu comes off as this one-dimensional protest-and-pout plot device created to turn Cole on but keep him at arm's length until the author has run out of pages when it comes to prolonging poor Cole's state of frustration. Lulu isn't a well-drawn character, and therefore it is really unfortunate that she is actually a big part of the conflict that keeps her and Cole from having a happy ending one hundred pages earlier.
Still, what's a little silly bitty heroine, eh, when I have so much fun reading this story? As I've said, I feel as if I'm reading Jayne Ann Krentz's contemporary romance for the first time - I find myself thinking, "Wow, I can really get to like this author. I need to read more." How pleasant as well that this author turns out to be Elizabeth Bevarly, someone I would never expect to knock me over and bowl me completely in such a manner. It is always lovely to realize that the romance genre can still surprise an old dog like me, so what can I say? Ms Bevarly has really got me here, and I'd be most happy to keep eating humble pie if she will continue to put out books like Fast & Loose.
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