A Father's Fortune
by Shirley Hailstock, contemporary (2005, 2003 reissue)
Silhouette Special Edition, $4.99, ISBN 0-373-81110-1


Shirley Hailstock takes a page from Catherine Anderson's book of exploitative romance writing and features a heroine who is on the run. Erin Taylor loves children (of course) so she's a nursery school teacher (of course). Alas, she has a Dark Secret that forces her to move from town to town when this Dark Secret is close to being discovered or is discovered. What is this Dark Secret, you ask?

No, Erin is not actually Aaron Taylor trying to pull a The Crying Game thing on her dates. No, Erin doesn't have naked photos of the kids she teaches stashed in her PC. And no, Erin hasn't killed anybody. She just cannot have children.

Yes, she cannot have children. Heaven knows why is that such a terrible secret, I don't know. Years ago she was in accident that saw her being injured in her lower body to the extent that the doctors performed a hysterectomy on her. Erin, therefore, now acts like she is 100% unlovable because she cannot bear children of her own. Apparently one guy in her past left her because he wanted his own kids so now she's determined never to even date another guy because she is convinced that any guy who knows her Dark Secret will make the sign of the cross and run screaming into the night.

James "Digger" Clayton is straight out of the "Let's See How Much Baggage We Can Cram Down His Boxers" school of character design. He's an orphan who has never known a parent's love, sob. He has been hurt in previous relationships before, sigh. The killer is that, years ago, when our carpenter was then working behind a crane, the crane went out of control and tipped over, ending up killing his colleague as well as three-year old Josh while leaving him uninjured. Oh my goodness. At least Ms Hailstock shows some restraint and didn't have the crane falling onto a bus full of nuns and babies and causing the bus to explode, I suppose. Digger tries to avoid dealing with children because he is understandably haunted by guilt over the death of the little boy.

Therefore, he shouldn't show up at Erin's nursery school to renovate the place. There are kids there, after all. But he can't resist the kids and Erin, so now we have two people with secrets trying to skirt around their issues while making beautiful sweet love. She thinks he doesn't like kids which pains her as she's determined to be a schoolteacher for the kiddies in America while she doesn't want to let him know that she can't get pregnant for fear of driving him away.

Digger's guilt is far more realistic than Erin's so he's a more sympathetic tortured character. His appeal lies in how he slowly lowers his defenses as he falls for Erin. He's a nice guy, gruff on the outside but a total softie inside. Erin on the other hand is less sympathetic. Why on earth is a supposedly intelligent woman so eager to believe that all men will run away from her once they learn that she cannot have children? Ms Hailstock never did explain whether Erin's hysterectomy also saw the removal of her ovaries, and she should because if Erin's ovaries are still present, there is always a chance that she and Digger can still have children via in-vitro fertilization methods and Erin, therefore, is a bigger the fool for not even considering this in her "All men must hate me, sob sob sob!" mental hysteria. Then again, the doctor in me whispered that Erin may come off as ridiculous at times because she can be in an extreme state of menopause - women can become menopausal after undergoing hysterectomy even if they are not yet fifty, after all. Still, the onus is on Ms Hailstock to portray Erin in the most favorable light possible (in this case, that would mean Erin not being an overgeneralizing hysterical nitwit).

The events that will unfold in this story are straight out of a Lifetime TV movie. There is nothing wrong with "Be Strong, Women With No Uterus!" drama, of course, but unfortunately, all the external drama originates from one source that readers will either love or hate: the four-year old monster kid Samantha Yvette Pierce who is obnoxious, sorry, "precocious" enough to speak like this about Digger, a man that she has just met for, oh, five minutes during dinner with Erin and Digger:

"Why do you want Mr Clayton to have a child?"

"Digger," [Sam] corrected, her big eyes looking as if Erin had forgotten the covenant the two of them had agreed to.

"Why do you want Digger to have a child?"

"So I could play with her."

Is it just me or Sam is actually some kiddie-eating monster pretending to be human? I mean, which four-year old speaks like that? Asking someone whether they have a kid she can play with barely an hour into meeting that someone? Factor in the fact that Sam also seems to be the frailest kid around, attracting natural and man-made disasters like a magnet to draw out Digger's heroic paternal instincts, and I have a Plot Device From Hell on my hands in Sam. Ms Hailstock isn't even subtle when it comes to Sam.

Digger is a sympathetic hero although his laundry list of angst and baggage is complete overkill in the sheer number of traumatic events poor Digger endured in the past. He and Erin have pretty good chemistry between them. However, Erin's contrived issues and Sam's even more contrived presence in this book always forcefully remind me every time I nearly get involved with the story that nothing about this book feels real or natural. Everything is artificial, generated from the Angst-and-Saccharine machine that Ms Hailstock is cranking at full force while reading Catherine Anderson's How To Trivialize Real-Life Issues For Your Hallmark Scripts.

Rating: 70


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