Juggling Briefcase & Baby
by Jessica Hart, contemporary (2011)
Mills & Boon Riva, £3.99, ISBN 978-0-263-88363-3


I admit it, I'm a category romance snob. I view them as mass-manufactured formulaic pap, with the editors telling the stable of authors what and when to write, and the books that result are good mostly for half-hour vicarious fantasies into a politically incorrect world of psychotically arrogant tycoons and billionaires. But then comes Juggling Briefcase & Baby, a book that simply blows me away and makes me want to jump up and down, like Tom Cruise on Oprah's couch, and scream that Jessica Hart is coming to deliver us all from a hell filled with Mediterranean billionaire playboys and innocent virginal secretary mistresses.

Of course, scientifically speaking, this is only one book, and I'd need to read more books like this before I announce a special ceremony where I'll be eating my words about category romances and everyone is invited to come watch. But for now, this book is a gorgeous anomaly.

The storyline won't seem too promising at first, so bear with me. Alexander Gibson is the eldest son, and therefore, he is expected to manage the family business, the very successful supermarket chain called Gibson & Grieve. Alas, his father never seems to acknowledge his track record, instead showing all his favors on Lex's more carefree younger brother Phin. Now that his father has had a stroke, Lex has full control of the business, and he is determined to show the old man that he has it. How? By doing what they say is impossible - persuade the reclusive Willie Grant to sell Grant's Supersavers to the company and therefore allowing the company to finally gain a foothold in Scotland.

But first, he has to meet Willie to seal the deal, and at the last minute, his Acquisitions fellow couldn't come along due to a family emergency. Lex ends up making the trip to Scotland with Romy Morrison. Their families know each other from way back - Lex's mother and Romy's mother are close - and, when they were 18, Lex and Romy had a mad and wonderful time in Paris where they fell in love but decided that they would never last, so they amicably went separate ways. The years passed, and Romy, who is carefree and always in search of new scenery and adventures, went to see the world while Lex stayed put to run the family business. Recently, Romy came back, pregnant, and Lex's brother gave her a position in the company. This is how Lex finds himself in close quarters once again with Romy. Since she never had time to make the necessary arrangements, she brings her 14-month daughter with her too. It's going to be a fun trip, alright.

Lex and Romy seem like polar opposites at first, but they actually have so much in common. She has abandonment issues, thanks to a father who claimed to love her only to one day leave her for a new family. He has issues too, with his own father, as Lex is only starting to realize that he has years of resentment pent up in his heart when it comes to how much he has sacrificed to please a father, who instead seems to show preference to his brother who broke all the rules that Lex was made to follow. Because of all these issues, Romy and Lex shun commitment and throw everything into their chosen lifestyles - she with her constant desire to move on once things get depressingly comfortable, and he with his drive to make the family business even more successful just to show his father that he is that bloody amazing, even if that old man doesn't seem to think so. Romy's daughter has helped mellow her a bit, but she is still gun shy about commitment. It's the same with Lex - he is sure that his life doesn't have any place for a wife and kids. But the chemistry is there, and it's going to be very hard to keep fighting the attraction.

And oh boy, the chemistry - this book is like a laboratory that is about to explode. I don't know how Ms Hart does it, but Lex and Romy feel like the most perfect couple indeed. It's not just the sexual tension that exists in spades, it's also how these two seem so genuinely into each other. Sure, they both try very hard to avoid the trap of falling in love again, but it's obvious to me that they are nuts about each other. Romy and Lex come off as not only two people crazy in lust, but also best friends and, more significantly, each of them seem to know and understand the other person better than anyone else could.

I also love how Romy and Lex come off as three-dimensional people with realistic strengths and insecurities. Unlike most category romance heroines, Romy is not made to pay for her chosen lifestyle or the fact that she dared to have affairs with other men in the past. She has no weird hang-ups about sex and men, only a believable fear of commitment stemming from a heartbreaking episode in her childhood. I also like how Romy is shown to have a life and personal interests outside her relationship with Lex. In other words, she seems like a smart and realistic lady, not some one-dimensional character created just to love the hero. Lex is a wonderful character too. He has his share of childhood demons, but these demons never make him cruel or stupid. He reminds me of a Jayne Ann Krentz hero - he tries to be tough, but when he loves, he's a total goner. As for that brat, she is not annoying. In fact, as someone who is caring for a fourteen-month brat at the moment, I actually think Freya is quite accurately portrayed.

This book doesn't have just great chemistry and amazingly memorable and likable lead characters, it has beautiful healing of angst too. Don't tell anyone, but I have tears streaming down my cheeks during the last thirty or so pages. My brain tells me that the author is probably laying on the sentimental melodrama a bit too thickly, but I don't really care as I'm too busy reveling in the glorious catharsis of these sentimental scenes. So maybe things are a bit sweet. Who cares! Glória in excélsis Deo! I've seen the light and I now sing praises to the angels for guiding my hand to this Vivaldian work of purest beauty. Okay, that's pushing it a bit, but humor me - do you know how long it has been since I read a book this good?

Rating: 95


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