Ready & Willing
by Elizabeth Bevarly, paranormal (2008)
Berkley, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22477-9

Ready & Willing is easily one of the most mature stories I have read from this author. Okay, maybe "mature" isn't the best word to use in this case, as some readers may get the impression that I'm trying to make a sarcastic reference to the author's age or something. Let me rephrase my first sentence. This story has some of the most well-developed romances I've seen from this author. Most of her previous books are slapstick comedy full of heroines running around behaving like addled fools. This one attempts, for a while, to present two well-developed characters connecting and falling in love instead of focusing on a laundry list of punchlines.

Unfortunately, this is also a paranormal romance. I use the word "unfortunately" here because the paranormal plot never comes together well even to the very last page. This one sees Audrey Magill, a widow for three years and counting, moving to Louisville to start her own hat boutique. She happens to chance upon a portrait of a dashing riverboat captain in an antique store, purchases it, and the next thing she knows, she has an actual ghost in her house. Silas Summerfield, the man from the portrait, wants Audrey to warn his great-great-great-et cetera-grandson Nathaniel that he will lose his soul if he signs a contract with some developer to start a housing project on land initially targeted for low-cost housing for the poor. Nathaniel pooh-poohs Audrey at first. When he signs the contract, he is seized by a chill in his body that won't go away. He realizes that only by touching Audrey can he feel warm again. Could it be, he wonders, that Audrey was telling the truth when she told him about a ghost in her house warning him about the possibility of losing his soul?

Nathaniel Summerfield is a keeper, and no, I am not saying this because he has a black Porsche Carrera. He is, in many ways, very similar to a hero from Jayne Ann Krentz: he is convinced that he is above messy human emotions like love, he is a self-made man, and deep inside, he is a very lonely man who immediately feels a connection with the heroine. When Nathaniel falls in love, it is as if he has become a new man altogether. How can I not adore a man who becomes such a wonderful fool for love, eh?

I like Audrey too. At first, she is a wonderful heroine because of how Ms Bevarly allows Audrey to be her own character instead of trying too hard to become like every other template heroine in contemporary romances. Audrey can definitely hold her own against Nathaniel, she can actually run a business well, and she loves her late husband. However, as the story progresses, I find myself become slightly annoyed by how Ms Bevarly keeps taking small swipes at Audrey's life with her late husband in order to show me how truly grand her love with Nathaniel is. For example, Audrey's sex life with her late husband is revealed to be blah. Given that initially Audrey remembers her late husband as a wild party man who became mellow during their relationship even as he gave her some courage to be more outgoing, I find it hard to imagine that their sex life was boring. Then there is the constant reminders from the author that Audrey has big breasts without resorting to Wonderbra, how she eats and eats and yet remains gorgeous and curvy, and how she doesn't wear make-up like the women Nathaniel dated in the past. What is this, Ms Bevarly? Trying to start a say no to Mary Kay and down with Wonderbra campaign, are we?

Nathaniel and Audrey have a nice romance with great sexual tension and plenty of credible moments of emotional bonding, and I really like these two despite Ms Bevarly's attempts to turn Audrey into a typical romance heroine later in the story. But alas, the plot doesn't do anything for these two characters. For a long time, nobody, not even Silas, knows what to do so they are just muddling around slowly and hoping that they are doing the right thing. The resolution of the plot is pretty lackluster as well. Let's just say that it turns out that Silas is sent all the way down to earth to persuade Nathaniel to do a more thorough background check on his business partners. The resolution happens off-screen, so the pay-off is not quite there after all that build up in the plot. And don't get me started on the secondary romance between Silas the ghost and that abuse survivor neighbor-turned-employee of Audrey - that one is underdeveloped and full of moments that make my eyes roll upward.

I really like the romance in Ready & Willing because the author handles the emotions and sexual chemistry between her characters in an intelligent manner. Seeing Nathaniel and Audrey fall in love is great and I can certainly appreciate the way the author has Audrey learn that it is okay to move on with life without believing that she is betraying her late husband. The emotional aspects of this story are the best thing about it. The plot, on the other hand, could use a lot of tweaking and tightening.

Rating: 81

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