Sunday, October 08, 2006

A Pretend Engagement, by Jessica Steele

Jessica Steele
ISBN: 0-373-03824-0
Harlequin Romance #3824
Book #06-143

Distraught to discover that the man she loves is married with children, Varnie Sutton retreats to her country house to lick her wounds. Unfortunately, healing her heartache will have to wait, because it turns out that Varnie's scapegrace stepbrother has granted use of the house to his boss. Leon Beaumont is dodging the media, and if Varnie gives Leon the boot, it will likely cost her brother his job. In an attempt to help Johnny keep his job, Varnie goes further and pretends to be the hired help. Naturally, sparks fly as Leon objects to Varnie's tendency to be "lippy," and Varnie resents Leon's arrogance. When a married admirer discovers Leon's hiding place, Varnie claims to be Leon's fiancee to get rid of the woman, but the news leaks to the press, and suddenly Leon is splashed across the headlines.

I generally like Jessica Steele's writing, but A PRETEND ENGAGEMENT had all the lapses of logic that prejudice non-readers against romance novels. The setup for the pretend engagement was overly long and hinged on a succession of actions on Varnie's part that Ms. Steele repeatedly points out as uncharacteristic of her heroine (not taking her customary shower before bed, walking naked to the bathroom in the master bedroom, etc.). By the time Varnie leaps to Leon's defense and establishes the faux relationship, the plot had lost all credibility. I wasn't willing to suspend disbelief because I wasn't invested in the characters enough to forgive them their lapses. The bickering between Leon and Varnie settled into one note, hit hard and often. Leon's constant use of the word "lippy" to describe Varnie got old quickly. The scene where Leon begins to make love to Varnie only to have her call it off was awkward and uncomfortable--far better to forego such a scene than try to titillate readers without giving them a payoff they don't want in a sweet romance, anyway.

The last few chapters were markedly better, but the improvement was too little, too late. With so much having gone wrong early in the book, Ms. Steele was not able to redeem her plot enough to win me over. A PRETEND ENGAGEMENT was a disappointing effort from an author who can do much better.

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