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Luke by Jennifer Blake
(Mira, $5.99, PG) ISBN:1-55166-490-9
**
I have never been particularly fond of the "big misunderstanding" as a plot device, which puts Jennifer Blake's new contemporary suspense novel at a disadvantage from the get-go. Indeed, the driving force of Luke, the second of her series of novels set in Turn-Coupe, Louisiana, is a really, really big misunderstanding.

Thirteen years ago Luke Benedict and April Halstead were "almost" engaged. These high school sweethearts had been each other's first love. Then, one night after leaving April at her door, Luke apparently picked up the town tramp. What's worse, there was an car accident and the girl was killed. April, appalled that the boy she loved had thus betrayed her, refused to have anything more to do with him. She left Turn-Coupe for college, marriage and a career as a successful romance writer. Now divorced, she has returned to her hometown, bought an old house, and is apparently writing a romance based on the Benedict family's history.

Luke stayed in Turn-Coupe and took over the family farm. He never married but did develop quite a reputation as a lady's man, earning the nickname Luke-de-la-Nuit. The two have not crossed paths since breaking up all those years ago.

What brings them together is a threat to April. As she is doing a local radio call-in show to promote her latest release, she receives an obscene phone call (which the show's host apparently lets through for effect). Luke hears the call and rushes over to April's house to play knight-in-shining-armor. April is not especially pleased to see him. Actually, that's putting it mildly. Her response to Luke's gallantry is to insult him royally.

Luke soon deduces that this is not the first threatening call April has received. He appoints himself her bodyguard, insisting on accompanying her to New Orleans for a romance writers' meeting. It turns out that his alarm is not misplaced. Indeed, he saves her from being disfigured by acid when someone attacks her on Bourbon Street, at the cost of some not very comfortable burns on his own back.

Convinced that April is in real danger, he hovers and when rescuing is needed, there he is.

The suspense element in Luke centers on who is out to get April. Is it a Benedict (or even Luke himself) trying to prevent her from uncovering ancient secrets? Is it her smarmy ex-husband? Is it the brother of the girl Luke "killed"? Is it someone who doesn't like her books?

What I found problematic in Luke was the romance in general and the heroine in particular. I guess I can accept that Luke might still be carrying a torch for his first love, but I must admit that I found it hard to believe that he would continue to care after the way April treats him. She is just downright nasty to this man who has come riding to her rescue. Blake does provide a plausible psychological explanation for April's attitude, but, for me at least, it didn't make up for her actions. And when the requisite reversal in her feelings occurred, it seemed too abrupt and even out of character.

Luke is a more attractive creation. His determination to protect his lady in spite of herself is most admirable. Yet, I found that his motivations and actions didn't quite add up, at least in my mind.

There are things I enjoyed and admired about Luke. I certainly thought Blake's villain and his motives were most imaginative. I liked the insight the book provided into what it is like to be a romance author. I enjoyed her description of April's relationship with her peers. I found the secondary and recurring characters interesting. And I thought the ending was pretty dramatic and exciting. (I love it when heroines rescue themselves.)

But when all is said and done, if the romance doesn't work, then the book doesn't work. For me, the romance didn't work. And so I must suggest that you think twice before reading Luke.

--Jean Mason


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