At Last

The Day We Met

Once Around

Sleeping Alone

A Soft Place To Fall by Barbara Bretton
(Berkley, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-425-18216-9
Annie Galloway is a 38-year-old widow, surrounded by well-meaning in-laws and townsfolk. Kevin Galloway has been dead for 2 years, and Annie is just now getting out from under all the hidden debts he left behind due to his gambling addiction. To do it, she had to sell the big, rambling Victorian home they shared, and buy a small seaside cottage from local philanthropist, Warren Bancroft.

Sam Butler is a New Yorker who needs a place of refuge. Once a fast-talking, Wall Street wizard, Sam learns that his firm is bilking clients out of thousands of dollars. Worse still, he comes off looking guilty as sin, so when the Feds come calling, Sam agrees to help them out. With the investigation near the breaking point, the Feds urge Sam to lie low for a while. What better place to hide out than in Shelter Rock Cove, Maine, in a seaside cottage owned by his old friend Warren Bancroft?

Sam and Annie soon cross paths by unconventional means (pizza-eating dog anyone?), and quickly learn two things: 1. They’re neighbors and 2. They have a chemistry that ignites quicker than a New York minute. However, not everyone is happy about a stranger waltzing into their mist and stealing Annie’s heart. Certainly not her mother-in-law or the man who’s been carrying a torch for Annie since high school.

What makes Barbara Bretton’s latest such an interesting story is her memorable characters and depiction of small town life. All of her characters have a wonderful complexity that gives them a decidedly authentic feel. Annie is a woman who has protected her husband’s good name like a pit bull. No doubt about it, Kevin’s gambling was a serious problem, but Annie carried the burden, slowly paying off his debts after his death. Sam found himself an orphaned teenager with five young siblings to look after when his parents died. He shouldered the responsibility, getting a lucrative job in finance - only to find his life fall apart before his eyes.

Admittedly, it took me some time to warm up to the secondary players. Annie’s mother-in-law, Claudia, initially comes off as shrewish, but Bretton adds some depth to her with an underlying fear and vulnerability - naturally, I couldn’t loathe her for long. Hall is the man pining away for Annie who finds his hopes dashed when it becomes evident that Sam is “the one.” Where some might have made him a villain, Bretton chooses a different path, making him one of the standouts in this story.

I did have problems, namely Warren Bancroft, who could give Cinderella’s fairy godmother a run for her money, and the way the relationship develops between Annie and Sam - which is very love at first sight. I found it a little grating that a woman who had been widowed for 2 years, had thwarted other interested men, would jump a stranger like Sam within a matter of days (although that first encounter is a humdinger). While I’ve never been a big fan of love at first sight type stories, I couldn’t help but wonder why there wasn’t more hesitancy on Annie’s part.

That said, Bretton has written a fine story, which could find a crossover readership among the women’s fiction flock. Romance devotees tired of 20-year-old virgins and contrived, overused plot devices may find A Soft Place To Fall a refreshing break from the ordinary as well.

--Wendy Crutcher

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