Who Loves Ya, Baby?
by Gemma Bruce
(Brava Contemporary, $14.00, R) ISBN 0-7582-1249-6
****
Having just been demoted from her job with the NYPD, Julie Excelsior just wants to get her inheritance and get on with her life. Now if only her Uncle Wes had told her what that inheritance was. Left with only a few vague riddles, she returns to Excelsior Falls only to find that very little has changed. She's still the girl from the poor side of the founding family. And what's even worse than the rumor mill is the town's new sheriff - Cas Reynolds, the reason she left town in the first place.

Cas, a banker turned boat builder (and prominent member of the other founding family), was dragged back to Ex Falls by Julie's dying uncle. Stuck in a position he has no training or desire for, Julie's return seems fated to him. He's finally getting a chance to get in Julie's bed - and her heart.

Things get complicated when the two each realize they only have half the final riddle needed to find the fortune. The only problem is neither quite trusts the other. Cas is torn between protecting Julie from his rifle-toting father and protecting dear old dad from a possibly shady past. Julie, on the other hand, isn't quite ready for the bumbling wannabe small town sheriff to discover she's a former undercover cop. After all, how many men really want to know their bed partners could take 'em in a fight?

Take all of these elements, add in an inherited chicken coop, Cas's Gothic little sister and town full of colorful characters, and Julie is in for the adventure of her life - if she survives the treasure hunters long enough to enjoy it!

The reader gets a peek into Julie's psyche and root of her insecurities through her actions with the townsfolk. As the "poor white trash" side of a very wealthy family, she's been made very self-aware of her shortcomings and is especially vulnerable after the debacle at her job. So coming back home brings all of those insecurities rushing right back to her and leaves her acting like the shy teenage girl she used to be. It's quite interesting to see this vibrant young woman lose her pluck and resort back to pattern. The reader will fall just a bit in love with Julie as we see her realizing, that with few exceptions, her only real enemy in Ex Falls is herself.

But of course, not every relationship is easy for our heroine. Bruce delves into class discrimination with the town's wealthiest family aghast at the idea of heir apparent Cas, taking up with Wes's riffraff niece. It doesn't hurt that the two families are embroiled in a century old feud (or that Cas's parents are just this side of certifiable). The conflict between their families adds credence to the instability of their relationship. Bruce makes their fights and insecurities realistic and doesn't leave the reader screaming for her characters to just grow up already. It's a nice change of pace.

The one thing that really sets this book apart from most of the chick-lit/romance novels I've been reading lately is the frank sexuality of Bruce's characters. It's not so much that the actions are explicit (although there's plenty of naughty to make it nice), but her tone when writing from Cas's perspective. She uses earthy language to describe not only body parts, but also bodily functions. If you're a fan of euphemism free literature, this one's for you. There are no coy references to be found in this hot tale.

Who Loves Ya, Baby is a sexy, satisfying romp that will leave readers eager to check out Bruce's other novel and those of her alter ego, Shelley Freydont.

--Amanda Waters


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