The Best Revenge by Stella Cameron
(Zebra, $6.50, R) ISBN 0-8217-5842-X
***
The Best Revenge is a mixed bag of romance and suspense. The beginning and the end were very good; the middle dragged. I felt like I had a fairly good understanding of the heroine; I felt like I had little idea what made the hero tick. The story contained a number of mildly kinky and erotic scenes between the not-so-nice characters, which is not the worst filler in the world. But even erotica gets old after a while and can't make up for the fact that more attention should have been given to the characters and the story line.

After her sister dies from bearing her stepfather's baby, seventeen-year-old Rae Faith finds herself running from a similar fate. Rae finds friendship, a job and a place to live for herself and her "daughter" in Decline, Georgia. Years later she meets and marries John Maddy, who accepts that she will never love him, but feels they can make a "safe" place for one and other and a home for the child.

Although Rae is used to having a husband who is almost always on the road, she thinks it's strange that she has not heard from John in over three weeks. When she receives a letter, with no return address, from her husband indicating he is not returning and asking for her forgiveness, she gets scared. The fear escalates when Dallas Calhoun appears at her door and demands that Rae give him back the money that she and John stole from his family.

Fear turns to anger when Calhoun treats her like dirt and informs her that her "husband's" real name is Warren Neil and that he died in a plane crash. He also informs her that Warren was already married to Dallas's sister when he married Rae. Confused and upset by everything that's happened, and by her unwilling attraction to Dallas, Rae just wants to be left alone to figure out what's going on. But Dallas persists on hounding her; he tells Rae that he knows she's a crook but he's willing to take over Warren's place in her life and visit her every once in a while.

Enraged by his assumption that she can be bought, Rae lets Dallas know that he will regret his treatment of her. She decides to go to Dallas's hometown, Glory, Georgia, and find the truth about Warren. When she arrives, she finds a town full of dysfunctional families. A town where everyone has a grudge and everyone is looking for revenge, power, sex and money and not necessarily in that order. The one thing the townsfolk have in common is a dislike of Rae Maddy; they all want her out of Glory and not poking her nose into their secrets and their sins.

Rae is a gutsy, likeable heroine. It wasn't difficult to understand why, given her background, she might marry a man she didn't love in order to create a safe place for herself and her niece. However, I have to admit I found it difficult to understand her initial attraction to Dallas. It's not even the fact that she believes she is married at the time, it's more like how can anyone be attracted to someone who insults and threatens them!? I don't care if it was Mel Gibson at my door, if he came to insult and threaten me I really don't think I would respond to his kiss well, okay, maybe if it truly was Mel, but you know what I mean.

Anyway, after Dallas behaves like a first-class jerk, I liked the way Rae stood up to him and promised that Dallas would pay for insulting her. I expected, and was looking forward to, a real confrontation between Dallas and Rae when he finds her in his hometown, but Dallas seems to undergo a complete personality change when he's back in Glory. He gets all apologetic and flustered around her and even though that's kind of cute, it seems like too much of a personality change.

Considering his own dysfunctional family, it would not be surprising for Dallas to have little respect for women. Especially since his mother and sister are so completely spoiled and useless. (By the by, if you are offended by stereotypes, particularly stereotypes of spoiled southern belles, a la Scarlett, you might want to avoid this book.)

But it was very difficult to reconcile the hard, ruthless man who appeared at Rae's door, with the man who simply and calmly hands over large amounts of money to keep his silly mother and sister in the style to which they feel is their God-given right. And, no matter how large the mansion, I can't imagine why any thirty-something-year-old man would continue living with his mother and sister. I wish the author had paid more attention to explaining what makes Dallas tick and less to the sexual peccadilloes of Glory's finest families.

Although I could have lived without the kinky filler, I did appreciate the fine passages of sexual tension between the hero and the heroine, especially when Rae visits Dallas's home. Few romance authors write good sexual tension; it's never been easy and it's even more difficult in these days of extreme political correctness. I also thought the ending was very good. A suspenseful ending rarely surprises me, but I have to admit I did not see this one coming. The author did a good job of adding some twists and camouflaging the real villain of this tale.

--Judith Flavell


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