Ports of Call by Sally Fairchild
(Mira, $5.99, PG) ISBN 1-5516-505-0
**
In 1967 Julia leaves her lover Piero at the Tuscan villa where years earlier they had pretended to be husband and wife. She intends to return with a little boy, but the brakes on her car fail, and she is killed.

Thirty-two years later, Marchesa Adriana Falcone, known as the Queen of the Seas, is christening a new ship based in Miami. A former Vogue model, stunningly beautiful and couture-fashionably dressed, she is the widow of the much older Piero Falcone and heir to a centuries-old Italian cruise ship line. (Are there centuries-old cruise ship lines?) But rather than champagne in the bottle, there is blood.

Thorne Weston is the head of Blue Ribbon Cruises, the most successful cruise line in North America. He resents the Falcone Line's intruding into his territory and vows to win the battle for business supremacy. A Richard-Gere-lookalike, he's a self-made multimillionaire and business tycoon. He surrounds himself with assistants who are similarly striking and dedicated. (His sales manager is a knock-em-dead gorgeous former Las Vegas showgirl and his sometime lover.)

At a joint media interview, the Marchesa notices a ring Thorne is wearing. It is the ring bearing the Falcone family crest which Piero had described to her and which has been missing for years. She demands its return, but Thorne says it belonged to a woman named Julia, that he already owns one thing that belonged to the Falcones and intends to have more. "Including perhaps even you, Marchesa."

Adriana's home is a fabulous villa which is also the home of Donatella and Emilio, distant relations. Emilio is also involved in the running of the Falcone Line. Adriana tries to discover information about Julia in the family archives. Donatella claims never to have heard of her. Adriana finds a photograph which will lead her on a hunt that will result in her receiving a diary which is the key to uncovering long-kept secrets.

Meanwhile, financial difficulties of a large shipbuilding firm force Adriana into a partnership with Thorne, and a series of incidents threaten her life. Is there something in the past that endangers her now?

I never became engaged by this book while reading it. Although it belongs to the sub-genre of romantic suspense, there's little romance and not much suspense.

There's a decided lack of passion in the story except for the characters' business interests -- it might as well be a Wall Street Journal story about competing cruise lines. It's inevitable that the hero and heroine are going to get together before the end, but that's no big deal -- there are mergers and acquisitions between large companies all the time. The passion that romance readers have come to expect -- the irresistible attraction between a man and a woman that will inevitably consume them despite their best efforts -- is reserved for acquiring bigger and more luxurious cruise ships.

As for those tender feelings of true affection, they're primarily the province of Adriana's memories of Piero. (In fact, there are sufficient glimpses of Piero in the flash-back sections to give the impression that if he had been the main character and hero, this might have been a more compelling book.) The striking lack of similar bonds of affection connecting Adriana with Thorne reinforced my impression that Thorne's interest in her was more boardroom than bedroom. There's more "romance" on the book's spine than between the covers.

Moreover, few readers will fail to guess the Big Secret early on (and some readers might feel that it has a hint of incest). Likewise, the villain's identity will come as no surprise.

The stock characters -- the ubiquitous gorgeous ex-model heroine (are you getting as tired of them as I am?) and the movie-star handsome self-made business tycoon -- lacked the depth and warmth necessary for sympathetic characters. It's hard to care much if there's a happily-ever-after in the future of two such calculating personalities. The secondary characters are similarly cold and self-centered. There's scarcely one in the lot I'd want to get to know. (I would be interested in knowing, however, how a career as a model or showgirl prepares one for being a high-powered business executive.)

I advise readers to think twice before signing up for a cruise with Ports of Call. There are better ways to sail away during one's leisure time.

--Lesley Dunlap


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