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The Sweetest Thing
by Barbara Freethy
(Avon, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-380-79481-0
****
All of Barbara Freethy's contemporary romances have been about family and her newest, The Sweetest Thing is no exception. Here the importance of family is brought home by the fact that neither the hero nor the heroine has truly had a family, and both are therefore incomplete.

Likewise, all of Freethy's stories have a supernatural element. In her new release, the mystical agent is an old Anasazi pot that Julian Carrigan found in Arizona over fifty years ago. When his lover Susannah touched the pot, she dropped and broke it. The strange visions it engendered and the fearful wind it seemed to create led Susannah to flee with half of the broken pot. Julian was told by an Indian wiseman that unless the pot was joined again and replaced where he had found it, no Carrigan man would ever find happiness.

The curse seems all too true. Julian has had five unsuccessful marriages. His son has flitted from woman to woman, and now his grandson Alex seemed to be repeating the patter of avoiding love and commitment. Julian is desperate to find Susannah and the other half of the pot before it is too late.

In fact, Alex had once been in love. When he was eighteen, he fell in love with Melanie Kane, married her and thought he was going to be a father. But after the baby's birth, Melanie informed him that he wasn't really the child's father and that she was leaving him for the real father. Crushed, Alex had never again let anyone get close.

Now, twelve years later, Melanie is dead, and has "left" him her daughter. But Alex doesn't believe Jessie is his child and she will only complicate his busy life. An additional complication has appeared in the person of Julian who has come to live with his grandson, claiming that he can no longer live alone. Moreover, Julian has involved a stranger in his quest for Melanie and for the other half of the mystical plot. He has played on the sympathies of Faith Christopher, owner of a neighborhood pastry shop, Faith's Fancies.

If Alex had a dysfunctional family, Faith never had a family at all. Abandoned as an infant with only a St. Christopher's medal around her neck, she has lived in a series of foster homes. Her dreams of truly belonging to a family seemed about to come true when she got engaged to Gary Porter and was welcomed into the Porter family's bosom. But Gary had been killed in an auto accident three weeks before their wedding.

But the Porters continued to include Faith in their family, so much so that they are pressuring her to wed Gary's younger brother Ben. Faith wants a family so much that she is willing to consider the idea, even though she feels nothing but fond friendship for Ben. For his part, Ben wants desperately to marry Faith because he believes the marriage will give him the acceptance he has always wanted from his parents.

Meeting the Carrigans, all three of them, alters Faith's life. When she touches the pot, she, like Susannah before her, feels its strange power and begins to have dreams about the woman who made it and the man she loved. When Alex touches her, she feels a spark too, but of a completely different kind. But Alex makes it quite clear that he does not believe in love or marriage or family, those things which Faith cherishes most.

Freethy uses this common romance conflict very effectively. She allows the reader bit by bit into Alex's past so that his attitude toward commitment becomes completely believable. He has been abandoned so often by those who should have loved him that he cannot bear the thought of being abandoned again so he will not love. He fights his growing affection for Jessie and denies his connection with his grandfather. His feelings for Faith leave him confused. Why does she linger in his mind?

The quest for Susannah and for the half that will make the mystical pot whole again is, perhaps, a metaphor for what both Alex and Faith need to be whole as well.

Freethy has crafted an entertaining and moving contemporary romance. The paranormal elements are well handled and enrich the story. But ultimately, The Sweetest Thing is about the importance of love and family, for it is love that makes family sweet.

--Jean Mason


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