The Baby Plan by Susan Gable
(Harl. Super. #1103, $5.25, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-71103-4
***
Architect Jake Manning wants a child of his own. He raised his two younger half-siblings, and now they are married and have children. It’s time for Jake to have the family he’s always wanted, but he can’t seem to make an adoption work. Apparently a single father isn’t the best of candidates. His lawyer has proposed a new tactic: how about a surrogate mother?

Jake is pondering the idea when he goes to retrieve his prized Mustang from a garage and meets Harley Emerson, a mechanic. Jake barely has time to register that she’s lovely when Harley is accused of theft and fired on the spot. Jake, feeling somewhat responsible since it was his car that was missing the items, decides to put forth a proposal to Harley. Will she agree to have his child? In return, Jake will help Harley set up her own business.

Harley is tempted. A false conviction has left her with a criminal record, and it’s hard for her to find a job. Nobody is interested in hiring an ex-con, it seems. So Harley agrees, on two conditions. She wants to be married when her child is born, and she wants to conceive the old-fashioned way.

Jake thinks this is a fine idea, and the two are married in a quick civil ceremony. Harley moves in and is soon pregnant. But the longer these two live together, the less interested they are in divorce. Can this marriage of convenience become real?

Harley is the big stumbling block on this road to romance. Abused as a foster child, she is certain she’d be a lousy mother. Time spent babysitting Jake’s nieces and nephew confirm her suspicions when everything goes wrong. And then there’s the mechanic aspect. What successful professional man would want a wife with grease under her nails? Harley’s self-esteem is so low it’s nearly in negative territory. It will be up to Jake to make her see differently.

Susan Gable’s debut romance is perfectly respectable, but covers little new ground other than Harley being a mechanic. It’s essentially a one-note story: Harley believes she’s no good, and Jake believes otherwise. The secondary characters are an interesting mix. Jake’s younger brother Dusty, a cop, is suspicious of Harley because of her police record, and his attitude becomes openly hostile. You’d think a cop would see a few shades of gray, but Dusty is basically an ass wherever Harley is concerned, and it felt a bit forced. His role in the story seemed to be just one more reason to make Harley think she’s hopeless, and his characterization was distasteful because it was so monotonous. Jake eventually delivers a well-deserved setdown, but it came far too late to be satisfying.

Jake’s sister, who likes Harley and is pretty laid-back about motherhood and its anxieties, having toddler twins, balances Dusty herself. She was a welcome foil to Dusty’s unrelenting antagonism.

Then there’s Jake, who is kind, gentle, and romantic. His efforts to make Harley view herself in a different light are nicely done, with enough frustration mixed in to make him seem human. Things don’t go smoothly, and it takes a lot of patience on Jake’s part. As for Harley, she’s likeable, but her view of herself had overtones of “pity party” in it. Some readers are going to identify strongly with her; to others, she may seem to be a bit of a doormat, or at least a whipped puppy.

Susan Gable writes well and her prose is crisp and appealing. The dialogue is realistic and the setting was nicely-detailed, especially the run-down neighborhood in which Jake finds Harley living. This book might well have been a keeper in a slightly shorter format, where Harley didn’t have quite so much time in which to feel inadequate. As it stands, The Baby Plan is an entertaining first romance from a promising new voice in the genre. Susan Gable is definitely a contemporary author to watch.

--Cathy Sova


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