At Your Service, Jack
by Brenda Hammond
(Harl. Tempt. #903, $4.25, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-69103-3
***
Reading this book was a bit like ordering a cappuccino, then finding there was no coffee under the foam. There was lots of nice froth but ultimately not enough substance to be satisfying.

Frederica Imogen Elliott needs more money than her years of secretarial work can supply - her ex-fiancé, Simon, ran up a huge bill on her credit card that he has no intention of paying. Simon’s sister Tabby, who was Freddi’s roommate at school, may have the solution, though. She runs a successful placement agency and can offer Freddi a position as a butler with her cousin, Jack, in Canada. Jack needs help with both organization and manners, and a butler could conceivably provide both.

Seems that Jack and Simon are in competition to take over the family business when their Uncle Avery retires. In addition, Jack wants Avery to finance the development of his latest invention, a new process for bonding metals. Avery is reluctant to give Jack his support in either because Jack is uncouth, isn’t married and got into some trouble as a youth - the usual criteria savvy businessmen use when assessing the potential of lucrative new ventures or choosing their successors.

I was further terrified to learn that Freddi has no actual buttling experience but believes she can “wing it” because of her upper-crust background, and that Jack, who was not expecting and does not welcome the idea of a female butler, thinks he cannot fire her but must make her life as difficult as possible so she’ll quit and go home. Presumably he thinks their contract is binding on him - but not on her? Just so you know, the story has many such unanswered questions.

Fortunately for all of us, the author actually overcomes these early hurdles. Freddi handles each “impossible” task with aplomb, earning my admiration and proving to be an excellent butler. Jack, on the other hand, is much more interested in getting her into a short skirt and high heels.

While likable enough, Jack was, for me, one of the story’s biggest weaknesses. When the book opens, he’s waiting for a leggy blonde “babe” from an “agency” with whom he expects to “remedy the sexual famine of the last while.” It’s an unpromising beginning, and his mind pretty much stays in his pants for the rest of the story. Am I really going to trust the emotions of our heroine with a guy who’s hiring sex partners?

My misgivings are only reinforced when I realize that all of Jack’s growing attraction to Freddi is expressed in physical terms. And, while her job was to give him some social graces, the author pretty much skips over all that. Freddi buys him some new clothes, shows him which spoon is for soup, and several weeks later, voilá, his manners are “impeccable.” Why set that up as the premise and then virtually ignore it?

Freddi is a bit more multi-dimensional, but I still had the sense of an author moving a character around on a chessboard rather than a real person driven to act by their own individual needs. There are lots of humorous moments, but they seem to be there purely for the entertainment value. It’s great to make the reader smile, but I also want those moments to tell me more, to add up to a unique person.

In fact, although I was often amused, I never got emotionally involved with the characters because I never felt they were emotionally involved with each other. They generate some sexual heat but without any underlying romantic tension. And that’s why I read romance - not for the sexual hit (which is comparatively tame in a category, anyway) but for the emotional one. If that’s missing, if the characters don’t connect on a deeper level, then I don’t believe in their romance on any level.

Ultimately my recommendation on this book must be this: if you’re in the mood for meringue, this book is a pleasant confection that won’t leave a bad taste in your mouth. If you prefer something a little more substantial, however, it doesn’t offer much to chew on.

­--Judi McKee


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