The Reluctant Tutor by Paula Hampton
(Harlequin, $4.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-29134-5
****
The only thing I don't like about this book is its deceptively bland cover, but the author can hardly be held accountable for that. A glance at the cover art, which consists of a windmill, a prairie, and grazing horses, brings to mind images of the Midwest...boring images of the Midwest at that. Not so. The Reluctant Tutor is a fun romance taking place amongst the hustle and bustle of New York City in 1899.

Kate Delaney has long dreamed of becoming an architect, but she's been met with rejection and ridicule at every turn because of her gender. Finally, however, Kate's dream comes true as she is granted an apprenticeship in New York City. She makes a deal with her grandfather so he'll allow her to go, promising that if she cannot become financially independent within a year's time, she will return home and marry a man of his choosing.

Confident in her plan and in her skills, Kate sets off for New York City only to discover that the man who had agreed to instruct her has died. Worse yet, the man's son (who has taken over the business) is openly hostile toward her and has no desire whatsoever to uphold the agreement she made with his now deceased father. Kate eventually gets him to relent by striking a bargain with him: if she chooses to leave before the year is up, he will not have to refund her money, but if she chooses to stay, it is his duty to instruct her.

Gabe Murray is confident he can make Kate quit before the year is out, so he makes a wager at the local bar with his chief rival Lloyd Peyton, the man who stole his fiancée out from under him a year ago and the same man whose architectural firm is his primary competition for winning the chance to design the new public library downtown. If Kate leaves, Lloyd is not allowed to submit his plans to the city. If she stays, Gabe is not allowed to do so.

Gabe accepts the challenge from Lloyd, refusing to listen to his conscience in the doing. But problems soon arise and his guilt soon takes hold, for Gabe genuinely likes Kate. More disastrous for his wager yet, he's beginning to fall in love with her. When push comes to shove, Gabe will be forced to choose between gaining the hand of the woman he loves or seeking revenge against his sworn enemy.

One of the things I really liked about this book is the fact that the hero's conscience comes into play very early on. The reader isn't forced to endure all manner of mean, cruel acts toward the heroine before the hero finally relents and treats her decently. What you get instead is a romantic tale about two people at odds coming together, learning to like and respect one another, and eventually falling in love.

There is also a certain amount of suspense in The Reluctant Tutor due to the fact that, for reasons unfolded in the book, you not only want Gabe to win Kate's heart, but you also want him to win the wager against Lloyd. Gabe and Lloyd's animosity towards each other stems from reasons far deeper than a stolen fiancée, and the more you learn, the more you want Gabe to win. I won't spoil the plot by telling you whether or not Gabe wins, but I will say the situation is resolved in a manner I hadn't been expecting.

There really isn't much to offer in terms of criticism. The romance is solid and the plot unfolds at a decent pace. The Reluctant Tutor makes for an enjoyable read and proves to be a solid debut for Paula Hampton.

--Tina Engler


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