Mountain Magic by Susan Hardy
(Zebra Bouquet #11, $3.99, PG) ISBN 0-8217-6315-6
The promo in the front of the September Zebra Bouquet books states that author Susan Hardy is a newcomer. If I hadn't read that I would never have known that she wasn't a successful, prolific author. While she may be new, Susan Hardy's writing is as skillful, as polished as anybody who's being published. I'm still amazed.

Whiz kid investment banker Will Fletcher is on a much needed vacation from the fast pace of New York. He's chosen a remote area of North Carolina for peace and quiet. His plans for a restful vacation fly out the window when he meets Clementine Harper. He's smitten with this unaffected, guileless woman who's actually looking at him without seeing dollar signs.

Clem is far from smitten when she meets Will. She's just dropped a good sized sapphire in a stream and is desperately trying to find it. As a lapidary and jewelry artist, she needs all the stones and good luck she can find. The taxes are due, and not enough tourists are buying her jewelry. It was interesting to learn North Carolina has an abundance of sapphires, much as Arkansas has diamonds.

To supplement her income, she takes Will on a guided camping trip. His exuberance in the woods is natural. He knows that he's at home in the city and bows to Clem's expertise in the forest. At one point Clem teases him about his lack of savvy in the woods. "What did you get your boy scout merit badges in? World Economics? Finance?"

Their idyllic trip is interrupted by Miss New York Snob, an employee of Clem's. She's brought word about an important buyout in the works. Judith is the stereotype of the sophisticate who's helpless, hopeless and clueless in the woods. She likens Clem and Will to Tammy and the Investment banker.

Will desperately wants to convince Clem to come to New York with him. She laughs at his first idea. No, she doesn't want a showing of her jewelry at an art gallery. Will circumvents her objections when he buys all of her jewelry as he leaves for New York. When Clem discovers that her inventory is gone, she's so mad at him that she makes an immediate decision to go to New York.

The Country Mouse/City Mouse theme is effective, as is the Pygmalion/Galatea theme on which Lerner and Loew based My Fair Lady. Will is out of his element in the country, but he's not stupid and not a buffoon. He relies on Clem's competence. We're given that same kind of fair treatment when Clem is in New York. She's unaware of many things, but not ignorant. She's also aware of her limitations and doesn't apologize, but just adapts. However, she can't shake her longing for North Carolina.

In a charming scene, Will orders a wonderful wine, one which has the sommelier beaming in approval. Clem won't pretend that she likes it, not even for Will. To her, all wine tastes like vinegar. Will is not deterred, but just changes tactics. He's delighted when champagne seems to be her magic elixir.

Susan Hardy won me over. If her complex characters, natural dialog and smooth prose hadn't done the job, her depiction of Will would have. He realizes that he isn't necessarily becoming burnt out in his job, but instead has been yearning for something that he hasn't been able to name. Now it had a name and an image: Clem.

My favorite kind of hero is the one who recognizes his other half early in the book and spends his time concentrating on winning his lady love. Will worries, plans and keeps holding onto the hope that he can make Clem happy. He's a prince.

I also liked how Clem wasn't dismayed or made to seem gauche by her lack of sophistication. She's portrayed honestly. Yes, she finds parts of New York magical, but they can't compete with the natural North Carolina beauty.

My only quibble, and I wonder when I turned so cranky, is that there's almost too many good things happening to these people. The saccharine feeling was fleeting, but it was there.

Surely a book this complete, this right, isn't a fluke, a one-time anomaly. Susan Hardy's second book is one that I'm waiting for, ready to buy. Do yourself a favor. Buy Mountain Magic and see if you're as amazed as I am with this talented debut author.

--Linda Mowery

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