The Runaway Heiress

Girls Night. by Stef Ann Holm
(Mira, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-55166-949-8
I have not read any of Stef Ann Holm’s historicals and her first venture into modern times didn’t make me want to rush out after them. It’s not a bad book, but I didn’t think it stood out from the run of the contemporary mill.

Jillene McDermott has been a widow for nearly two years. Her husband, David, sold a successful business and opened a coffee bar in a small island town - Blue Heron Beach, in Washington. Unbeknownst to Jillene, the coffee bar was not terribly successful and, following David’s death, Jillene and their daughters - Claire, now 12, and Faye, now 10 - were not well provided for. Jillene is struggling to make a go of the business, but she’s slowly having to sell off her possessions to keep everyone fed and clothed and she’s not sure how much longer she can last.

The one bright spot might just be Vince Tremonti. Raised on the island by his father, Al, who still lives there and owns the barbershop, Vince left to become a police officer in Seattle. He discovered a talent for writing while recovering from a gunshot wound and is now a highly successful true crime author. Although he sees his father regularly, this is the first time he’s been back to Blue Heron Beach in years. He seems quite nice, he’s certainly good looking, and it appears he’s attracted to a certain coffee bar owner.

Vince has returned to familiar territory - and the comfort of his father’s company - while he tries to figure out what to do about his latest book. He’s committed to finishing it but having a very difficult time coming to terms with the particularly abhorrent circumstances surrounding the killer whose story he’s telling. Happily, he’s able to push all that out of his mind when he’s with Jillene.

I quite liked Jillene as a character. She’s struggling to keep her family together while trying not to let her financial problems defeat her. She loved her husband and, while she has some anger that he left them in these circumstances, accepts that some of the blame is hers for allowing it to happen. She’s a loving mother, trying hard to see that her daughters aren’t punished for their parents’ mistakes and, if her reactions to Vince were occasionally a little irrational, she was frequently justified by circumstances.

I also liked the very charming secondary love story between Vince’s father, Al, and the woman he’s worshipped from afar for years. This was a man who paid close attention to everything about the woman he adored and so, when he finally found the courage to approach her, was ready to do her justice.

Vince, on the other hand, seldom managed to get his thoughts about Jillene above his waist or her neck. Yes, there are things about her he admires, but his thoughts about her are almost exclusively physical and, while I definitely think there should be physical heat between the male and female lead characters, I want to feel as though there’s something more to the relationship than lust.

He has a couple of really good moments, but for most of the book, Vince is uncommunicative and emotionally walled-off. When something is bothering him, he either jumps Jillene (getting amorous instead of talking to her) or he just walks away. Most women complain so bitterly about this behavior in real life that I’m astonished to find it passing for romance here.

Vince’s professional and personal dilemma is real and compelling. I thought that aspect of the book was decently handled, but he refused to talk to Jillene about it or offer any kind of explanation for the cruel behavior it evoked (see “walks away” above). As a result, I found it difficult to believe he’d turn into Mr. Open once this particular problem was solved so they could live happily ever after.

In the final analysis, I have to say there’s enough good stuff here that I didn’t feel I wasted my time reading it. But it wasn’t compelling enough to make me feel as though I’d want to read this book again, or even remember it for long.

--Judi McKee

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