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The Last Southern Belle
by Charlotte Hughes
(Loveswept 916, $3.50, PG) ISBN 0-553-44594-4
****
The Last Southern Belle is the last in another area, too. With the release of these last four books, Loveswept is calling it quits. Nine hundred and seventeen books were published during a fifteen-year period. I for one will miss this line that introduced us to authors such as Deborah Smith, Janet Evanovich, Kay Hooper, Iris Johansen and others too numerous to list. Not too shabby, folks.

For the first few pages I was really afraid that the last Loveswept I would ever read was going to be a dud. I was too hasty in my assessment and by the time I had finished The Last Southern Belle, I knew I'd read a book that was a final fitting tribute for Loveswept.

The plot begins with a scenario we've all read before. Nothing new. A bride decides at the last minute that she doesn't want to marry Daddy's hand-picked man, so she escapes. In our heroine's case, Daddy's hand-picked man wants Annie Hartford for Daddy's wealth. In keeping with that wealth, Annie steals the family's limo and leaves Atlanta in a hurry. Several paragraphs later she stops in Pinckney, a small Georgia town, with the limo dead and Annie still wearing her ten thousand dollar gown.

Sam Ballard, businessman extraordinaire, leaves his restaurant to see what all the commotion is about. Spotting a lovely young woman getting out of the limo in all her wedding finery, he is immediately reminded of how his fiancée left him high and dry years before. At this point I wondered if we'd be subjected to pages and pages of "I've been dun wrong and I ain't ever getting serious again. All wemmen are *itches." Although that's Sam first reaction and his hostility shows, his reaction is short-lived. When he begins to notice the real Annie, the Annie who is a good waitress, who is enrolling at the jr. college in town, who isn't flighty and doesn't flaunt her wealth, this story takes off and delivers a fine read.

The plot is really that boy meets girl and they fall in love. Sure, we keep waiting for Daddy or money-grubbing fiancé to appear, but that doesn't overshadow the fun. This resolution does take an unexpected, surprising turn, but in the end true love triumphs. Charlotte Hughes has given us some of the most delightful secondary characters, in addition to appealing leads. There's Darla, the heart of gold waitress whose short skirts sure do bring in the tips. Flo and Patricia, cooks in Sam's cafe, are always quitting when Sam hurts Annie's feelings.

The Pinckney Social Club, comprised of older town women, embraces Annie. One lends her a bicycle, one rents her a room and takes her on one of the story's endearing episodes, shopping in a gently-used clothing store. I love that euphemism. When Lillian, one of Annie's new friends, confides that she buys her clothes here, too, but always wears them on out of town trips, I had to shake my head in amusement.

The Last Southern Belle radiates small town goodness and salt of the earth people. When I described Sam earlier as an extraordinary businessman, I wasn't kidding. He's the town's lawyer, which is why the Pinckney Social Club loves him, He's gotten them all good settlements when their husbands left them for trophy wives. He owns the local restaurant, plus a used-car dealership which is right across from the restaurant, so he can run across the street to greet potential buyers. He also owns a couple of convenience stores and a car wash . . . a Southern entrepreneur.

What kept me reading was the lively dialog. Authors who write with sparking wit are my favorite kinds. Here are some examples of what I read which made my husband look up from his reading in puzzlement. He doesn't have much occasion to laugh as he reads his nonfiction tomes. In one scene, Annie has fallen off her bicycle and is pretty banged up. When Sam carries her to her front door, she makes the obligatory female disclaimer.

But I'm too heavy," she said as he carried her up the stairs with an ease which surprised her.
"Damn right you are. What do you weigh, about one-eighty?"

Later in the same scene Sam is inspecting for cuts and bruises. Her sprained ankle is only one of the many injuries. As he inspects her ankle, he advises,

"Now try to be brave. Remember, you'll probably bear children one day. You might as well get used to dealing with pain. . . . Now, try taking a few deep breaths to keep your mind off it."

"I don't believe this. I've got a sprained ankle, and you're teaching me Lamaze techniques."

There were those rare discordant notes when Sam vacillates about Annie, knowing that she's extremely wealthy. But Annie is not portrayed as an airhead or one of the disdainful rich. She's as down home, despite her upbringing, as the rest of Pinckney, Georgia.

The Last Southern Belle is one of the 'Last' Loveswepts. Treat yourself before it's too late.

--Linda Mowery


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