Against His Will by Trish Jensen
(Love Spell, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-505-52377-9
****
Leisure/Love Spell may be on to something with their "Time of Your Life" line of lighthearted contemporary romances. As long as you aren't looking for brilliant writing and deep meaning, you will find some entertaining reads. Against His Will is the best of the line that I've encountered so far.

FBI Agent (okay, I know we're all sick and tired of FBI agents, but hang in there) Jake Donnelly is less than thrilled to find out that his beloved Aunt Sophie has left her entire estate to her pet bulldog, Kendee's King of Stanton (otherwise known as "Muffin"). As Muffin's designated guardian, Jake is entitled to access Aunt Sophie's former assets, including the lakeside cabin that he covets. So if Jake can learn to live with a lazy, ugly dog, he could benefit from this arrangement.

However, there's another minor stipulation of the will. Jake and Muffin must spend two weeks together at the Happy Hounds dog spa, owned and operated by psychologist LeAnne Crosby. Dr. Crosby will inherit Aunt Sophie's estate if Jake fails to fulfill the will's requirements. Jake reluctantly agrees, planning to spend the two weeks investigating this woman who has the nerve to call herself a dog psychologist while she defrauds hundreds of gullible people out of their money. Then Jake gets one good look at the luscious LeAnne and decides that the two weeks might not be a total waste of time. And the more he gets to know the good doctor, the more he realizes that she is on the level -- she really does care about her canine clients, and the therapy she offers actually does make a difference.

Jake is thrilled to discover that LeAnne is more than a little interested in him as well. He's well on his way to landing where he wants to be -- in her bed -- but then his job, and real life, intrude. All hell breaks loose, as Jake and LeAnne wind up on the run, pursued by an extremely lame thug who goes by the unfortunate nickname of "Bunny." It's a bumpy road towards a happy ending for Jake, LeAnne, and Muffin.

The first thing that grabbed me about Against His Will was its humor. The initial scenes between Jake and Muffin are particularly amusing as Jensen describes Muffin's doggie responses to Jake's attempts to win him over by brute force and bribery. I actually laughed out loud as Jake speculated what would happen if Muffin and his ladylove Dolly ever procreated (hint: what do you get when you cross a bulldog and a shih tzu?)

While I was laughing, I noticed that the novel even featured a small bit of character development -- not enough to weigh it down, but enough to make Jake and LeAnne more interesting. Jake was raised by an abusive father, but the time he spent with Aunt Sophie helped him move beyond his anger and low self-esteem. LeAnne had a loving family, but her ex-husband's paranoid jealousy left her unwilling to give up her independence, even when she meets a man as adorable as Jake.

Fortunately, there are minimal Big Misunderstandings. The focus is on two appealing people who are attracted to each other and are delighted to find that they like each other too. The first half of the novel is best; when the FBI subplot kicks into high gear the story lags a bit and strains the limits of credibility. The inept crooks (is this a new trend? Susan Andersen's Baby Don't Go featured similar cartoonish villains) are too ludicrous to worry about and their scenes only take up unnecessary space.

One of the unexpectedly rewarding aspects of Against His Will is the developing relationship between Jake and Muffin. They start out as wary antagonists, and wind up as best buds who trust and respect each other. Jake helps Muffin recover from his depression over Aunt Sophie's death, and Muffin helps tough guy Jake get in touch with his nurturing side. It's almost like getting two love stories in one (don't ask me which one I was more involved in -- it's a toss-up).

I don't know anything about Trish Jensen, but I'd certainly look for her next novel. She's got a great comic touch and an ear for dialogue. For once, believe the packaging - I just about did have the Time of My Life reading Against His Will.

--Susan Scribner


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