The American Earl by Kathryn Jensen
(Silh. Desire #1347, $3.99, PG) ISBN 0-373-76347-6
Lord Matthew Smythe needs a hostess and he needs her now. He runs an international gourmet food business and closes deals at cozy little receptions where he impresses clients with his upscale goodies. Matthew is so driven he forgot that the latest hostess quit that morning. Now he's got an important party in less than two hours and no food, no bar and no comfortable chairs. What's a tycoon to do?

Enter Abigail Benton. Abby is a spunky young career gal who "represents the Cup and Saucer coffee and pastry shop" and she's saving every penny to open her own gourmet food store someday. She's early for an appointment in the building and would be happy to help. Abby is shown to an "immense temperature controlled vault" and just 40 minutes later has produced a sophisticated feast that artfully blends "sweet and salty, pungently spiced and delightfully mild foods - since she didn't know the tastes of the guests." There's also chilled spring water, hot water for herb teas, a selection of wines and ingredients for cocktails. We're not told what she did about the chairs.

This is the kind of trivia that unfortunately substitutes for both plot and character development.

As you might expect, Matt (he's an English earl but he doesn't really like to talk about it) persuades Abby to come work for him. In return for organizing his parties in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Bermuda, he will pay her so much money that Abby figures she'll be able to open her store in just three years. Plus, rubbing elbows with Matt's suppliers, she'll get all the experience she needs to run her own business. Must be something in those herbs besides tea.

Did I mention that she also has to pretend they're involved so he doesn't have to fend off all those tedious passes from the clients' wives and girlfriends? But Abby and Matt are not going to sleep together. No way.

A couple of pages after that, Lord Smythe has his tongue on her breast.

There are a few other clichés. Matt was abandoned - physically by his mother and emotionally by his father - at the age of eight, so he doesn't trust anybody. Abby got left at the altar by a guy who couldn't understand why she wanted to wait until after they were married. After declining to take her virginity because he doesn't want the responsibility, Matt then decides that, actually, the gentlemanly thing would be to take her to Bermuda and do her the favor of giving her what she wants. I could hardly wait.

There are a few hilarious excesses. Abby is so determinedly virginal that after Matt brings her pleasure of unimaginable intensity while keeping her virtue intact, Abby wonders: "What is that called?" Wow, she has been isolated. Not so isolated that she doesn't think she should return the favor, however. So, gearing up for it, she "straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin, and faced him with an adorably solemn expression." Can you feel the heat?

Apparently he doesn't get out much either, because she's the most intriguing woman he's met in a long time, and he needs her like he's never needed anyone ever before.

But we never know why. For it to be romantic, we need to see the things that make these characters completely different from anyone else on the planet and completely fascinating to each other. You know what I mean - the way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea. I'm sure we're supposed to believe that they find each other irresistible, that they are so driven that they can't help themselves, but I don't want to make that leap of faith alone. I want to experience it with them and I never got the chance - it was all just sort of mechanical.

Wondering why Abby didn't jump at his offer to upgrade from hostess to mistress, Matt says: "I just hoped she'd know she was special. Apparently that's not enough." It certainly wasn't enough for me.

--Judi McKee

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