Gift- Wrapped Dad by Muriel Jensen
(Harl. American #756, $3.99, G) ISBN 0-373-16756-3
Muriel Jensen's Gift-Wrapped Dad is the last of four books Harlequin American Romance is offering this holiday season linked by the theme, Christmas is For Kids. If you enjoy stories which involve the rituals and traditions of Christmas, with a focus on the religious basis of the holiday rather than more commercial aspects, this is the book for you.

There is a small cast of characters, introduced immediately, rather like a play, a credible romance between the new minister in town and a young widow, and an entertaining group of secondary characters, including a German shepherd with a tendency to slobber and to love anyone handing out cookies.

Innkeeper Maribeth Cummings is a single mother, who insists that she is "married," though her husband, Rich, died two years before. Her legacy from Rich is a restored Victorian home which she has converted into a Bed and Breakfast in Beacon Bluff on the Oregon coast. Joe Carpenter is a former, whiz-kid auto designer, turned minister. While waiting for his predecessor to enjoy a last family Christmas in the parsonage of the Beacon Bluff Ecumenical Church, Joe has to scramble for a place to stay when the local motel loses his reservation.

This is not exactly a "no room at the Inn" Christmas story. After some fast talking Joe convinces Maribeth to find him space. He is shown a room in the inn's attic, which Maribeth's little girl, Janie, calls the emergency room. Joe and his dog, Zeke, displace Maribeth's sewing machine and some partially sewn costumes for a play in which Janie and other local children will perform on Christmas Eve.

All is well until Maribeth discovers she has just extended her hospitality to a minister. Since her husband's death Maribeth is angry at God and feels alienated from all things religious. She struggles to keep her feelings from affecting her daughter's enjoyment of the Christmas season. Helping her accept the past while moving on in a more healthy present is a full-time job for Joe.

Successful but unfulfilled in his former job, Joe is a caring person with very creative approaches to dealing with people of all ages. This is the second romantic novel I have read this year in which a minister is the romantic hero. The first did not work, because the author did not imbue the hero with credible feelings. Jensen avoids that pitfall.

Although the story is light in accord with the season and the theme of this series, this is a full-fledged romance. The focus is on love in various forms but especially the love Maribeth needs to acknowledge for a man other than Rich. Joe falls in love with Maribeth on sight, and her rejection of him strains even his good nature.

Secondary characters include "the professors" three single men who met years ago and vowed, when they retired, to study lighthouses. Good-natured arguments about how their book should be written as well as friendly observations about the desirability of living alone or having a family make them a special addition to the ensemble cast. Also important are Carl and Cathy Shepherd, a couple hoping to find their runaway daughter.

For those of you who may have missed the prior three books in this Christmas is For Kids offering, they are Julie McBride's Smoochin' Santa, Cathy Gillen Thacker's Baby's First Xmas and Judy Christenberry's Cowboy Santa. Clearly centered on a particular holiday, the books involve Christmas traditions, religious and secular. I have read only the third and fourth books; each stands alone. Jensen's contribution has many more references to the religious aspects of the holiday than the third. With a minister in the lead, bringing Maribeth out of her dark world into a much healthier, emotional state, the focus seems very appropriate.

Muriel Jensen's note in this book indicates she enjoys the rituals of holiday preparation just before Christmas, a time when she escapes the deadlines and serious business of her writing career. Like the author, busy folks seeking an escape from deadlines and commitments will appreciate Gift- Wrapped Dad. This is a sweet treat, akin to all the mouthwatering treats innkeeper Maribeth Cummings prepares for her small circle of guests who become friends as they share their Christmas season.

--Sue Klock

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