The Heartbreaker by Nicole Jordan
(Avon, $5.99, NC-17) ISBN 0-380-78561-7
****
Do you like marriage of convenience stories? Do you like really tortured heroes? Do you like love scenes with lots of attention to detail? Then you'll like The Heart Breaker.

Heather Ashford is in dire straits. Though she's the only daughter of a fairly wealthy St. Louis family, her father has gambled away her late mother's inheritance, then died, leaving Heather with the burden of his considerable debts. The rather slimy owner of the bank, Evan Randolph, is holding her accountable for those debts. Of course, he has an alternate plan. If she'll agree to marry him, he'll forgive the debts.

It's not a completely outrageous suggestion. Marrying Evan would mean security for Heather for the rest of her life as a socialite wife. But Heather wants more. Oh, she's already abandoned her romantic dreams of marrying for love, but she still craves a life with some purpose, rather than a life spent hosting society parties. So when a close friend arranges a proposal from a cattle rancher in Colorado, Heather decides to accept.

Sloan McCord, the aforementioned cattle rancher, doesn't want a wife, but he needs one. His first wife, a gentle Cheyenne woman, had been murdered over a year before, a victim of the bloody range wars that had raged in Colorado for years. Drowning in sorrow and guilt, Sloan has vowed never to love again. He couldn't betray his wife's memory that way, and besides, he couldn't stand the pain if he loved and lost again.

But he has a daughter who needs a mother, and so he needs a wife. There are other reasons for marrying again he plans to run for the Senate, so a wife would be a good asset in his campaign, and he's losing his housekeeper, so a wife would come in handy for household chores. But it's his overriding love and concern for his daughter that finally make him agree to the arrangement.

And there you have it. There's nothing particularly original about the plot, and indeed, nothing particularly original about the characters. Sloan is tough, hard, and cold as ice. Heather is brave, smart, and warm as sunshine. Her job: to find a place in Sloan's life and heart. His job: to resist.

This theme their relationship is the focus of the book, just as it should be. There are a few external conflicts and obstacles thrown in along the way, but what Jordan is really showing us is what we want to see how the central characters are behaving, feeling, and reacting. I'll admit, things do drag a bit in the middle as the major conflict repeats itself again and again, but overall, the book is entertaining.

And the characters are adequately compelling. Sloan seems almost unforgivably cold at times, but Jordan does a nice job of redeeming him, and his wounded heart and overwhelming sense of guilt go a long way to justifying his behavior. Heather is a bit of a wuss in the first half of the book she stammers and backs away from Sloan a lot, she's so overcome by trembling lust that she gives in to his unreasonable demands, and she seems to fall for him too quickly, too inexplicably. I couldn't understand what she saw in the guy, since he was being such a jerk. But she toughens up after a while, and once she starts standing up for herself, I warmed to her.

And did I mention there are these love scenes? "Scorching" isn't a particularly original description, but it fits. Or perhaps "Heavens to Betsy, I need a fan." Of course, you'll need the ability to overlook some astoundingly purple phrases like "instrument of pleasure" (you know what I'm talking about) and the hilarious "stiffened teats." But I managed it, and the result was quite... er, effective.

And the book isn't predictable. There are some interesting surprises along the way, especially those involving "bad guy" Evan Randolph. Furthermore, although The Heart Breaker is clearly a spin-off of one of Jordan's earlier books, which I have not read, it stands on its own quite firmly.

So, my overall opinion is that The Heart Breaker is a good, solid romance. There were some elements that weren't to my taste Jordan's somewhat flowery writing style, for one but the fact that I enjoyed the book anyway is a credit to her talent. And, oh yeah, did I mention there are these love scenes?

-- Ellen Hestand


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