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The Soft Touch by Betina Krahn
(Bantam, $6.50, PG) ISBN 0-553-57618-6
Pig-headed men and soft-hearted women are never as happy as when they are fighting. Take the hero and heroine of The Soft Touch, Betina Krahn's latest. Barton McQuaid's nickname is "Bear," and it suits him perfectly. The Montana railroad man is big, strong, and thick as a plank. He has only one thing on his mind when he first meets legendary Baltimore benefactress Diamond Wingate – obtaining a loan to build his railroad. Diamond's name, as well, is quite fitting – she's as rich as Midas and determined to share her largess with the world. The famed "soft touch" can barely escape her home without being accosted – the poor want food, the lazy want a hand out, and every crazy inventor in the country wants a bankroll.

Bear has always prided himself on doing everything his own way, but when the politics of the railroad business stymie his attempts to secure funding, he'll do just about anything to keep his dream alive. He meets Diamond quite accidentally when her rambunctious young cousin starts wrecking havoc in an exclusive men's shop. The Bear is quite put out. He's even more chagrined when he discovers that the beautiful woman who tries to pay off his anger is the very woman whose goodwill (not to mention money) is so essential to his success. For Diamond's part, she doesn't know what to make of the brooding mountain of a man sitting with her at an elegant dinner party.

Having lived a rather sheltered life despite her riches, Diamond is intrigued by her reaction to Bear, particularly when he comes to call and starts discovering her secrets. Somehow Diamond has managed to find herself betrothed to not one, but three, different men! Each swear devotion, but Diamond instinctually knows it is her fortune the three really love.

In only a matter of days, Bear becomes deeply involved in the intricacies of Diamond's life, his anxiety about securing a loan taking a back seat to the trials and tribulations of life with Baltimore's "Soft Touch." Things finally come to a head when Diamond is forced to confront her three "fiancés" and Bear is there to step to her rescue.

Of course there is a wedding, and revelations regarding Bear's initial interest in Diamond – the big misunderstanding which, thankfully, in addressed rather succinctly. More of an issue is Bear's refusal to accept Diamond as an equal partner in their new life. During an impromptu "honeymoon" at Bear's Montana railhead, Diamond reveals herself to be an ingenious team player – ready and willing to put her comfort aside to work towards the fulfillment of Bear's dream. But despite his unacknowledged love for his wife, his pride refuses to let him accept anything from her. The money is a loan. The railroad is his. End of discussion. Only near calamity will move this mountain man.

Despite some of the more cliched elements, and a rather ridiculous subplot (the three fiancés) The Soft Touch is still an entertaining read with a very likeable hero and heroine. Despite their collective baggage (not to mention those silly first names) you can't help but get swept up in the romance between Diamond and Bear. The chemistry between the high society girl and the rough-around-the-edges railroader is vastly readable.

--Ann McGuire

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