Barely Mistaken by Jennifer LaBrecque
(Harl. Tempt. #886, $3.99, R) ISBN 0-373-25986-7
Summer not hot enough for you? Pick up this book.

Trying to shed her family’s trashy reputation, Olivia Cooper has spent 29 years being conservative, tasteful and downright prudish. In high school, bad boy Luke Rutledge curled her toes with a kiss but she ran from him in panic, afraid he thought she was as trampy as her mother and sister.

Now the town librarian and a dedicated literacy advocate, Olivia is dating Luke’s brother, Adam, a stuffed shirt who appears to be the soul of propriety and the man who can finally give Olivia the unassailable respectability she craves. If he’s uninspired in the romance department, maybe that’s just the price of security.

Then, one night at a masked costume party, feeling uncharacteristically provocative thanks to an elegant period costume and the merry widow she’s wearing under it, Olivia discovers a side of Adam she didn’t know existed. Apparently inspired by his dashing pirate’s disguise, Adam sweeps Olivia off her feet and into a night of wild sex.

But the reader knows something Olivia doesn’t. The guy she in bed with isn’t Adam; it’s Luke. Back in town to oversee building of the library’s new wing, Luke overheard Adam admit that he’s pretending interest in Olivia to further a lucrative business scheme. When a last-minute development prevented Adam from attending the party, Luke appropriated the pirate costume, lured by the chance to find out what Adam is up to - and see Olivia again.

Olivia discovers her mistake the next morning when, while she’s still in bed with Luke, Adam leaves a message on her answering machine. It’s not quite a “menage a trois” as the book’s cover shrieks in red Italics, but it’s a triangle for sure and Ms. LaBrecque makes the most of it.

She starts by getting the “wrong bed” scenario off to a believable start, partly through the usual kind of machinations (they’re masked and in disguise, she can’t see a thing without her glasses). Then by using the costume party to create an extravagant seduction fantasy. Olivia may be prudish, but the “Lady Olivia” who has attracted this dashing pirate’s notice is a seductress. And, naturally, when you’re with a daring buccaneer, why, anything might happen.

It had a lush, dramatic tone more common to historical novels and which would sound out of place in most contemporaries. It suited the action beautifully here. Unfortunately, the very end of the fantasy sort of shot over the top, which marred the afterglow slightly.

After the fateful telephone message, the language shifts and the book takes on an emphatically modern (and quite earthy) tone. The rest of the story circles around the conflict between Olivia’s lifelong craving for respectability and the powerful physical and emotional allure of Luke, who prefers to take the road less traveled - on his Harley.

Together and (ahem) yes, even apart (you did notice the “R” rating, right?), Olivia and Luke’s relationship is flammable. It may have started with a romantic illusion but it develops with power and speed; these two simply cannot keep their hands off each other. It’s even sexier because the book never forgets it’s a love story.

Olivia struggles with the choices she has to make, but she’s honest and self-aware enough that the struggle doesn’t make her look shallow. In addition, she throws herself into her encounters with Luke. He doesn’t so much teach her about sensuality as show her where to find it, and once the door opens she’s like a kid in a candy store.

Luke is a great hero - confident, strong, determined, successful, and brimming with romantic notions. From a privileged background, he’s gone his own way all his life and made a success of himself without any help from his wealthy family. Unfortunately, this made Luke’s “I’m not good enough for her” cavils ring false. I’m willing to believe he has insecurities, but a lack of confidence really didn’t seem like it’d be one of them. It was one of the book’s few flaws - and it didn’t stop me from appreciating Luke’s many manly virtues.

So put lots of ice in your travel mug and enjoy the ride.

--Judi McKee

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