Captain Jack's Woman by Stephanie Laurens
(Avon, $5.99, R) ISBN 0380-79455-1
I have a feeling that romance readers will either like or dislike Captain Jack's Woman. One thing I have to say about this tale, it's anything but bland. This book contains some of the hottest sex scenes I've read this year. Once they get started, Captain Jack and his woman are the Energizer Bunnies of love: they just keep going and going and going. Unfortunately, the rest of the story isn't nearly as entertaining as the sex scenes.

After spending years in London resisting her relatives attempts to marry her off, Kathryn "Kit" Cranmer, has returned to her beloved grandfather and his home in King's Lynn, located on the coast of England. During a midnight ride, Kit stumbles across a band of smugglers and helps them escape capture. Grateful for her help, and convinced that her breeches make her a man, the smugglers ask Kit to be their leader. After six years of being smothered by her aunts, Kit elects to follow her wild side and accepts the position.

Known to his band of smugglers as "Captain Jack," Jonathan, Lord Hendon, has resigned his military commission and returned to his estate near King's Lynn with a mission. And Jack's mission is to control the smuggling routes along the coast of England, thus ensuring that no French spies will be able to use these routes as a means of access to British soil. Jack also plans to use his connections and his band to smuggle British spies into France.

Although Jack has already taken over the largest, toughest band of smugglers in the area, he still needs Kit's smaller band to accomplish his mission. Jack finds Kit and convinces her that a merger between her band and his would be best for both groups.

Jack quickly sees through Kit's masculine disguise and determines, from her unusual coloring, that she must be one of his Cranmer neighbors -- although Kit leads him to believe she's illegitimate. As long as Jack needs Kit's assistance, he has no intention of allowing his physical attraction for Kit to get in the way of his mission. However, as soon as her help is no longer required, Jack plans to employ his much vaunted and formidable sexual expertise in making Kit his mistress.

Kit, on the other hand, does not see through Captain Jack's disguise; she just thinks Jack is gorgeous, and for the first time in her life she feels strongly attracted to a man. Since Kit has already decided she will not marry, she doesn't see any reason to hang onto her virtue. However, when Kit finds out that Jack is smuggling human cargo, she suspects that he may be smuggling French spies into England and she's torn between her duty and her desire for Jack.

Jack is supposed to be an alpha male's alpha male. He's a war hero and a born leader; he always has to be in control and he always has to win. Although Jack is thirty-five-years-old, he has never had a relationship with a woman outside of bed. A sexual dynamo, no woman has ever left Jack's bed "untried" and he can't imagine settling into "monogamous bliss with a woman who's only passably good-looking."

Fortunately, for the sake of the traditional romance requisite of a happily-ever-after ending, Kit is beautiful. While she was in London, men would fall at her feet fairly regularly. And when Jack doesn't appear to be interested, she's a bit piqued. Jack feels the same when Kit doesn't seem to regard him with sufficient interest. Although I know this was supposed to be the sexual tension part of the story, it didn't work for me. In fact, it seemed interminable. Kit and Jack were like strutting peacocks, each seeking the other's attention by teasing and flaunting their colorful plumage of physical assets.

Of course, it didn't help that the plot was full of absurdities and implausibilities. While I understand that the majority of romance readers, including myself, aren't reading romances for the healthy dose of reality, I do think that there is a limit to how far credulity can reasonably be stretched. Captain Jack's Woman exceeded my limit.

For example, the author asks us to accept that a gently-bred woman in 1811 would risk her reputation, her family's honor, not to mention her own life, to become the leader of a band of smugglers because of a "crazy impulse." And because she wants to help these nice, family-oriented smugglers -- not to be with confused with the more common, not-so-nice smugglers who slit people's throats regularly for fun and profit.

We are also asked to believe in the smuggler's ready willingness to accept both Kit and Jack as their respective leaders. Despite their aristocratic demeanor and the fact that they have both inherited the unusually distinctive and attractive coloring of their respective, prominent local families, the smugglers never seem to recognize that Kit and Jack are not exactly who they claim to be.

Actually, it's almost easier to believe that the smugglers wouldn't recognize Jack, than it is to believe that Kit never suspects he's anything more than a common smuggler. Also, given that there can't be more than a dozen aristocratic families in the area, it's more than strange -- even taking into account the thirteen-year age difference between Kit and Jack -- that the two have never laid eyes on each other, or had occasion to visit each other's estates and view the obligatory family portraits. During the months after Kit and Jack's return to King Lynn's society, the only social event they ever attend at the same time is -- surprise, surprise -- a masquerade.

Besides the absurd smuggler story line, the writing was, at times, a bit awkward. The author is constantly telling you what Kit and Jack are thinking. While this usually works well and is necessary in the romance scenes, it doesn't work well in the action scenes. Instead of letting the danger play out and then, if necessary, explaining why Kit and Jack did what they did, the author chose to write every single thought that was running through their respective minds. This produced a kind of slow motion effect and the natural feelings of suspense and excitement during the action scenes were lost entirely.

So why, after what is basically a negative review, do I think anyone will like this book? First, because the second part of the story focuses less on the lame smuggling story line and more on the relationship. Second, the sex scenes are very good and make up a large portion of the second part of the book. This story really earns its "R" rating.

In addition, Kit and Jack actually have some very nice, even insightful, moments: Kit trying to establish a relationship with Jack while not losing her sense of identity, Jack determined to tame Kit -- for her own good, of course -- yet realizing he, too, will have to change. But, for me, the good moments were too few. And other than simply accepting that masterful types like Jack must have someone to master, I could never understand Jack's determination to control Kit's wild side; it seemed totally at odds with the fact that her wild side is what attracted him to her in the first place.

My advice is to think twice before reading Captain Jack's Woman. Yes, there's lots of great sex, but you have to be willing to put up with a truly ridiculous story line. And, if you prefer romances where men and woman are equal partners in a relationship, Jack will not be the kind of hero you can appreciate -- outside of the bedroom.

--Judith Flavell

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