The Most Eligible...Daddy

Surprise! Surprise! By Tina Leonard
(Harl. American #829, $4.25, PG-13) 0-373-16829-2
Surprise! Surprise! is the launch novel for Harlequin's new "Maitland Maternity" series. This lackluster, forgettable story offers readers no reason to run to the stores for the next book.

Thirty-eight-year-old Maddie Winston has just given birth to twin boys at Maitland Maternity Clinic. The birth, for some medical reason that's never quite made clear, is newsworthy, so the press swarm around Maddie as she prepares to leave the clinic with her sons. What she doesn't count on is her estranged husband, Sam, showing up, demanding to learn what has happened during the nine months he has been in France.

What has happened is that Maddie went ahead and made a little withdrawal from Sam's sperm account at Maitland, even though she and Sam were separated and on the verge of divorce. Years of infertility had driven them apart, so Sam escaped when he figured out he couldn't give his wife the children she so desperately wanted. When Maddie's younger brother spills the beans to Sam about what's going on back in Texas, he returns home, determined to become a father to his children and a good husband to his wife.

But Maddie wants none of that. She just wants to be with her babies, even though she still loves Sam. To make matters worse, her parents and Sam's are living next door to her, and they're determined to bring the bitter couple together.

So where do I start? With how implausible the plot is? With the characters that either bicker about ridiculous conflicts or banter for pages on end about nothing? Secondary characters that are flat and uninteresting? The holes in the story that you could drive a Mack truck through?

It's never made clear why Sam's sperm is in deep freeze at the hospital. He's angry enough to draw up papers with his attorney and best friend to keep his wife from making another withdrawal. So, who is the sperm for if not his wife? Cloning? A time capsule? No, next time, Sam is determined to be there to "hit the target" or other such metaphor for virility.

This is a story filled with misunderstandings and prevarication, two plot devices that grate on my nerves like bongo drums at 2:00 a.m. From Maddie's decision to impregnate herself with Sam's genetic material without telling him, to her selling off her wedding band to pay for said services without telling him, I was ready to scream, "This isn't a romance; it's a sad story about a lousy marriage!"

I wish I could say the love scenes made the read worth it, but they didn't help. The euphemisms the author used were embarrassing (everything from the tired "feminine core" to the more creative "diamond-hard passion"). I will forgive a bit of purple prose, but not when I get the feeling the characters are jumping into bed because the author's outline reads, "Insert sex scene here."

Surprise! Surprise! has all the things that I dislike in romance fiction: unsympathetic main characters, nonexistent plot, no dramatic tension, and lousy love scenes. The only "surprise, surprise" for me is how this book managed to grab an editor's attention.

--Diana Burrell

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