Night Whispers by Judith McNaught
(Pocket, $24.00, PG-13) ISBN 0-671-00083-3
****
Let me begin by saying that I owe it all to Judith McNaught. You see, about five years ago I was browsing through the book racks at my local drug store, looking for a mystery that might appeal to me. There was this book called Until You. For reasons still unknown, I picked it up, went home, and read it in one sitting. And I was hooked. But neophyte that I was, I didn't know much about the romance genre. So when I saw another McNaught in the bookstore, I grabbed it and assumed it was a historical. It was Perfect, my first contemporary romance. And I was hooked.

Thus, my loyalties to Ms. McNaught run deep.

I know that many readers were somewhat disappointed with Remember When, feeling that it didn't quite measure up to the author's earlier works. These folks might feel the same about McNaught's new release. But I think this response would be a bit unfair. As far as I'm concerned, Perfect is the perfect contemporary romance and Paradise isn't far behind. We readers can't expect any author to produce a classic every time out. And, in my opinion, a good but not great McNaught is better than most other contemporary romances published.

Night Whispers has many similarities to McNaught's earlier books. (It even has a character from Perfect. See if it takes you as long to recognize who this is as it did me.) A young woman meets a man who is the epitome of a romance hero. They fall in love. The man believes that the woman has betrayed him. He gets understandably angry and breaks off the relationship. But others force him to see the truth about her feelings and the reasons for her actions. And we have our happily ever after.

But even though Night Whispers is classic McNaught in plotting, the characters, both main and secondary, are so compelling and so well drawn, that the book is well worth reading.

Sloan Reynolds is a police officer in a small Florida city. Her small stature and blond good looks mask a brave and competent woman who is highly respected by her peers (although not by her chauvinistic police chief). She has a good life at thirty but hopes that sometime soon she will meet a nice young man who will be the caring and reliable husband and father of her dreams. Her comfortable existence is shaken when she receives a phone call from her father, a man she has never seen.

Socialite Carter Reynolds had married Sloan's beautiful but innocent mother, given her two daughters, then abandoned her without a backward look when his rich parents sought a reconciliation. He had taken his older daughter Paris with him and left behind the infant Sloan. Sloan and her kind-hearted mother had struggled to make ends meet, with the daughter coming to play the role of responsible adult very young. Now, out of the blue, Carter suggests that he wants to get to know his younger daughter and invites her to spend some time at his Palm Beach estate. Sloan haughtily rejects his offer.

But, unbeknownst to Sloan, an FBI agent Paul Richardson has other plans. He wants Sloan to visit her father with him in tow. He has reason to suspect that Carter Reynolds is involved in money laundering for the drug lords and he wants access to his estate. Sloan, as an officer of the law, agrees to Richardson's plan, albeit reluctantly.

The visit proves most interesting. Sloan discovers a father who is very much a selfish narcissist as she believed. She also gets to know and like her sister, a woman who has tried to live up to the Reynolds family expectation, but who lacks Sloan's strength of character to stand up to her bullying father. She also meets the family matriarch, her 91 year old great-grandmother, who is the real moving force behind the invitation. And then there is Noah Maitland.

Noah is a Reynolds' business associate and neighbor in Palm Beach. A brilliant and successful businessman, Noah has a reputation as a man who enjoys women but never loves them. He finds himself strangely attracted to the bright and lovely Sloan who is so different from the women he has always known. And the feelings are mutual. But Sloan is not happy to be falling in love with Noah. She wants marriage and children; he does not.

Richardson is delighted at the growing attraction between Sloan and Noah, because Maitland is under suspicion as an associate of Carter Reynolds. He wonders if he might catch two birds with his little masquerade.

McNaught does a fine job of casting suspicion on Noah. Is he indeed less reputable than he seems? And what will happen if he discovers that the woman he has reluctantly fallen for is in fact a policewoman and a spy?

Night Whispers also includes a well drawn cast of secondary characters add a rich texture to the story. And she throws in a murder just to keep the pot boiling.

If I have any complaint with the book, it is that the end seems hurried. What I so liked about Paradise and Perfect were the well done and well integrated secondary plots and romances. McNaught includes similar material in Night Whispers, but it is not as well developed. I am struck by the fact that Perfect is 508 pages, while Night Whispers is only 364. I wonder. Was the author unable to develop fully all the elements of her plot because she was facing a deadline? Or is the richer story she could have told a victim of the current conviction in the publishing industry that romance readers won't read big books?

I rarely wish that the books I read were longer, but I do wish Night Whispers was. Still, I recommend this book to all fans of contemporary romance and Judith McNaught. She remains one of the best in the business.

--Jean Mason


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