Running for Cover by Lynn Montana
(Avon, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-06-074257-7
****
Lexie Chandler is not your usual Southern belle. She's a gemologist who's had to use both her gun and her martial art skills when quietly pursuing her own business tracking precious stones. She has been trying to complete her maternal grandfather's unfinished dream by adding the Heart of Burma, a magnificent blood-red ruby, to his collection. When she hears a mysterious member of the Asian underworld is offering it for sale, she immediately agrees to all conditions, including traveling to Thailand and hooking up with Cole Bannon, an American expatriate.

Lexie is instantly attracted to Cole and counts several things in his favor. He knew her brother in the army; he immediately charms her matchmaking mother; and he is an affectionate father to his motherless daughter. These reassurances do not completely outweigh other factors: she catches him lying to her over and over again; the Thai police ask her to spy on him, and despite his family side, he is said to have strong associations with criminal elements. So even though Lexie doesn't exactly fight her attraction or give up her dangerous quest, she knows she has to watch her back.

Adventure stories structured around the pursuit of a precious object can very quickly degenerate into a series of loosely related episodes. Running for Cover avoids this trap through its multifaceted characters and its very efficient use of Thai geography. Not only does Montana transport us to unfamiliar landscapes, she also relies on their variety to set the pace and draw different tones. Cole invites Lexie and her family to vacation in a laid-back seaside resort, where despite imminent danger the holiday ambiance helps the romance to grow. More importantly, seeing both Lexie and Cole interact with her family adds an unexpected dimension to their otherwise hardened, adrenaline-chasing lives. They then return to Bangkok, where the pulse-pounding bustle of urban life becomes the backdrop for shady negotiations and life-threatening encounters.

Once contact has been made with the owner of the ruby, the couple head north. Chiang Mai, the rose of the North, with its traditional gardens and luscious waterfalls, tourist markets and centuries-old temples, is the perfect locale for more romantic bonding and for fostering trust. The last quarter of the novel is set in the jungles of Myanmar, where once again Lexie and Cole face one hair-raising danger after another. Tigers, snakes, rebel armies, drug lords and government troops ratchet up the stakes. While these setbacks are predictable, the final showdown and the choices Lexie is forced to make gives her depths and complexities absent in most Lara Craft wannabes.

The story is told uniquely in Lexie's point of view and her voice, an amusing blend of chick lit attitude and hard-boiled gumption, is another plus to the novel, even if it means Cole remains more of a cardboard figure. The occasional glimpses of his backstory and his obvious affection for his young daughter nevertheless go some way to ensure he is more than another roguish charmer who has flirted with the dark side. Despite Lexie's continued doubts, I was pretty confident he was the hero of this tale and wasn't all that surprised when I learned the truth. And yet, the constantly changing input did occasionally make me question my instinct.

With its kick-ass heroine who weighs all risks but still chooses danger, Running for Cover is the perfect antidote for romantic suspense readers who have grown tired of mild-mannered heroines unwittingly thrown into the path of tortured FBI agents. Its exotic setting, engaging characters and excellent pacing make it perfect airplane reading. It is sure to hold attention through the longest layovers and the most tiresome flights.

--Mary Benn


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