Lord of the Desert by Diana Palmer
(Mira, $6.99, R) ISBN 1-55166-617-0
****
Have you ever read a book with major flaws that you nevertheless enjoyed tremendously? Lord of the Desert by Diana Palmer is just such a book…a flawed page-turner.

It doesn't take much cleverness or intuition to guess that the Lord of Lord of the Desert is an Arab sheikh - in this case, the very modern sheikh of a small Arab emirate. Philippe Sabon of Qawi has just hired Maggie Barton, a junior partner in a Houston investment firm, as his personal assistant. Before she starts work, however, Maggie decides to take a week's vacation in Tangiers and persuades her friend, Gretchen Brannon, to come with her.

Gretchen is 23, slender, blonde, and has never been far from Jacobsville, Texas. She cared for her mother through two bouts of cancer and is still mourning her recent death. Furthermore, the only serious suitor she ever had jilted her as soon as he found out that the ranch she and her brother inherited when her mother died was heavily mortgaged. Maggie hopes that a change of scenery will distract Gretchen from her losses.

The two young women have barely arrived in Tangiers when Maggie is called home on a family emergency. She persuades Gretchen to enjoy the rest of their vacation alone. Moreover, she tries to convince Gretchen to impersonate her and take the job in Qawi.

After Maggie leaves, Gretchen spends a lonely day by the pool, then decides to carry on with their plans for touring Tangiers. When she goes to the concierge desk to join a tour, however, she finds that the group has already left for that day's excursion. Fortunately, a fellow tourist…one whom Gretchen literally bumped into…offers to hire a guide and go with her to Grotto of Hercules. The concierge assures Gretchen that her escort is trustworthy, and off they go, without Gretchen even having learned the man's name.

So who could the romance Gods of Coincidence have sent to the concierge desk of the Hotel Minzah at exactly the same time as Gretchen? You guessed it. However, another cliché of romance is avoided: Gretchen does not try to impersonate Maggie Barton but instead tells her new friend, Philippe Souverain (sovereign in French), her correct name and explains why Maggie wants her to take her place.

Philippe's interest is piqued by Gretchen's naivete and by her misunderstanding of his position in the world. He urges her to tell the sheikh who she is and to apply for the position as herself. No doubt the level of heat both Philippe and Gretchen experience almost from their first meeting has something to do with his determination to hire her.

Even though Palmer avoids one cliché, others abound. Gretchen misjudges Philippe, thinking him too citified and elegant to take care of himself in any rough-and-tumble situation, there are other cases of mistaken identity, and - worst of all - Gretchen commits the classic Stupid Mistake, putting herself at risk after Philippe has told her to stay put and stay out of danger.

Palmer's writing style is unsophisticated, often as naïve as her heroine. Occasionally, her sentences were frequently clunky enough to divert my attention from her story to the words used to tell it. The descriptions of Morocco and Tangiers were dropped into her narrative with such a thud that I couldn't help thinking how easily a romance author can write off quite a nice vacation just by exercising a little narrative ingenuity.

So what kept me reading compulsively? In one word, sex. Nice, clean, straightforward sex, from kissing to petting to…well, you know where all this is leading, don't you? There is one particular wrinkle in the circumstances keeping the lovers apart which I decline to divulge except to say that it is the motive for even more than the usual kissing and petting and…you know what. All in all, Palmer knew how to keep me reading.

My conclusion: unless your reading tastes are a whole lot more refined than mine and a whole lot less tolerant of clichés, you'll enjoy Lord of the Desert as much as I did. It may not have been High Art, but it was a whole lot of fun.

--Nancy J. Silberstein


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