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First Kiss by Marilyn Pappano
(Bantam, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-553-58231-3
We all know the old adage about not judging a book by its cover. We may say that we would never do such a thing, but then we’d all be lying to ourselves. I’m afraid that when I saw the cover of Pappano’s latest novel set in Bethlehem, New York, and read the back cover blurb, I was sure I was in for another one of those contemporary romances with a gazillionaire hero, a sexy heroine, and a lot of game playing between the two. I’m happy to report that Pappano goes way beyond the superficial cover blurb giving readers wonderful characters with plenty of emotion and a romance that offers so much more than just a happily ever after.

Tom Flynn is a man who seems to have it all - millions of dollars, good looks, and his pick of any woman breathing. However, when his 40th birthday rolls around, he finds himself taking stock of his life. It seems he has achieved all the goals he set for himself, except for one - get married. Determined to have it all, he sets out to find a woman who will make him the perfect wife.

Holly McBride is stunningly beautiful and a successful businesswoman who runs her own inn in Bethlehem, NY. She’s also a woman with a serious reputation - one who is never without a date on Saturday night because she’s always given men what they want, S-E-X. In her opinion, life is much to short for complicated attachments and life long commitments. Besides, she believes that marriage isn’t in the cards for her, and even if it was, she is totally not interested.

That is until Tom sets his sights on Holly, believing she is the one for him. But how does he go about convincing her? Holly’s family life was anything but stable and her parents’ rocky marriage didn’t exactly endear the institution to her. And Tom hasn’t had a whole lot of experience when it comes to courting a woman. He’s always been a love ‘em and leave ‘em type of man, and he approaches this marriage goal like any other goal he has set for himself - like a business venture. How will these two strong willed people manage to find their way to each other? Will Holly learn to fall in love? And will Tom realize that there is more to life than business mergers and acquisitions?

After the first few chapters, I knew I would enjoy this story. Holly is immediately a heroine I could sympathize with and understand. She’s “easy” and she’s not ashamed of the fact. She enjoys sex, and isn’t looking for more than a good time. Or is she? In the beginning, sex was a way for her to get some attention (albeit briefly) that she was sorely lacking at home. Her mother is a raging alcoholic, her father was always away on business, and their marriage was a nightmare. Holly was caught in the middle, alone, and desperate for any sort of affection.

Tom has his own turbulent past to overcome. Growing up in poverty, abandoned by his father, he was raised by a mother who had been shunned by her own family. He sets about attaining his own security by working non-stop, and not allowing anyone to get too close. His desire to marry is at first just another of the many goals he feels he has to meet before he can call his life a success. This is, of course, before he finds himself hopelessly falling in love with Holly.

Even as wonderful as the romantic storyline is, it’s the subplots and secondary characters that seal First Kiss in keeper status. Pappano has quite a bit going on, but manages to weave all the threads together while not detracting from the main romance. There’s a clumsy new maid at Holly’s Inn, a romance between a couple of a certain age, and the appearance of Holly’s alcoholic mother. The author also adds a mystical touch to the story with the inclusion of two mysterious women who manage to pop up at convenient times to dispense advice to Holly and Tom.

Fans of the series will be happy to know that past romantic couples from earlier books make appearances in this tale. Newcomers won’t be confused, as Pappano nicely introduces all of her characters and gives enough background information to refresh memories and catch newcomers up to speed. Wonderful main characters, small town atmosphere, and charming secondary plot lines make First Kiss an engrossing read. You’ll have to excuse me now, I suddenly have this incredible urge to run to the nearest used bookstore.

--Wendy Crutcher

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