With This Kiss by Candice Poarch
(Arabesque, $4.99, PG) ISBN: 0-7860-0474-6
****
Candice Poarch takes us back to the small northern Virginia town of Nottaway, the setting for her first novel, White Lightning. The 40-year-old murder mystery has been solved and there's a new sheriff in town. Most of the Nottaway residents from the first novel are back – Tylan and Clarice Jerrod Chance, Luke Jordan, Miss Drucilla Chance, Gladys Jones, Jonathan Blake and Karina Blake Wallace and her triplets, Kara, Karl and Karlton.

Karina and her children, also known locally as "The Terrible Trio," are the focus of With This Kiss. When Karina was introduced in Poarch's first book, her life was in shambles after her divorce. She's picked up the pieces, the difficult times are behind her and she runs a successful restaurant on the edge of town.

But the Wallace triplets are on a mission. They are trying to find a husband for their recently divorced mother. Nottaway is not a hotbed for the singles' scene. Until Sheriff Phoenix Dye came back to town, their leading candidates were Mr. Wilkins, "the most lecherous 80-year-old bachelor in Nottaway," and Charles, "a perfectly respectable coroner" who smells of formaldehyde.

That leaves the new sheriff – almost by default. However, Kara doesn't share her brothers' enthusiasm for the lawman. "We wouldn't be able to have any fun with him. We need somebody to take care of Mom and to stay out of our way," she explains.

Unknown to the triplets, their mother and the sheriff have a history as old as they are. Ten years earlier, when he was a 27-year-old FBI special undercover agent and she was a 21 -year-old college senior, they fell in love. They consummated their love and expected to get married after she finished college. He left town to complete an undercover assignment.

It seems that Phoenix's most productive undercover work was with Karina. She discovered she was pregnant and unable to locate Phoenix – his phone was disconnected and his letters were returned. When he came back for her as planned, he was heartbroken to learn that Karina married Victor Wallace and moved away.

Although Victor knew she was carrying Phoenix's child, he loved her and cared for her through a difficult pregnancy. When the expected child became triplets, he never wavered and raised the children as his own. But ten years of being second to Phoenix in Karina's heart took its toll. The couple was divorced.

"The Terrible Trio's" parentage is, perhaps, the worst kept secret in Nottoway. It seems everyone either knew or suspected that Phoenix was the triplets' father. Everyone, that is, but Phoenix and the trio. When he'd come back to town, shortly after she'd married Victor, "for a fleeting moment, he wondered if the baby was his." Some FBI agent...His best friend was more matter-of-fact: "I just counted the months and assumed."

Like Poarch's first novel, With This Kiss is a suspense romance. Phoenix's past has followed him to Nottaway and places his new life and loved ones in jeopardy. And, although the mystery doesn't pack the same punch as the 40-year-old murder in White Lightning, there are a number of interesting plot twists.

There are more stories in Nottaway to tell before Gladys Jones, the town gossip tells them! One of the most interesting is that of Karina's brother, Jonathan. He's a self-made millionaire whose fiancée was killed in an automobile accident on the eve of their wedding. Since then, his life has been Karina and the triplets. But now that Karina and Phoenix are together...

--Gwendolyn Osborne


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