Cloud Nine

Dream Country

Firefly Beach

Follow the Stars Home

Safe Harbor

Summer Light

True Blue

The Secret Hour by Luanne Rice
(Bantam, $22.95, G) ISBN 0-553-80224-0
Luanne Rice moves into romantic suspense territory with her latest release, and she succeeds admirably. Iím glad she is venturing beyond the straight womenís fiction of Safe Harbor, True Blue and Firefly Beach; she was in danger of falling into a rut. She hasnít strayed too far from her roots, however. Despite the addition of a suspense plot, the Luanne Rice trademark themes of sisterhood and forgiveness are still evident.

Kate Harris and John OíRourke meet during a crisis. A recently widowed defense attorney whose current client is a heinous serial killer, John is accustomed to the scorn of his neighbors. But when somebody throws a brick through his window, terrifying Johnís 14-year old daughter Teddy and his 11-year-old daughter Maggie, John is outraged. During the chaos, Kate Harris shows up on Johnís doorstep and John mistakes her for the latest babysitter sent by the employment service. In the confusion, Kate doesnít bother to correct him. In the short time she spends with Teddy and Maggie, she comes to care for the two grieving children. Then the truth comes out: Kate isnít a babysitter at all. She has come to Johnís shoreline Connecticut community all the way from Washington D.C. to track down her younger sister, Willa, who disappeared six months ago. Kate thinks Willa might have been a victim of Johnís client and hopes he can provide her with clues to her sisterís ultimate fate.

Kate had raised the much younger Willa since their parents died in a car accident, and she feels both sisterly and maternal concern for her. But there are other emotions too, caused by a horrible betrayal that drove the sisters apart. John OíRourke knows all about betrayal on a personal level, and he feels for Kate. But he canít help her, and his plate is too full as a struggling single parent to take on someone elseís problems. Their paths keep intersecting as Kate refuses to abandon her quest to find Willa - dead or alive. Soon all three OíRourkes realize that Kate is the only person who can heal their wounded hearts.

Rice is known for her emotionally complex characters, and they donít come much more complex than John OíRourke. I have to admit that I had a difficult time warming up to him because of his profession, especially as he labors overtime to avoid the death penalty for a man who has admitted murdering seven young women in cold blood. John seeks advice form his father, a retired judge, who reminds him that Constitutionally, every man is entitled to representation, but you can understand why Johnís neighbors act with both veiled and open hostility. Yet he is a decent man who tries to do his best for his children, and although he is antagonistic at first towards Kate, his growing involvement with her search enables him to move past his grief and anger.

Kate, a marine conservation biologist, is a typical Rice heroine, a quiet but intense woman who will do just about anything for her family. Johnís son Teddy is poignantly portrayed as a too-serious, mature caretaker who welcomes Kateís empathy and support. Only 11 year old Maggie strikes a wrong chord. Her actions and her dialogue mark her as a much younger character, and instead of a sympathetic pre-adolescent she feels like an immature 8-year old.

The last 50 pages of the novel are both suspenseful and surprising. I had to hurriedly skim them to see what happened before I could go back and re-read them, this time savoring the details of Riceís fine writing. Unlike other Luanne Rice novels, I canít see this one as a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie - itís more like Hallmark meets Silence of the Lambs. Instead of warm and fuzzy, The Secret Hour is disturbing but ultimately hopeful. Getting away from the characters that populated her other recent stories is a good move for Rice; with this fresh scenario she has penned her best novel since 2001ís Summer Light.

--Susan Scribner

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