Man of the Year
by Lisa Ruff
(Harl. Amer. #1214, $4.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-75218-0
*****
It isn’t often that a brand new author gets a five-heart rating but Lisa Ruff’s debut is one of the best category romances I have read in 2008.  This is a mature romance with lots of pizzazz and fun even while there is a bit of corniness.  Man of the Year is definitely a keeper.

Samantha Jones owns her advertising agency and is working to build up its reputation.  She takes a chance on the local baseball team, the Seattle Rainiers and almost guarantees that she will help them avoid the scandals of their past.  The owner, Andrew Elliott, gives her a chance with the caveat that she help rebuild their image.  She even got the contract despite the fact that her brother Ray “Boomer” James is the best outfielder on the team.

Samantha starts off the campaign by meeting all the players in the locker room.  Her hope is to become familiar to them and friendly with them so when she starts asking them to appear in commercials and to show up for photo shoots they will do so more readily.  She is slightly surprised at her reaction to the newest pitcher, Jarrett Corliss.  There seems to be a sizzle and spark despite the fact that she has convinced herself she can never be attracted to a ballplayer.

Jarrett is a southern gentleman who also feels the spark.  He is a veteran who is recovering from a shoulder injury and sees the Rainiers as his last hope.  He still has to perform, but he feels like they will also help with his rehabilitation.  His attraction to Samantha is surprising but more than that, he finds he likes her sense of humor and her intelligence. 

They banter and play games with each other.  Samantha tries to avoid Jarrett, primarily because Elliott sees fraternizing with the players on par with any scandal from the past.  When Samantha starts to promote the team with a commercial that portrays Jarrett as a sex symbol, he comes on to her stronger than ever, mostly because he hates the way women chase after him now.  When Samantha holds firm on her “no,” he devises a strategy of his own that puts their relationship in front of the press.  All the sudden, the deal is made that if he wins five straight games, then Samantha will go out on a date with him.  The challenge is on.

But this is more than just a romance. There is a side story about Boomer that threatens Samantha’s happiness. Her employees also seem like fun people and we get to know these talented and creative individuals in a way that makes them seem real, without bogging down the story. Baseball is a backdrop, but we also see a little bit of the inner workings of a team.

Jarrett is a great hero, with charm oozing from his pores and more importantly that combination of vulnerability and macho that a reader just can’t resist.  Samantha is a heroine to look up to, someone with smarts and courage while being a bit of an imp too.  She deals with adversity in the same way she deals with Jarrett, with straight on candor and a willingness to risk. When she finally realizes that Jarrett is the love of her life, she accepts it and plunges in with both finesse and pleasure.

Ruff offers us a debut novel that has more than just a category romance story.  She shows depth to her characters from the hero and heroine down to the secretary and the owner.  Man of the Year is both a fun reading experience and a tender one.  There is joy, excitement, sadness and angst.  But mainly this is a story that will delight the reader throughout.  I don’t keep many category romances on my bookshelves, but this one will stay and I will definitely keep an eye out for Lisa Ruff’s next offering. 

--Shirley Lyons


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