Fool’s Gold by Jennifer Skully
(HQN, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-373-77081-2
Two things that seriously annoy me:

1) Movie trailers that give you the entire story in a 2 minute synopsis and

2) Book covers that contain spoilers

My advice for readers interested in Skully’s latest – stick with the plot synopsis given in this review and ignore everything on the cover printed by HQN. It is never a cool thing to reveal the identity of the murder victim when the author herself doesn’t do so until the halfway point in the book.

Tyler “Brax” Braxton is sheriff of a small northern California town. However, after he fails to prevent the murder of a close friend, he’s ready for a vacation. So he heads out to dusty Goldstone, Nevada, at his sister’s insistence. Maggie’s marriage is on the rocks, and she’s hoping her younger brother can help. Brax finds being in the middle of his sister’s marital problems uncomfortable, but he loves her, so he agrees to help.

While in Goldstone, he meets the incredibly sexy and curvaceous Simone Chandler. Having lost everything when her dotcom went bust, she relocated to Goldstone and started writing Internet erotica for a living. Clients pay Simone to spin fantasies, and Simone is very talented indeed.

Goldstone is a small town, so everyone knows everybody’s business. When Tyler learns that Simone has been corresponding with his brother-in-law via e-mail, Brax decides to check her out. Maggie fears that Carl is having an affair, and his squirreling away money from their checking account certainly supports that. So is Simone the woman that Carl is diddling?

Then the sordid affair goes and gets stickier when a dead body turns up.

Skully has written a fun, light romantic suspense heavy on the romance and hot on the sex. Simone spins fantasies for a living, so when Brax comes along there is a lot of interplay and highly charged banter between the two. They also do not immediately jump into bed together, and decide to draw sexual tension out longer. They both figure that teasing and anticipation are half the fun – and you know, they’re right.

What doesn’t work so well here is the conflict, which is rather light in the pants. Simone isn’t honest with Brax about the nature of her e-mail correspondence with Carl – and frankly, I couldn’t figure out why. Her reasoning is incredibly weak, especially when you factor in that she’s very good friends with Maggie. Likewise, that murder back home that has Brax so troubled is barely addressed at all. No real details are given, and it’s as if the author just dashed it off to give the hero more baggage. The sad thing is that Brax doesn’t need the extra luggage. Isn’t being caught in the middle of his sister’s martial troubles and being unsure about what to do about them enough?

Simone also has a domineering mother to contend with, and this would have been a fine addition is Simone had grown her backbone before she nabbed Brax. She’s completely incapable of telling Mommy Dearest to shove off until Brax rolls into town and gives her a stupendous orgasm. Moreover, while on the subject of orgasms, Simone’s particular sexual hang-up is mildly insulting. She’s horrified by the fact that she’s rather exuberant during sex. Yep, Simone’s a screamer and apparently has orgasms that most women would sacrifice a limb for – but because a former fiancé was embarrassed by her passion, so is she. Insert heavy eye rolling here.

What works well works very well indeed. Goldstone is an interesting town in the middle of the desert featuring plenty of eccentric characters. In addition, once the dead body shows up, I found the murder mystery engaging as Skully does a good job playing it close to the vest. While suspects are few, the motive doesn’t play out too soon. Unfortunately, part of the mystery is spoiled by the book’s cover – which is certainly not the fault of the author – but annoying for readers nonetheless.

Overall, Fool’s Gold is a mixed bag. This reviewer found it to be a quick, fun read and Skully certainly has the writing chops. Unfortunately, the majority of the conflict was convoluted, silly or so minimally explored that it’s not until the dead body shows up halfway through the story that the characters have a whole lot to do.

-- Wendy Crutcher

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