The Damsel in this Dress
by Marianne Stillings
(Avon, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-06-057533-6
****
New author Marianne Stillings makes a splashy debut with The Damsel in this Dress. If anything, thereís a bit too much going on, but itís all funny, well-written, and entertaining. Hers will be a voice to watch.

Seattle detective Jackson Soldier McKennitt, cop-on-leave, has written several crime thrillers that have been generally well-received Ė except for the reviews from Betsy Tremaine, managing editor of the small Port Henry Ledger. His latest release is no exception. Unimpressed with Soldierís inside understanding of crime, she mocks his storytelling abilities in a scathing review that leaves Soldier seething. No doubt the prune-faced Ms. Tremaine is a bitter, dried-up old maid, he decides. And if he ever happens to meet her in person, sheíd better watch out.

Betsy is single, itís true, but the resemblance ends there. A rounded beauty with a brain, her current adventure is caring for her feckless motherís ancient Chihuahua while her mother flits around Europe. Her dating life is dismal, and someone seems to be making veiled threats. On the night when Soldier decides to respond to her review with an e-mail, Betsy receives her most disturbing threat yet Ė a note attached to the dogís collar. Her response to Soldierís e-mail is tinged with panic, something he picks up on.

Soldier and Betsy finally do run into each other at a Seattle writerís conference. The attraction is electric; however, Betsyís unease is increasing and she isnít sure she can trust Soldier at all. But someone has gained entry to her hotel room and shoved the Chihuahua into the mini-fridge. Then a fellow author turns up dead. Soldier doesnít want a commitment, but heís also not about to let any harm come to Betsy, not when he wants to throw her on the nearest bed and explore the raw lust simmering between them.

This is a fun setup, although Soldierís reason for being on leave - he feels guilty over his partnerís death Ė is creaky. (Are there no other reasons for a cop to go on leave?) Soldier isnít on the case, so weíre spared the old tale of a detective falling in love with the woman heís assigned to protect. Soldier assigns himself to Betsyís safety, and is stunned to find sheís no helpless virgin. Betsy has a fast mouth and is quite ready to yank Soldierís chain when he becomes a bit overbearing. Their interaction is laugh-out-loud funny at times, and when the chips are down, Betsy is smart about her own safety. There wonít be a whole lot of rescuing going on.

Soldier doesnít want a commitment, but he sure wants Betsy. Their deepening relationship is fun, and the sexual attraction between them is plenty hot. This is one author who doesnít shirk on her love scenes. A secondary romance between Soldierís brother and Betsyís best friend doesnít fare so well. With Betsy and Soldier fighting their way toward love, a killer on the loose, and several murders along the way, this took up unnecessary space, and since it was wedged in between all the other goings-on, not developed enough to satisfy. The result was some loss of focus in the second half of the book, as the reader is bounced from one plot point to another.

The murderer isnít likely to be a big surprise by the time of the reveal, and the body count felt high for a book thatís half contemporary romantic comedy, half romantic suspense. The menace had been established Ė it didnít need to be hammered home with multiple killings, which ended up feeling a bit gratuitous. The climax, however, is satisfying and true to form, as Betsy largely orchestrates her own ending. Readers who like a strong, smart heroine are going to love Betsy Tremaine, and hunky Soldier, who is as bemused by this woman as he is turned on, will also delight.

Marianne Stillings very nearly hits one out of the park with The Damsel in this Dress. She has a sure grasp of what works in contemporary romance, and her clever dialogue and mature characterizations make this a book to savor. Itís sexy, itís fun, and itís entertaining. Take a bow, Ms. Stillings, and when is your next release due?

--Cathy Sova


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