Valentine Baby by Gina Wilkins
(Silhouette Special Edition #1153, $4.25, PG) ISBN 0-373-24153-4
****
I've spent the last few weeks catching up on recommended reads, both contemporaries and historicals. Picking up a category romance was like coming home to familiar places. I picked up Gina Wilkins' book knowing that I was in for a good story. I've been enjoying her books for at least ten years, ever since her Hero trilogy came out. When I picked up Valentine Baby, I immediately felt comfortable. Here were people I could relate to, normal people doing familiar things, with the requisite big problem thrown in. I settled down in my cozy reading spot and had a great time as I met these everyday people and lived their everyday lives with them.

This is a marriage of a convenience story, but the scenario leading up to it is so completely believable that I had no problems accepting the plot premise. Leslie Harden has come to old beau Tom Lowery for help. Leslie has custody of her deceased stepsister's infant son. The initial conflict is in the form of her stepbrother, who wants custody of the infant, too. Since he's a blood relative of the deceased woman, Leslie is afraid that his legal claim may be more valid, although her sister's will names Leslie as the baby's guardian.

Because Leslie has to take time off work to care for her dying sister and then to care for baby Kenny, her cutthroat law firm in Chicago fires her. She knows that Tom, the man she left eighteen months earlier in Fayetteville to take the job in Chicago, will help her. Tom is an honorable man, a man she trusts implicitly. She returns to Fayetteville and proposes to Tom. She knows that if she is part of a stable family unit, her chances of keeping Kenny will greatly increase.

Tom, an arson investigator, is different now. An accident after Leslie moved to Chicago nearly left him a paraplegic. He's mobile, but has mixed emotions about his new job. He loved being a fire fighter and a rescue squad member and is resentful of his enforced desk job and that he can never be as active as before. One reason Leslie left him is that she could never accept his daredevil attitude.

Both Tom and Leslie are complex characters. Through well-explained points of view, we come to understand why each is reluctant to commit to the other fully. Ever wonder how different we as humans would be if we could ever squelch our fear of rejection or if we could ever put our egos away? I loved discovering about Tom and Leslie. They are decent, caring, ordinary people who are suddenly thrust into an extraordinary situation. How they cope is oh-so realistic.

A wonderful subplot is that of Tom's mother, Nina, who at forty-seven is worried about becoming involved with Kenny's uncle, a man who is years younger. Nina, whose focus for so long has been her son and his happiness, is unsure how to proceed with her burgeoning feelings for Steve. The character of Steve changes quite naturally from the bad guy to one whose cause we're supporting. This is a well-done secondary love interest.

Gina Wilkins does a grand job of allowing these characters slowly to uncover and discover emotions and feeling layer by layer. Everything is achieved with a subtle, fine touch. Valentine Baby allows us to enjoy the lives and loves of some honestly portrayed, good people. I'm glad I got to meet them and share in their joy.

--Linda Mowery


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