The Seductive One

Susan Mallery
2003, Contemporary Romance
Pocket, $6.49, 312 pages, Amazon ASIN 0743443969
Part of a series

Grade: B
Sensuality: Warm

The Seductive One is an aptly named book. It has more than its share of hackneyed moments and plot devices, yet it casts such a spell with its sweet characters and compelling character drama that the clichés are easy to overlook.

Brenna Marcelli and Nicholas Giovanni once shared a forbidden love, forbidden because of the feud between their two winemaking families their grandfathers refused to let die. Nic was willing to turn his back on his family to be with her. Brenna couldn't do the same. Disowned by his grandfather, Nic moved to Europe to begin anew, while Brenna later met another man her grandfather approved of and married him.

Over the years Nic dedicated his life to one goal: revenge. He intends to take over the Marcellis' winery, knowing it would crush them to know their beloved vineyard was now in the hands of their hated enemy. He gets the perfect leverage he needs when Brenna reenters his life. Newly divorced and back at the family homestead, she wants to start a new label of her own, to prove to her grandfather that he should leave the winery to her. She hopes there are no hard feelings between her and Nic, even as the old feelings start to come back as soon as they meet again. The more time they spend together, the more she begins to fall in love with him again. But she has no idea of his real motives for giving her the loan.

It would be easy to rattle off all the clichés Mallery uses in this story. This is obviously a very Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed lovers type of book, somewhat old fashioned with the family feud and the grandfather's Old World sexism. There's a long lost son who, naturally, turns out to be a Navy SEAL, a revelation that had me groaning. Brenna has the somewhat typical backstory of having put her ex-husband through medical school, only to have him dump her afterward. Naturally the grandfather wants to leave the winery to a male, or else sell out, rather than leave it to a woman. There's even an old diary Nic is translating which will inevitably reveal the truth about the feud, with a story that is also fairly typical.

What sells the story is the characterization. This is a very sweet romance between two relatable characters with flaws and insecurities, yet it never becomes too heavy or buried in angst. Mallery has a light touch, which shouldn't be mistaken for weightlessness. Nic and Brenna are shaded just enough to make them interesting people, prone to mistakes and certainly not perfect. I was firmly on Nic's side at the outset of his revenge plot, since he gave up everything for her while she caved to her family. But Brenna is never unlikable. Mallery shows how conflicted she is, how she has regrets and knows she hasn't made all the right choices, and how she struggles to right what her life has become. The way Nic begins to have doubts about his plan, even as it rushes headlong to its inevitable conclusion, gives the story its urgency. By the time his plotting effects Brenna, Mallery firmly has the reader on her heroine's side, communicating Brenna's emotions without making Nic come across like a villain. It's good stuff, culminating in a stellar ending with the perfect romantic gesture and just the right amount of groveling.

Brenna's large Italian family is warm and loving, never broad and overbearing, and other than her annoying youngest sister, appears in small doses, which helps make them tolerable. Brenna's grandfather initially seems like a stereotype, and is in many ways, but the author slowly gives him some dimension and reveals the person beneath the Old World bluster. Despite my wish that her long-lost brother had a different career, any other career, I did like the way his motives were kept a little murky at first so it's not quite clear what role he'll serve in his family's lives and Brenna and Nic's respective plans. While nothing is that unexpected, it does keep the story from becoming too predictable.

There's nothing truly remarkable or original about The Seductive One. But as character-driven romances go, it has a great deal of sweetness and charm. It's populated with people who are easy to like and care about, and are more than pleasant to spend some time with. Definitely worth a look.

-- Leigh Thomas

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