Accidental Mistress

Susan Napier
May 2008, Series Romance
Harl Presents #2729, $4.75, 186 pages, Amazon ASIN 0373127294

Grade: C-
Sensuality: Warm

Every now and again I'll pick up a Harlequin Presents when I'm in the mood for a quick afternoon read. At their best, the stories of alpha heroes and strong yet feminine heroines set in far-off locations such as Spain or Australia, make for fantastic modern fairytales. Unfortunately, all too often I end up with books like Accidental Mistress, which are readable enough, but feature dull writing and poor characterization that make for an unmemorable tale indeed.

A note about the plot: Be aware that the title of this book is somewhat of a misnomer. The heroine does not appear to be anyone's mistress, accidental or otherwise, in this story. Still, I suppose Accidental Mistress makes for a catchier title than the more accurate How Many More Pages Until the Hero Realizes He's Being an Ass? As the New Zealand-set book begins, Emily Quest has garnered an invitation to a wild party where she must carry out a secretive task to save her family business's reputation. While going about her mission, she gets caught in the crowd of drunken guests and is rescued by a handsome man who, while polite, also makes it obvious that he holds her in contempt.

Though the book does not make this readily apparent, some time passes between this episode and the next chapter. Emily has now lost her home in a fire and a rich client of her family's china restoration business has invited her to stay in his home. Emily is embarrassed, but thankful for the kindness of her elderly benefactor and friend. However, the situation turns somewhat sticky for her when she meets her benefactor's nephew - the derisive man from the party.

Having seen Emily first of all at a very unsavory location and then ensconced at his uncle's home, Ethan West immediately writes her off as a gold-digger. He makes it immediately clear that he sees right through her and does his best to make her feel unwelcome. However, as Ethan gets to know Emily better, he begins to wonder if there might be more to her than he originally gave her credit for - not to mention his own growing attraction to her.

The tale of Emily being swept off her feet by Ethan holds a certain appeal. Though definitely an alpha hero, Ethan is a little less rough around the edges than the alphas of older books. While he can act in a high-handed fashion, Emily stands up to him and he does listen to her (eventually). However, the romance is still problematic. First of all, this couple is supposed to be in their late 20s/early 30s. (In other words, these folks should be my contemporaries.) I know people from all walks of life, and I can honestly say that I do not know anyone outside of my grandparents' generation who talks like these two. The old-fashioned rhythms of their speech and the lack of contemporary references in their conversation made it hard for me to believe in these characters.

In addition, the short page count of this book hampered the development of characters and story. A skilled author could probably bring to life her main characters and a minor one or two as well, however, this book features too many for the reader to get to know any of them well. In the end, most of what we learn about the main couple is that Ethan is gorgeous, successful, and very confident. Emily is honest as the day is long, knows her china restoration well, and has a great rack. These characterizations are perhaps a decent starting point, but more needs to be done if a reader is to be able to connect with them. As for the story, the main plot is simple enough, but there are a couple of subplots thrown in that do not feel fully developed.

With a rushed plot and thinly drawn characters, Accidental Mistress fails to thrill. Though not a terrible book, it doesn't achieve more than being a slightly less than average read. Harlequin does publish some treasures amidst the many novels it churns out each month, so I'll just keep looking for one of those.

-- Lynn Spencer

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