Funny, sexy and emotionally compelling romantic comedy
Reading Level: Adult Romance
Release Date: June 1, 1999
Publisher: Harlequin; First Edition edition
Pages: 185 pages
Reviewed By: Kate McMurry
Virginal, unworldly, 21-year-old Dixie Robinson gave up any hope of a formal education past age 16 (the age of secondary-school graduation in England after passing the GCSE exams) in order to nurse her stepmother, Muriel Sinclair, through a long and debilitating, terminal illness. For over four years, Dixie willingly relinquished any possibility of a social life or obtaining training for a career in order to serve as an unpaid caretaker to Muriel. Dixie was more than willing to do this because she loved her stepmother and was immensely grateful that Muriel had raised Dixie after her father died less than a year after Muriel married Dixie’s widowed father when Dixie was only six. Dixie’s only entertainment during those long, lonely and grueling years was incessantly reading books.
Dixie’s 28-year-old stepsister, Petra Sinclair, a fashion model, contributed money, rather than hands-on care, to support Muriel and Dixie during Muriel’s illness, but she rarely visited her mother and Dixie. When Muriel passed away a year ago, Dixie moved to London to live with her stepsister, but the situation turned out badly. Petra opened a household bank account in both their names, ran up substantial debts that were supposed to be paid from that account and then, instead of allowing payment checks to clear, cleaned out the account, ended her lease on her apartment, leaving Dixie homeless, and flew off to Los Angeles to attempt to become an actress. As a result, Dixie was left legally holding the bag for bounced checks for Petra’s debts and, being a much more honest person than Petra, Dixie shouldered the burden of Petra’s debts. Unfortunately, Dixie’s waitress job did not pay nearly enough money for Dixie to make more than token payments on the debts, and she could barely afford the rent on the one-room “bedsit” she’d been forced to relocate to.
Then fate intervened in the form of a sweet old man and fellow bookworm, Jasper Dysart, whom Dixie had struck up a friendship with. Jasper helped her obtain a second job at Valverde Mercantile, a prestigious merchant bank in London where Dixie has been working during the day for the past several months while continuing to work as a waitress at night, an exhausting schedule. Though the bank job is a godsend, due to her limited education and training, Dixie has been shifted from department to department, because she is completely unqualified for any but the lowliest work as a dogsbody in an institution peopled by highly educated, talented, career employees. Unlike poor Dixie, they efficiently and effectively follow every complicated command handed down to them by their brilliant and icily perfectionistic boss, César Valverde, the stunningly handsome tycoon who owns the bank. After ultimately landing on the top floor where César reigns supreme, Dixie has become perpetually stressed out at work due to her only marginally successful attempts to dodge her intimidating and highly critical boss.
Thirty-year-old César finds everything about Dixie irritating in the extreme. He would not have remotely considered hiring her if he had not been strongly urged to do so by Jasper Dysart, who became César’s guardian when he was orphaned at age 12, and is the only person on earth whom César truly loves. But keeping Dixie around has proven to be an enormous sacrifice. As far as César is concerned, Dixie is unprofessional in every possible way. Her appearance is slovenly, with her loose, sloppy clothes, lack of makeup, and untamed mane of curly hair. She is so clumsy, she trips over her own feet. She can’t deal with the simplest modern technology, not even a copy machine. She constantly interrupts her coworkers, chattering away about nonsense. She takes up collections for oddball charities. She decorates birthday cakes in the break room. And, worst of all, she sneaks off to take naps in a supply closet. She’s so useless, in fact, she’s little better than the office mascot, so beloved by César’s staff, that all of them constantly cover for her, up to and including his personal assistant, Bruce. Bruce’s protectiveness toward Dixie is especially on display today, when he reluctantly delivers very bad news to César about Dixie. It is absolutely forbidden for employees of the bank to get into debt, but a periodic examination of Dixie’s financial profile, which all employees are routinely subjected to, has revealed that she is, in fact, very deeply in debt. And worse of all, they are frivolous debts which indicate that Dixie is a flighty, party girl.
César’s first impulse is to immediately sack Dixie and permanently relieve himself of her aggravating presence. But as luck would have it, he has discovered that very day that his beloved Jasper is in failing health. At 82 years of age, any serious illness could be fatal for Jasper, and César is devastated. It occurs to him that sweet, innocent, bachelor Jasper has made no secret for some time now that his greatest wish for César, which up until now César has avoided like the plague, is that César marry and settle down into domestic bliss. Jasper has also made it very clear that he adores Dixie, and considers her be exactly the type of nurturing, blameless homebody who’d make César an ideal wife and mother of his future children. Obviously, poor, naive Jasper is all wrong about Dixie, but it occurs to César that if Jasper’s time on this earth is limited, the least he can do is fulfill Jasper’s greatest desire. César decides that, within the week, he will present himself to Jasper as an engaged man, with Jasper’s adored Dixie as his intended bride.
When César calls Dixie on the carpet, confronting her about her debts and declaring that he’s firing her, in the midst of her despair, while her defenses are down, he offers her a deal. If she will pretend to be his fiance for a short while for Jasper’s sake, César will pay all her debts. Honest to a fault, Dixie initially, vehemently refuses to lie to her beloved Jasper. Undeterred, César ultimately persuades her by employing the one-two punch of a big stick (One of the people you owe money to is about to file charges, and you’ll go to jail as a fraudster!) and another very large carrot (Don’t you want to make a poor, sick, old man who’s your dear friend very happy?) Overwhelmed by his specious logic, and extremely tempted by the prospect of being rescued from her desperate financial fix, Dixie reluctantly agrees to César’s plan. Wasting not a moment, he immediately rushes her into a full makeover, so that it will be more believable, to himself in particular, that he might conceivably fall for Dixie, by transforming her from a round, frowsy woman, into a sleek, polished one, much more in keeping with his usual type.
This book is one of only 2-3 books, out of well over 100 that Lynne Graham has written, that is a romantic comedy. It has endless laugh-out-loud moments, especially its hilarious spin on the makeover motif that is such a staple of romance novels. And it is, overall, one of the best Fake Fiance romances I’ve ever read. César and Dixie are classic, odd-couple, comic opposites, the uptight stick vs the laid-back slob, and César in particular has a host of comic lines as he lobs frequent witty barbs at Dixie.
Dixie is an adorably clueless naif. She comes right up to the line of being a doormat, but never quite crosses it (as some of LG’s softhearted, too-forgiving, and rather codependent heroines of this type sometimes do). Dixie actually sees clearly the many flaws of the people she loves, but she overlooks them, because she’s a very accepting, understanding and compassionate person. I love it when a protagonist gets into trouble, as happens with Dixie, because of one or more virtuous traits carried to too much of an extreme, rather than due to an obnoxious flaw.
As for the Alpha hero, César, I highly enjoyed that he has a very compelling and emotionally engaging growth arc. In my opinion, one of the most significant signs in a romance that the romantic protagonists are truly Soul Mates is that they mutually raise each other up and make each other better people. In this story, lovable, kind Dixie softens up César’s cynical, hard edges, and César helps Dixie develop some much needed backbone in dealing with the users in her life who are taking advantage of her generous nature.
LG frequently includes adorable animals in her stories, usually rescue dogs with quirky personalities, and there is definitely a very cute rescue dog in this book. But in this story, she has memorably included as well a very unique pet, an aggressive goldfish whom Dixie rescued when she found him abandoned at a bus stop in a plastic, pet-store bag. Dixie names him César, after the hero! César the fish is an absolutely brilliant comic character because, like his namesake, he, too, has a growth arc that comically mirror’s César’s. That is absolutely terrific, comic plotting!
I also particularly adored the scene where, just after Dixie is fired by César, the entire staff of the executive floor gathers around Dixie to comfort her. They hand her tissues to mop up her tears as they join together to pack up all the kitschy knickknacks on her desk. All of them pat her back and offer her words of comfort, and one of them tactfully stuffs in her coat pocket an envelope full of cash that they have all contributed to. That scene is hilarious and heart-warming at the same time.
As is consistently the case with LG’s romances, there is plenty of sexual chemistry between the romantic protagonists, and the sex scenes are explosive. However, in this book, as always, LG never writes crude, graphic descriptions of sex acts, and she never substitutes sex for story.
In keeping with the standards for the Harlequin Presents line, LG never incorporates foul language in her HP books, including this one.
I have read this book many times over the years, and I enjoy it enormously every time. This terrific romance is a definite, Grade-A Keeper!
I rate this book as follows:
Romance Plot: 5