Desert Isle Keeper
Heart vs. Humbug
Every autumn brings a plethora of holiday-themed romances to bookstores. Like most readers, I’ve read my share of them. M.J. Rodgers’s Heart vs. Humbug remains one of my all-time favorites. The third in her Justice, Inc. miniseries, it’s a marvelous blend of intelligent characters, razor-sharp dialogue, clever plotting and good emotion that makes for a special treat at any time of year.
Attorney Octavia Osborne is devoted to her beloved grandmother, so when a developer targets the senior center where she and her friends spend much of their time, Octavia rushes to their defense. The seniors were given a 99-year lease by a former member upon her death, and they dedicated a great deal of time and money to improve the center so they could enjoy it more. Then the current owner, the aptly (and unsubtly) named Dole Scroogen, used the improvements as an excuse to raise their rent so astronomically they can no longer afford it, in order to force the seniors out and build condos on the site. With the clock ticking for them to raise the money or vacate the premises by the first of the year, Octavia has no intention of letting him get away with it.
She finds a formidable opponent in Brett Merlin, a lawyer so renowned for performing legal hocus pocus he’s known as the Magician. The landlord’s nephew by marriage, Brett believes there’s no room for emotion in the law. With it on his side, he’s confident he’ll be able to win for his client, regardless of what it means for the seniors. Octavia, on the other hand, is no slouch when it comes to legal maneuvering. Though he first underestimates her, Brett soon learns what a mistake that is. She forces him to raise his game as they engage in a furious flurry of moves and countermoves in and out of the courtroom, while discovering a mutual interest in each other. Then the case takes a nasty turn when murder enters the picture.
The death doesn’t occur until halfway through the book; the first half is essentially the legal battle between Brett and Octavia. This isn’t the kind of book where the author tells us they’re good lawyers with no evidence. The reader gets to follow the action as they prove it to each other and us. Both are inventive, resourceful, and more than a little sneaky. It’s the kind of material I love to read, smart people saying clever things and demonstrating how sharp they are. It may not sound exciting, but every time I read this book, I find the battle of legal minds as exhilarating and surprising as any suspense sequence in a more action-oriented tale. For readers who enjoy courtroom action, Rodgers does it better than any other romance author I’ve read. There are a number of hugely enjoyable moments, when one of them manages to get the better of the other or a surprise is sprung, catching both character and reader off guard. It’s juicy stuff.
Rodgers writes my favorite heroines in the genre: smart, confident women with firm principles and a strong sense of themselves. Octavia is a prime example. She’s truly kickass, not because she does so in a physical way, but because she’s highly intelligent, good-hearted, and fights passionately for what she believes in. If I didn’t love her enough already, Octavia takes Brett home with her late in the story, and the place where she lives is just as surprising and delightful as the woman herself. Of all Rodgers’s couples, Brett and Octavia may be my favorite, because they’re both so smart and so well-matched. I like the mutual admiration that forms between them, not only because of the physical, but because of their respect for each others’ mental capabilities. Most of all, their interactions are very fun. Good banter abounds in the story, beginning with the attention-grabbing line of Chapter One: “Romantic men don’t have penises.”
The conflict between the main characters is particularly strong. Brett believes firmly in the law, regardless of the undesirable effect it might have on some people, like the senior citizens Octavia is fighting for. He doesn’t like his client and is only representing him because of his aunt, but he believes the law is on the man’s side, and that’s enough for him. Octavia believes the law must have a heart, otherwise there’s no point to it, and what is just trumps what is necessarily legal. She knows the law well enough to bend it, and break it outright, to serve the needs of her clients. When she crosses a line, she does so blithely and without regrets, believing it’s the right thing to do. This only deepens the conflict between them, especially once Brett begins to care for her. The final resolution to this is a great moment, with a uniquely romantic gesture on the part of one character.
While this is part of a series, it does stand on its own, and there’s no sense a reader has to read any other book to fully enjoy it. In a good example of how to write a series, Rodgers subtly plants information that would pay off two books later in To Have vs. To Hold, showing how well planned and constructed the series is. She also introduces the hero and heroine of the next book, but uses them in a way that they work as stand alone characters, with no indication they would meet up or have a story of their own.
After ten years, Heart vs. Humbug remains a terrically fun and enjoyable read for me. About the only thing I don’t like about it is Scroogen’s name, which is a bit much, but in a book with so much to offer, it’s easy to indulge the author that one point. The characters are warm and engaging, the plotting is inventive, and the dialogue sings. For Christmas or any time of year, it’s a keeper.