Okay, so we’ve all seen it done a million times, and done pretty well: rich, handsome jock with an inferiority complex falls for babe with tortured romantic past, so when they fall in love, neither is willing to admit it. Cue Big Misunderstanding that carries the whole rest of the story through to practically the end. If Hot Stuff is so predictably-plotted, why did I enjoy it so much? The answer is in warm characters and a family-centered plot, as well as the chemistry between the hero and heroine that added a nice touch of reality.
As the book opens, permanent bachelor Yank Morgan has just “inherited” his three nieces after their parents are tragically killed. The oldest of these kids, Annabelle, is haunted by the idea that if it doesn’t work out, they’ll be split up and put into foster homes. Since Yank is basically a good guy (though a sexist jerk), that would never happen. But Annabelle doesn’t know this and spends her childhood from that point on “selling” herself and her sisters to Yank and trying her best to keep them all together as a family.
Years later, we catch up as Yank and his now-adult nieces are having a board meeting at The Hot Zone, the family-owned and operated PR firm. Annabelle and her sisters all have positions in the company, playing to their individual talents. Annabelle is still hurting over a sports-jock client who dumped her during a relationship. She is aware of her tendency to be needy and give her heart too easily, so this episode makes her even more wary of men.
Brandon Vaughn is a retired ex-football legend who hires Yank’s company to do some PR for him. He has an unsettling effect on Anabelle, which she does not welcome. Yank, deciding to do a little family meddling, throws the two together by making Brandon her client – against her wishes.
Brandon is in a tricky spot: his newest venture, the Lodge, which is designed to provide facilities for disadvantaged children and vacationing families, is suffering from the crude sabotage attempts of an unknown offender. With all the bad publicity, he is losing advance bookings and needs Annabelle’s PR skills to turn it around. While he wouldn’t normally be so desperate to make an investment work since he’s worth bazillions, his co-investor and long time buddy, Nick, is at risk of losing a sizeable amount of cash if it doesn’t work. Add to this Brandon’s troubled relationship with his parents – they are academics and despise his athletic prowess – and he is still deeply scarred by their reaction to his dyslexia.
When Annabelle learns she will have to stay with Brandon in his home in the small town where the the Lodge is being built, she is not pleased. She needs the information he can provide in order to get to the heart of the sabotage mystery and present the facility at its best, but Brandon was hurt by a grasping ex-wife and is extremely reluctant to trust her with his deepest secrets.
In many ways, this book was very clichéd. As mentioned earlier, we have seen the sports jock and hot babe scenario a few times already, and the feeble sabotage subplot was an annoyance that didn’t serve any purpose other than to drag out Brandon and Annabelle’s Big Misunderstanding. Also, I was really aggravated by Annabelle’s neediness and insecurities. I felt that at the age of 29, she really should not be having nightly nightmares about her family being split up. The cheesy scene where, after a night of passion with Brandon, she at last sleeps without nightmares gave me a (metaphorical) barf-attack. Annabelle’s family also had “sequel” tattooed all over them which made me rather resent their crudely done intrusions into the main plot.
Yet the story was enjoyable on many other levels too – Annabelle in particular reminded me of the heroines of Jennifer Crusie’s much-loved novels. Although Annabelle was physically pretty perfect, something not really seen in Crusie’s heroines, she was very straightforward with Brandon, with a smart mouth and strong attitude that won me over. Brandon’s characterization was a little less well done. His insecurities were not written in a realistic manner, but I appreciated the way he didn’t just fall into Annabelle’s lap, and the fact that he messed up once or twice with her also made him a more credibly enjoyable hero. Also, having enjoyed the work of Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Rachel Gibson, I was pleased to find something in a similar (sports-related) vein.
In a nutshell, while in synopsis the book might sound like a rewrite of previous books, it was more meaty and well-written than I had expected, and the vivid characters brought it to life. If you enjoy stories of handsome, rich athletic men and feisty women, then this is definitely one to watch out for.