Smooth Talkin' Stranger
Lorraine Heath’s Smooth Talkin’ Stranger is a slow, intimate character piece. It’s a very familiar, very predictable story, and in many ways it feels like nothing more than a pretty good Harlequin Superromance. But Heath’s gentle storytelling and memorable character moments make it a moving experience all the same.
Serena Hamilton had been alone since her husband’s death, raising their young son on her own in a small Texas town. When her mother dies, the grief and loneliness catches up with her and she seeks comfort in the arms of a stranger. She meets Hunter Fletcher in a bar and spends one passionate night with him. The next morning brings regret, but also the realization that he stirred something inside her she’s never felt before.
Hunter is a CIA agent who avoids attachments at all costs. But there’s something about Serena that burrows under his skin. They begin a tentative courtship, with Serena slowly pulling Hunter into a family life he’s never known. But Hunter has secrets he can’t share with Serena. She has no idea what he really does, and worse, she doesn’t know about the connection he has to her past.
The book doesn’t get off to the strongest start. It’s a little slow, and the heroine is so morose her angst weighs down the narrative. Heath also indulges in the too-typical authorial trick of building up the new love interest by diminishing the old one. After her night with Hunter, Serena thinks, “Steve had been tall, but this man was taller, broader, gave the impression of power waiting to be unleashed.” And a few pages later, “As good as Steve had been, he’d never been that good.”
By the time Serena reveals that Steve was “a Star Trek geek,” I was waiting for the author to make the inevitable comparison between Hunter, a sex machine who was all man, and Steve, a pencil-necked geek with a small package. Thankfully she shows enough restraint to avoid going that far. Since this is only Heath’s second contemporary, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that some of her storytelling also feels a little dated, particularly some of the dialogue. While discussing her dead mother, Serena’s best friend says, “She was a swell lady.” I couldn’t help wondering what ’50s movie he’d escaped from. That’s the kind of line you’d expect to hear coming out of Wally Cleaver’s mouth, not a modern day man in his late 20s.
But after the first few chapters, the story begins to find its rhythm. It’s a quiet, very character-driven story. It’s a good choice for readers hungry for stories that focus on the main couple and their unfolding relationship. There’s no external action, no subplots and only four or five characters, which is just one of the reasons it reminded me so strongly of a series romance. It really is just Hunter and Serena, with her son, father and best friend providing backup, and the occasional appearance by a few others who pop in briefly. For the most part the story unfolds in long conversations as the main couple gets to know each other and weathers the bumps in their relationship.
It should be noted that the story is also very predictable. As soon as they had one conversation, I immediately filled in what was going to happen next, as well as the characters’ reactions to it. It all unfolded accordingly. Many of the events are taken straight out of romance (particularly series romance) staples. Hunter also has the typical overblown tortured childhood, apparently the requisite for every romance hero these days, and his Big Secret is seemingly forgotten for a long period in the middle of the book, looming over the proceedings until it comes out right on schedule in the most obvious way.
And yet, despite the obviousness of the plot, the story works. Even without much outside action, it’s not boring. It’s sweet and lowkey. It’s all in the way Heath digs into the characters’ emotions, more so than many authors would in this type of story. There are so many quiet, yet incredibly moving little moments. Some of the emotional turning points are very powerful. While there are no surprises to be found in the story, there are many small pleasures. Serena’s not one of those tough, kick-ass heroines, but in her own way, she has an inner strength and uncompromising ideas about what she wants from the man in her life. Hunter is one of those heroes who doesn’t realize just how good and honorable he is, though he proves it to Serena, and the reader, time and again. Humor emerges at the most unexpected times, and there are some good lines. The relationship between Serena and her father is particularly nice. Her son Riker is a normal kid, neither cloyingly cute or an annoying brat.
Smooth Talkin’ Stranger is, appropriately enough, much like a slow dance with a stranger. Slow, gentle and seductive, it starts out a little uncertain and uncomfortable. Then, as the story settles into its rhythm, it really starts to click. While it is predictable, it’s a solid example of what a good author can do with familiar material. The overall story is not too memorable, but Heath’s quiet emotional moments pack a real punch and make it a book worth reading.