Welcome to Leo's
by Rochelle Alers, Donna Hill, Brenda Jackson and Francis Ray
(St. Martin’s, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-312-97588-0
****
In January of 1999, St. Martin’s released Rosie’s Curl and Weave, an anthology set in an upscale salon in Harlem, with romances by Rochelle Alers, Donna Hill, Felicia Mason and Francis Ray. Romance readers immediately took Rosie’s to heart and the anthology continues to be a bestseller. The publisher followed the success of Rosie’s Curl and Weave with two more collections - Island Magic and Della’s House of Style, the latter a direct spin-off of Rosie’s. The combination of talented authors, overall concept, good storylines and the watchful eye of editor Glenda Howard have elevated the phrases “must read” and “eagerly awaited” from a reviewer’s hyperbole to a course of action.

Welcome to Leo’s carries on the winning tradition established nearly two years ago. Leo’s is a trendy supper club in the District of Columbia. Owned and operated by four members of the Hardcastle family, Leo’s is the place to see and be seen. Leo’s also serves as a backdrop for new romances by four of my favorite writers.

Rochelle Alers, the only author whose work has appeared in each of the four St. Martin’s collections, leads off the anthology with “Second Chance.” Event planner Leigh Walcott was widowed thirty years ago when a drunk driver took the lives of her husband and their infant son. Leigh was badly injured in the accident. Surgeons reconstructed her face. A therapist helped reconstruct her psyche. But at 53, Leigh=s heart is still broken. She has closed herself off from a loving relationship for fear of suffering another tragic loss.

When Leigh suffers a nasty fall during a rainstorm, she is rushed to a local hospital for treatment. There, she is attended to by Dr. Scott Alexander, head of the facility's trauma unit. Leigh has only a bad ankle sprain. But Dr. Alexander, a 55-year-old career bachelor, is attracted to her. Not only does the good doctor make house calls, he is all too eager to show her his bedside manner. When Leigh rebuffs his advances, he devises a way to spend more time with her. Dr. Alexander hires her to plan two special events - with the help of the personnel at Leo’s.

Picking up on the theme of her novella “Far From Home” in the Island Magic anthology, Alers has crafted a wonderful second chance romance that proves that Baby Boomers need love, too.

Jae Crawford, the heroine of Donna Hill’s “Eye of the Beholder,” grew up in the Mississippi Delta as the sheltered only child of a preacher. Shy and inexperienced, Jae currently lives in Washington, D.C. where she is an English professor at Georgetown. When Jae is encouraged by her outgoing best friend to spend her birthday at Leo’s, she reluctantly agrees. Jae has never been to a nightclub and isn’t sure what she will find at Leo’s which she assumes will be a smoke-filled urban den of iniquity. She is pleasantly surprised by the sights and sounds at Leo’s - including Clyde Burrell.

Clyde is the entertainment manager at Leo’s. He recognizes Jae as a hidden treasure. Jae sees him as a “slickster.” And after talking with her and hearing her views on the nightclub scene and the people who frequent it, Clyde decides against telling her what he does for a living. He leads her to believe he is an accountant in order to buy himself enough time to get to know her. As their relationship progresses, Clyde finds it harder and harder to tell her the truth.

Donna Hill has created a wonderful set of characters. Jae’s metamorphosis from “a spoonful of brown gravy” appearance to a femme fatale is awe inspiring. The author has given us several very visual scenes in a great story about love and faith and how even little lies can take on lives of their own. As always, the author’s appeciation for music provides another dimension to the story.

Brenda Jackson is a newcomer to the St. Martin’s anthology group. “Main Agenda” is the second chance story of journalist Raven Anderson and attorney Lincoln Corbain. Linc has recently moved to Washington, D.C. At Leo’s, he encounters Raven. It has been four years since the two have seen each other. When Linc was in his last semester of law school and Raven was completing her undergraduate studies, they met during a popular spring rite, the Black Colleges Weekend in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Theirs was a passionate spring fling. They parted with no strings, no regrets and lots and lots of memories. Those memories come flooding back during their reunion at Leo’s. Linc is determined not to let her get away again. Raven is just as determined that, while she has never forgotten him, her main agenda item is her career, not a serious relationship.

This is Brenda Jackson’s first journey away from her popular stories about the Madaris family and their friends. The author has proven that she is a talented author who can work beyond the familiar environment of her series and hold her own with St. Martin’s anthology veterans Alers, Hill and Ray. There is an interesting subplot involving Raven's equally driven sisters - Robin and Falcon.

Francis Ray's “Sweet Temptation” is the final story in the anthology. Last year was a busy year for Francis Ray. “Sweet Temptations” is only the second new Francis Ray romance of the year. However, it was worth the wait.

Texas Ranger Chase Braxton has come to Washington to teach a criminal justice seminar at Howard University. Since Chase doesn’t know anyone in the city, his boss’ wife has asked him to contact her friend, Julia Ferrington. She has sweetened the pot by making his favorite dessert as an inducement. Bachelor Chase can smell a set-up, but he grudgingly makes the call and is relieved to get Julia’s answering machine. He leaves a brief message and considers his obligation to his boss’ wife fulfilled.

When Julia receives Chase’s brusque message, she responds in kind. Later, feeling guilty about the tone of her response, she sends him a gift basket decadent gourmet goodies from her business, Sweet Temptations. Chase is intrigued by her gesture and is determined to meet her. They meet - at Leo’s - for dinner and are immediately attracted to each other. However, Chase will only be in town for six weeks and neither is anxious to begin a long-distance relationship.

They face other challenges including Julia's two overprotective big sisters, class lines and their respective jobs.

The characters, plot and dialogue are right on in this well paced romance. As an added bonus, an excerpt from Ray's forthcoming mainstream for St. Martin's, The Turning Point, is included.

Welcome to Leo’s is a solid four-heart read with a collection of equally matched stories. The authors have worked well within the framework of the anthology, unifying the collection with identifying descriptions of the supper club and glimpses of the Hardcastle family that own it.

It seems that each of the four Hardcastles is unattached. Hopefully, a collection of stories about this close-knit and interesting family is forthcoming. In the meantime, Welcome to Leo’s is a welcome addition to my growing collection of St. Martin’s anthologies.

--Gwendolyn Osborne


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