Rough Around the Edges
by Susan Johnson, Eileen Wilks,
Dee Holmes & Stephanie Laurens
(St. Martins, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-312-96599-0
This quartet of stories revolves around the theme of reforming a rake. It's a mixed bag, though one stands above the rest.

Headliner Susan Johnson leads off with Playing With Fire. Rupert Marsh, the Duke of Ware, is about to enter into a loveless marriage with lovely Olivia Overton. Olivia's money will allow him to make much-needed repairs to the family estate. The author travels a well-worn path as the rakehell meets the innocent and sexual sparks fly, leading to declarations of love. If you are willing to believe that a hot time in the sack is the path to True Happiness, you may well enjoy this tale. Fans of Susan Johnson's work will be pleased to note that her trademark explicitness is here in force. But it comes at a price, as these are not two well-developed characters. We hardly know them at all outside the bedroom, in fact. This wasn't a very satisfying read for me.

Eileen Wilks' Simple Sins is next, with the tale of Felicity Armstrong and Damon Reed. We meet them as Felicity is disconnecting the phone wires to Damon's cabin, then passing herself off as hapless motorist "Lily Smith" in order to get inside and look for a secret paper. Stuntman Damon is a former love interest, and he quickly remembers Felicity. The jig is up.

Felicity struck me as rather silly and na´ve, and the purple cast to the prose made me roll my eyes on more than one occasion. I did like the character of Damon. He, at least, was honest and blunt, and his gradual realization that his life is empty is interesting to watch.

Dee Holmes' Once Burned is the third story in the quartet. Mariah Thornton is riding to Rhode Island with her ex-lover, mercenary soldier Deke Laslo. A year ago, Deke walked out of her life with no explanation. Now, through a mutual acquaintance, Mariah is determined to prove that he no longer means anything to her by sharing a trip to New England. After a while, despite their best intentions, they are unable to keep their hands off each other.

The characters were interesting; the motivations were foggy at best. By the end of the story, Deke has done a complete about-face, and I never really understood his conflict to begin with. This was a story that didn't seem to have a believable core to it. Deke, who supposedly fears emotional commitment, instead came across as sullen and self-indulgent.

The final story, Stephanie Laurens' Melting Ice, was easily the best of the bunch, and what probably saves this anthology from a two-heart rating. Dyan St. Laurent Dare, the Duke of Darke (okay, the title is ridiculous) is in a snit. His loathsome Aunt Augusta is pressuring him to marry and has taken up residence in Darke Abbey until he does so. Dyan escapes to neighboring Brooke Hall, the home of his friends Henry and Harriet, where he promptly runs into the only lady that he's ever truly cared about, lovely Fiona Winton-Ryder. Their brief flirtation fifteen years earlier left him humiliated; Fiona, for her part, was sure he was only trifling with her heart. Now they must join forces. For the "dinner party" they've crashed is actually the stage for an orgy, and to protect Fiona, Dyan must pretend to claim her as his prize for the night.

The premise of this story was quirky enough to be entertaining without being silly. Laurens certainly has a strong handle on good dialogue, and she managed to flesh out her characters (no pun intended) and allow me to get to know them, no small feat in a story that's less than 80 pages long. It's easy to see why she's earned her reputation as a rising star in the world of romance fiction. I don't know if I'd buy this book on the strength of her story alone, but I'd consider it.

--Cathy Sova

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