Tonight or Never by Dara Joy
(Lovespell, $5.99, NC-17) ISBN 0-505-522160
***
Why do you read historical romances? Do you read them because you are interested in stories set in the past, because you like plots that recreate a world where the conventions of behavior were very different from our own? Do you like books where the dramatic events of the past drive the story and the hero and heroine become actors on the stage of history?

Or do you read historical romances primarily for the romance and prefer books that are light on plot but heavy on sensuality? If you are among the first category, then you probably should avoid Dara Joy's latest book. If you fit the latter, then rush out and buy this book.

What can one say about a 394 page book (big print) where 124 pages are sex scenes? That's 31% of the book. Well, one can say that Dara Joy does great sex scenes. There is sex in bed, in the bath, on a balcony, in an armoire, in a conservatory. There is sex lying down, sitting up and standing. And I don't need to point out that there is every kind of act known to the human imagination. And the hero and heroine are both willing participants and have a simply wonderful time.

The premise of Tonight or Never is tried and true. Chloe Heart has loved John, Viscount Sexton, since childhood. She was six and he was sixteen when they first met and he became the friend and protector of the little girl. John himself is the heir of Chloe's grandmother's lover and although he has expectations, he himself had a hard life before his uncle found him. His father had wasted his estate through gambling, his mother had died, and for four years he lived a hand to mouth existence. Since resuming his rightful place, he has become the most famous lover in all the land, earning the nickname "The Lord of Sex."

Chloe had decided early on that she would marry John, but she knew that domesticating the "Lord of Sex" would be a difficult task. She actually left England for two years, visiting a friend in America, in hopes that absence would make the heart grow fonder. The book begins with John making enthusiastic love to one of his many amours only to be interrupted by the announcement of Chloe's return. That he immediately leaves his mistress' bed and rushes off to greet his "little" friend is an early indication of what she means to him.

The Chloe John finds is very different from the Chloe he remembers. Now nineteen, she is no longer a child or an adolescent, but rather a beautiful woman. And this Chloe has a plan which she immediately puts into operation: to catch and keep the man she loves, a man she knows is much more than a care-for-nobody rake.

Joy has created a fine hero in the "Lord of Sex" and she does a good job of detailing his motivations and his confusion about how he feels about Chloe and what she means to him. In Chloe, Joy has created her best heroine yet. Unlike Lilac in Rejar or the heroine of High Energy (I haven't read Knight of a Trillion Stars), Chloe is a worthy match for the hero.

So why can't I recommend Tonight or Never? After all, I like the hero and heroine and thought their relationship developed nicely. But I expect more of good historical romance, great sex scenes or not.

The problem I had was the rest of the book -- that is everything that went beyond John and Chloe's story. The year is 1793 and the Terror in France is beginning. Joy has chosen to add to her book a subplot about a mysterious figure, the Black Rose, who rescues French aristocrats from the guillotine and brings them all to Chloe's estate. (That Chloe herself is half-French and that all the rescued were in some way connected to her grandmother is, I suppose, the plot justification.)

This allows Joy to introduce some amusing characters like the seven Cyn brothers and the libidinous Countess Zuzu whose actions create some tensions between the hero and heroine. But I, for one, found this very obvious homage to the Scarlet Pimpernel weakened Tonight or Never.

This is rightly meant to be a light and frivolous book, but there was nothing light or frivolous about the Terror. The glib treatment of the experiences of the refugees and their behavior upon reaching sanctuary simply don't ring true. Likewise, the impossibility of the character we come to realize is the Black Rose (especially if we've read Baroness Orczy's book) performing the feats attributed to him in the time allowed (can one get from England to Paris, rescue several people from prison, and get back to England in two or three days?) make this whole aspect of Tonight or Never seem gratuitous as well as historically inaccurate.

Which brings me back to my opening question. I obviously belong to the first category of readers of historical romance and so I cannot recommend Tonight or Never to readers like me. But if you number yourself among the second category of readers, then you'll undoubtedly enjoy Dara Joy's latest book.

--Jean Mason


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