Secrets of a Perfect Night
by Stephanie Laurens, Victoria Alexander & Rachel Gibson
(Avon, $6.99, R) ISBN 0-380-81805-1
****
This anthology features stories by three established romance authors. Each has some connection to New Year’s Day.

The first - and longest - story is “Scandalous Lord Dere” by Stephanie Laurens set in Regency England. Adrian Hawsley, Viscount Dere, is returning home after a long absence. After years of working hard to establish a scandalous reputation, he has become disgusted by the endless series of meaningless affairs.

After his curricle is damaged in an accident during a snowstorm, Adrian barely manages to get his tiger and himself to safety at a nearby cottage. He recognizes the woman who opens the door as Abigail Woolley, whom he had loved and left seven years earlier.

Adrian is suffering from dangerous exposure to the cold. In order to warm him, Abby crawls into his bed, and things soon get very, very warm although Adrian has little recollection of the encounter. His injuries and the continuing snowstorm force him to stay at Abby’s cottage for several days. In that time, he discovers the girl he’d left behind has become a desirable woman.

Abby is adamant that she will neither marry him nor be his mistress, but Adrian doesn’t give up so easily.

The story suffers from some major logic gaps in the plot and in the characters’ thinking. The best aspect of this story is Ms. Laurens’ creative sex scenes, but you can find those in other of her works and get a better story around them. Moreover, the specifics of the final scene are so highly improbable it leaves a negative impression.

I’m getting a wee bit fed up with gorgeous, powerful heroes who have a sexual history that begs for a database software program to keep track of all the partners. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t care much for Adrian. He’s going back home after years of tomcatting around because he feels used by all those women who want him only for his body or his reputation as a great lover. Poor baby! So is he attracted to Abby for her mind? Yeah, right.

Abby is a more likable character, but she’s not very consistent in her attitudes. She insists that she will not marry Adrian or become his mistress, but she’s having regular sleepovers in his bed. What else is she if not his mistress? And her reason for refusing to marry him is downright silly and goes on for far too long. In fact, the whole story goes on for far too long.

“The Last Love Letter” by Victoria Alexander, which is also set in Regency England, tells the story of young lovers separated for a decade by deceit. Seventeen-year-old Rachael Gresham and youthful her lover Jason Norcross are plotting a secret elopement from a New Year’s Eve ball. They know that Rachael’s malicious father will never agree to their being wed.

Rachael waits for two hours, but Jason does not show. Her father informs her that Jason has abandoned her, sailing alone to America - Jason never intended her to accompany him. Rachael surprises her father, however, when she informs him about their affair - no man will want her now. George Norcross, Earl of Lyndhurst, Jason’s cousin, tells her that he does. Even though she does not love him, Rachael and George marry.

After seven years, Jason returns to England to visit his dying cousin. Rachael’s father had had Jason captured so that he could not meet Rachael as planned then lied to him about her killing herself. George admits that he has known the truth for years, but by the time he learned he and Rachael were married and he could not give her up.

Three years later George has died, and Jason, now the Earl of Lyndhurst, has once again returned to England. George has left letters for them both; Rachael at last learns the truth about her father’s actions. Is it too late for her and Jason?

This is pleasant story that should appeal to many readers, as well as the only one that deserves less than an R rating. It has an unconventional form, unfolding in flashbacks and through George’s letters. Even though the hero and heroine should be the focus of a romance, I confess to having a certain fondness for George. While he lacked the necessary resolve to inform Rachael that he knew Jason had not abandoned her, he was not an accessory to her father’s deeds and what he did was out of love.

The final - and shortest - story, “Now and Forever,” a contemporary by Rachel Gibson is the best of the three. Brina McConnell has returned to the ski resort town of Galliton Pass for her ten-year high school class reunion. Nicknamed “Munchkin” in high school, she has added two inches in height to reach five-two and developed a bust, but she still suffers from a feeling of inferiority even though she has a successful career as an investigator.

Back in high school, she had dumped her long-time friend and sometime boyfriend Thomas Mack when the football star quarterback asked her to the Christmas dance then got dumped herself when his old girlfriend, the perfectly beautiful Holly, decided she wanted him back. As a result, she=d had no contact with Thomas in the succeeding years.

Thomas Mack had been a geeky kid who like Brina was from a non-rich, working family. His intelligence and ability got him scholarship offers to top universities. Brina is shocked to hear from a classmate that Thomas has made a fortune in a computer application company. She is even more shocked to learn that the man she’s concluded is an underwear model is in fact the former super-geek Thomas. (It did seem odd that Brina has been ignorant of Thomas’s situation in all the time since high school graduation. After all, she’s an investigator: wasn’t she even remotely curious what had happened to her long-time best friend?) Now that Thomas has become rich, famous, and handsome, the ever-beautiful Holly is interested in him. What chance will the short, ordinary Brina possibly have?

This is a story for those of us who spent high school being on the outside looking in, whose bust measurement was a teeny-tiny fraction of our I.Q., and who got asked to the prom by a geeky, gangly guy with crooked glasses and two left feet. It=s so-o-o easy to identify with Brina. She’s made something of her life - she’s changed a lot since high school: she’s got her act together and a job she likes - but a few words with her Malibu Barbie classmate, and all those old insecurities are perking up again.

I don’t know what happened to my geeky, gangly prom date, but I hope today he’s a millionaire who could pass for an underwear model. Reading this story and imagining that we grew up like Brina and Thomas is the best revenge!

I found the Laurens and Alexander stories to be acceptable, but the Gibson story lifts this anthology to the recommended level. If you=re looking for something to wile away a few hours over the New Year’s weekend, this might be a good choice.

--Lesley Dunlap


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