Fallen From Grace by Laura Leone
(Five Star, $26.95, NC-17) ISBN 0-7862-4708-8
Laura Leone dedicates this book to her editor at Five Star who agreed that ďromance readers want a good story more than they want a safe one.Ē Leone, author of a dozen category romances as well as several fantasy novels (written under her real name, Laura Resnick), is definitely not afraid to take risks. But is Leoneís unconventional love story as satisfying as it is shocking? Fortunately, Iím pleased to report that Fallen From Grace is a fast-moving, compelling read, albeit one that might not appeal to more traditional romance readers.

Sara Diamond hopes that a change of scenery will jump-start her faltering writing career. She has sold her plush modern condo and moved to a smaller, older apartment in San Franciscoís Glen Park neighborhood. She plans to concentrate on writing a new novel and finding a different publisher, but her focus is distracted by her attractive next-door neighbor, professional model Ryan Kinsmore. Handsome, charming and supportive, Ryan helps Sara cope with her professional insecurities and Sara helps Ryan care for his assortment of pets while he is away on modeling assignments. But the closer they get to a romantic relationship, the more Ryan resists. Sara thinks Ryan isnít interested because she is 9 years older, but Ryan knows the situation is much more complex. His modeling career is just a cover - in reality, Ryan is a high-priced escort who is paid to do anything his clients desire, including satisfying them sexually. In short, heís a prostitute.

Before things between them heat up beyond the boiling point, Ryan feels that he has to tell Sara the truth, although he knows she will be horrified and repulsed. Although Sara is horrified, she realizes that Ryan is a good person who has ended up in a sordid, illegal profession because of a lack of options. Sheís determined to help him find a new way to live so they can be together. But someone else doesnít want Ryan to change, and will do just about anything to keep him in the sex-for-hire business.

Although Iíve read quite a few novels with heroes who had spent time on the streets, Fallen From Grace is the first time Iíve encountered an active male prostitute. My romantic fantasies donít stretch quite this far, but it was difficult to resist Ryan. Heís smart, funny and caring, and once he starts to believe that Sara wonít reject him outright, determined to go legit. It seems unrealistic that a man who has endured countless hardships since age 13 would still have so many Sensitive New Age Guy characteristics, but this is a romance novel after all, and one womanís rescue fantasy. Laura Leone doesnít sugar-coat the realities of Ryanís past or his present lifestyle, but she only portrays him on the job in one scene, making the novel much less prurient and voyeuristic than it could have been.

Sara Diamond may bear more than a passing resemblance to Leone herself, a former mid-list author who was dropped by her publisher. Saraís angry comments about the harsh financial realities of the publishing world definitely have a ring of authenticity. I donít know what other characteristics Sara shares with her creator, but I liked the fact that she is a Jewish heroine whose heritage helps define but never limits or stereotypes her. Leone totally nails the portrayal of Saraís father Abel, who will accept anyone - even a Catholic ex-prostitute son-in-law - as long as he is a liberal Democrat.

Leone deftly balances the sexual tension between Sara and Ryan with moments of humor, many contributed by Ryanís dog Macy, who appears to have wandered into the story straight from a Jennifer Crusie novel. Saraís struggle to accept Ryan despite his profession, and Ryanís journey towards self-forgiveness and change are insightfully portrayed, and the honest communication between the two is refreshing.

There are a few places in which the novelís writing could have been a little tighter and the editing a little more careful. But Fallen From Grace is recommended for its unusual pairing, its audacity to examine the seamier side and its ultimate message of hope and redemption. Because of Five Starís limited market, Leone may not have a bestseller on her hands, but I hope her comeback novel generates the buzz it deserves.

--Susan Scribner

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