Naughty or Nice? by Sherrilyn Kenyon, Carly Phillips, Patricia Ryan, Kathryn Smith
(St. Martins, $6.50, R) ISBN 0-312-98102-3
This quartet of spicy holiday stories offers plenty of heat for readers who want steamy love scenes in their tales. From this aspect, the anthology is a success. In the rush to veiled eroticism, however, things like plot and characterization got left behind.

Patricia Ryan’s “Santa Baby” is the opening story. A wealthy socialite offers private eye Jack O’Leary fifty thousand dollars to lure her husband’s mistress away. Since Jack wants to set up his own security firm, he agrees to try and seduce Katherine Peale. But Katherine is no gold-digger, of course. She’s a former socialite who is now a do-gooder of sorts. Jack soon finds himself falling for Katherine and regretting his deception. What will Katherine do when she finds out?

Jack is likable enough, and Katherine sympathetic, though one has to wonder what kind of private eye Jack is to get all the details of Katherine’s life so wrong. And a few items didn’t make sense, like Katherine not knowing that her wealthy boyfriend is married. One pass through the society pages would take care of that. The climax is standard stuff with absolutely no surprises. It’s competent, but unmemorable.

Sherrilyn Kenyon’s “Love Bytes” (oh, come on, hasn’t that title been done to death already?) is the story of two co-workers at an e-commerce website. The premise is clever. Samantha Parker has the hots for Adrian Cole, her six-foot-five, color-blind boss. What she doesn’t know is that Adrian feels the same way about her. When they end up at Adrian’s apartment, things heat up.

This story was frustrating because the central core was solid, but everything else about it was borderline idiotic. Adrian’s mother and sister are so cartoonishly unpleasant that they make Adrian look like a doormat for putting up with them for more than five minutes. The climax involves a ridiculous setup that will leave readers groaning out loud. The sex is hot and carefully crafted, but the rest of the story felt slapdash at best.

“Naughty Under the Mistletoe” by Carly Phillips is the story of lawyer Toni Larson, who decides to be bad and seduce the co-worker she’s attracted to. Unfortunately for Toni, she kisses his twin brother under the mistletoe at the office Christmas party. Maxwell Corbin isn’t complaining. He finds the woman dressed in an elf costume enchanting. Max, the black sheep of the family, decides to pursue Toni, who doesn’t fight all that hard.

I read this story twice and can still barely remember it. There was a spicy sex scene, and Toni and Max end up together, but it left virtually no impression on me. Neither one of them were compelling or interesting, and the story fell flat.

“A Christmas Charade” by Kathryn Smith is the last offering. Garrett Maxwell, Viscount Praed, is rescued from a French prison by widow Elizabeth Vail, who takes him to a waiting ship. (Don’t scrutinize this too hard.) Garrett and Elizabeth throw caution to the winds and engage in some hot sex on board, but once they arrive in London, Elizabeth vanishes. She’s not good enough for him, you see, because she’s not nobility and he needs a noble wife. Garrett searches high and low for her, and finally gives up and becomes engaged, only to run into Elizabeth again at a house party. Now what?

Praed and Elizabeth almost have sex again a couple of times, but back off before actually doing the deed. She's tormented by thoughts of “I’m not good enough for you”. Garrett decides to convince Elizabeth that they are made for each other. His fiancée shows up at an inconvenient moment. Other than the shipboard sex, you’ve read it all before.

And maybe that’s the biggest letdown of this anthology. As I read it, I felt that the stories were just standard stuff, forced along too quickly in order to get to the sex. Plots were patched together with exasperating elements just to get the hero and heroine together for one more hot roll in the sack. If you’re looking for a more erotic read, Naughty or Nice might be something worthwhile. Otherwise, I can’t recommend it.

--Cathy Sova

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