Christmas Knight by Christina Skye
(Avon, $6.50, PG) ISBN 0-380-80022-5
****
( It's October in New England. The leaves are beginning to change, the days are cooling to chilly nights, and the new fall TV season is still, well, new. Must be time for Christmas.

Christmas you say? Why yes. The first Christmas books are starting to appear – the early snowflakes in what will become an avalanche of holiday reading material. Like the ubiquitous decorations that sprout from shopping malls, Christmas-themed romance novels seem to come earlier each year.

To quote someone from a movie, "Quel fromage." I know. It means "what cheese" but it sounds cool. I really mean to say, "Who cares. They're fun."

And a great deal of Christina Skye's Christmas Knight is just that…fun. It's got a knight in shining armor, a ghost, a cat, an old house in Scotland, a French chef, a thatched roof and three little witches named Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather. Okay. I lied about the last part. Their names are actually Morwenna, Perpetua, and Honoria…like that's any better.

The three sisters are actually the instigators of the action, as they are the parties responsible for bringing Highlander Ronan MacLeod (cousin to Duncan perhaps?) forward in time from the 13th century. He arrives in present day Scotland during a terrific rainstorm, just in time to save Hope O'Hara from falling from a roof and breaking her neck. Hope is the American-born owner of Glenbrae House, a struggling B&B. She notices straight off that MacLeod bears a striking resemblance to the portrait hanging on her staircase. But what's with his speech? And why does he insist he is the owner of Glenbrae? Yes, she admits that she is instantly attracted to him despite his highhanded manner, but she really doesn't have time for fun and games. She's having serious financial difficulties at the moment.

MacLeod has one hell of a time trying to convince Hope that what he says is true: that he was a crusader who fought for the despised King Edward and earned such a reputation for his skill that he became known as the King's Wolf. Hmm. Wolf. Could that have anything to do with the silver brooch with the wolf's head that Hope finds buried in a wall underneath the portrait? And why does MacLeod think Hope is in danger? Is that why he was brought forward?

All your questions, and then some, are eventually answered, but not before readers get to enjoy some truly spirited kissing. Indeed, the first half of Christmas Knight features some of the more tantalizing love scenes I've come across in quite some time. Both the hero and heroine are fighting their basic instincts, but whenever they do give in, they do it with great…energy.

Unfortunately, I found that energy waning a bit in the second half of the book… things start to get awfully crowded. Characters from the author's previous Draycott Abbey books begin showing up, otherworldly forces start jockeying for attention, and our hero Ronan MacLeod seems to disappear for extended periods of time. He's always in the barn or something. And believe me, if you had this guy available to help out around the house, the last place you'd send him is the barn.

MacLeod is absolutely delicious, one of those completely virile, manly men women want to mother while ripping his clothes off. And he has a good match in Hope, who's independent, outspoken, and more than willing to take on the challenge of taming a highland warrior. A few of Hope's hang-ups, (she's an orphan, she can't have children) could easily have been eliminated by the author, who is prone to throwing everything but the kitchen sink into her books. The mystery that dominates the last half is hardly a stumper, but it doesn't make for bad reading. Like I said, all those additional elements just tends to convolute things. I found myself wishing that more time had been spent on MacLeod's adjustment to modern life. One minute he's prowling around in a kilt, the next he's calling Hope, "Ms. O'Hara". That just didn't ring true.

But since we're talking time travel here…the point is moot. As for Christmas, I was a bit disappointed that it didn't figure more prominently in this seasonal read. Like many other Christmas historicals, the Holiday figures as little more than a backdrop. The magic of this wonderful season was surprisingly absent from a book so steeped in magic.

But aside from those minor complaints, I found Christmas Knight a thoroughly enjoyable read. Christina Skye's obvious affection for her characters is transmitted through every page, and the reader can't help but falling in love with them as well.

--Ann McGuire


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