Fascinated
by Bertrice Small, Susan Johnson, Thea Devine & Robin Schone
(Kensington, $14.00, NC-17) ISBN 1-57566-606-5
**
Written by the same four authors who penned the novellas in the anthology, Captivated, Fascinated features stories intended for an audience of adult readers who are looking for very explicit and graphic sexual content. Four-letter Anglo-Saxon words and exact terms for body parts are prevalent.

The cover describes the anthology as being ‘Tales of Erotic Romance.’ That description is misleading because only two of the stories really apply. Two of them are decidedly unromantic. Romance involves more than the convergence of particular body parts - there’s got to be some heart, mind, and soul involvement as well. Two of the stories recognize that; the other two don’t even give it a passing nod.

The first story set in England in 1750, “Mastering Lady Lucinda,” by Bertrice Small is arguably the worst of the bunch. Lady Lucinda Harrington is a widow. She wishes to buy a house and live there alone. Her brother, the Bishop of Wellington, is adamantly opposed to her plan. Women do not live alone. If she will not remarry, she must live with him.

Lucinda has three suitors, each one repulsive in his own way. She declines their suits, insulting them. With the connivance of her brother, the three arrange for her to be kidnapped and brought to a meeting of the Devil’s Disciples, a sort of hellfire club. At that meeting she is first assaulted and humiliated then sentenced to three months of retraining in a woman’s proper duty by The Master. At the end of the period, she will choose a husband.

The Master is a masked man of nearly legendary proportions who arranges a mind-boggling variety of sexual encounters for her. Lucinda almost immediately becomes a very avid pupil, but there’s no reduction in her sentence for good behavior - of course, ‘good behavior’ under the tutelage of The Master is very bad indeed. She’ll spend the whole summer there.

There’s one - undoubtedly unintended - funny line in this story. “Wake up, Lucinda! It is time for your morning spanking.” I wish I could say that that line is an indication of the tongue-in-cheek humor of this story, but unfortunately the story’s particular tongue-in-cheek activities are far removed from humor. This story has everything: multiple rapes, incest, S&M, bondage, domination, ménage a trois, group sex, sex with instruments -everything except a hint of romance, that is. I would say that this is a story designed to appeal to prurient interests except it’s hard to believe that it could appeal to anyone’s interests, prurient or otherwise. A reader could easily conclude that the heroine had it right to begin with: living alone without a male around looks mighty inviting compared to being on the same continent with any of the disgusting male characters that populate this story.

Stylistically, readers who are familiar with Ms. Small’s outrageous euphemisms will be interested to know that in “Mastering Lacy Lucinda” she abandons the infamous ‘manroot’ and ‘love grotto’ in favor of ‘cock’ and ‘love sheath.’ But dimensions are still excessive, stamina remains unflagging, and the deep purple prose is as thick and rampant as ever.

The second story, “Risking It All,” by Susan Johnson, is set in Monte Carlo at the end of the 19th century. This is the best story in the anthology - one that hasn’t lost the romance in the sexual gymnastics. The author has not forgotten that writing erotica doesn’t necessarily require the exclusion of character development. >[? Felicia Greenwood is in serious financial difficulties. Her desperate solution is to sell a piece of her late aunt’s jewelry and multiply that amount with winnings at the casino tables. She is on the brink of losing it all when a tall stranger assists her.

Lord Grafton is impressed with the beautiful redhead. He tells her he is ‘Thomas Suffolk’ but is called Flynn. Soon the two decide to spend the night together.

After the previous story, “Risking It All” seems positively sweet. The characters actually talk to each other, and a reader can understand why they might want to extend their connection beyond one night of activity. Of course, that night is remarkable for its quantity as well as quality, but at least the characters come up for air from time to time. The third story, “The Pleasure Game” by Thea Devine is a return to the subterranean level set by the first story.

The spoiled Lady Regina Olney has declared she is interested in Marcus Raulton. This upsets her father so he arranges with their neighbor Jeremy Gavage to attract her interest away from Raulton. This enrages Lady Regina and she vows revenge on them both.

In a completely incomprehensible turn of events, Regina quickly decides she’d rather be a mistress than a wife, Jeremy is sneaking into her bedroom, and Regina demonstrates an amazing aptitude for sexual pursuits.

Forget everything you’ve ever read or believed about Regency era manners, about shy, innocent virgins, and male sexual endurance. Most of all, forget there’s such a thing as character motivation. In this story the upper-class hero provokes the upper-class virginal heroine into debasing herself and begging to be his mistress, ‘upper-class virgin’ turns out to be a synonym for ‘slut’ and erections are perpetual. It’s graphic, it’s explicit, and it gets positively boring. Personally, I prefer a thin veneer of romance on those descriptions of multiple boinking.

The final story, “A Man and a Woman,” is a sequel to Robin Schone’s popular The Lady’s Tutor. Muhamed, the eunuch who was the hero’s servant in the earlier work, has returned to Cornwall, the land of his birth. This story provides more information regarding the hows of eunuchs than I ever wanted to know.

Muhamed is spending the night in an inn. He has requested the innkeeper to send a prostitute to his room. Megan Phillins, the widow of a vicar, arranges to take the prostitute’s place. Megan’s late husband believed that sexual relations were solely for the procreation of children, and since she could not have children, she has not been touched in over two decades. The night they spend together will change their lives.

Unlike the characters in the previous three stories, these characters are firmly in middle-age. Character motivation is a strength. Why would a eunuch request a prostitute? Why would a vicar’s widow substitute for one? The answers are understandable and believable. These are two lonely people who are obviously desperate for a connection to a sympathetic soul, and the physical connection is only part of it.

Ms. Schone’s individual writing style is conspicuous. The characters experience a variety of emotions. Desire. Loneliness.

Fear.

And physical reactions. Moist. Wet.

Perfect.

A warning to those who are devoutly religious: there’s one scene that may possibly offend you, but if you’re easily offended, you shouldn’t be reading this anthology at all!

Readers who are interested in stories that push the descriptive boundaries of romance may want to check out Fascinated. I recommend caution, however, because only two stories in this anthology can lay claim to being romances.

--Lesley Dunlap


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