Passion by Lisa Valdez
(Berkley Sensation, $6.99, NC-17) ISBN 0-425-20397-2
Passion certainly lives up to its name. It appears that mainstream publishers are ready to jump on the erotica bandwagon; this book is not for the faint of heart. Readers will find explicit, graphic sex, and lots of it. What may come as a welcome surprise is the entertaining and well-developed storyline that goes along with it.

Passion Elizabeth Dare (named for Passion Sunday, her birthday) is a young widow who wishes to live out a quiet life in the country. Her dreams of love were destroyed by her unhappy marriage, and her inability to bear a child has left her with little self-confidence. Concerned, her vicar father and two loving sisters have encouraged her to visit relatives in London. Passion is content to spend some time with her Aunt Matty. The last thing she expects is a sensual encounter with a handsome stranger.

Mark Hawkmore, the Earl of Langley, has no more illusions about love than Passion. His vicious mother withheld her love in favor of Markís younger brother, Matthew, her child from an affair with a gardener. Upon finding herself pregnant some twenty-odd years earlier, Lucinda Hawkmore had gloated about her deed to her friend Abigail Lawrence in a letter. Later, Lucinda unceremoniously dropped Abigail. Now Abigail is seeking revenge. Mark must marry Abigailís daughter Charlotte and make her a countess, or his beloved brother Matt will discover his illegitimacy in the London papers.

Matt is desperately in love with his fiancťe, Rosalind, and Mark will do anything to protect his brotherís happiness, even marrying a young girl he dislikes. Then he meets Passion, and their chance encounter leads to a hot sexual interlude behind a screen in the Gothic Furniture Room of the Londonís Crystal Palace. They agree to meet again, and again, never disclosing their names. Passion will return to the country in two months, and she reasons that by then, Mark will tire of their affair. Mark believes she is right.

As their affair deepens, Mark finds heís emotionally bonding with a woman for the first time. Passion revels in the sensuality she uncovers with Mark and the feeling of being cherished and valued. Though neither wants to admit it, this is no ordinary affair, and as time passes, both realize they will have a hard time walking away from something so special. When Markís engagement comes to light, to Passionís cousin, no less, their newfound love will be put to the test.

This story would have been entertaining even without the heavy dose of sex. The plot is constructed carefully, and both Mark and Passion have solid reasons for their beliefs. Lucinda and Abigail are venomous in the extreme, but they are balanced by Charlotte and Marksí brother, Matt, who are sympathetic. Matt, in fact, will be featured in the next book of this trilogy about Passion and her sisters. And Mark, who disdains Society and would prefer to marry a commoner, is given more depth by his unusual occupation Ė heís a gifted architect.

Now, for the graphic sex. While some of it seems borderline silly (making love several times behind a wooden screen in a room with dozens of other people, and never being discovered?) the author lets readers know what theyíre in for by putting the first sex scene right up front. After the initial surprise wears off, the graphic language becomes wallpaper, more or less. Mark, who is equipped like the proverbial horse, has declared he will only wed a woman whose body can fully accept him. The authorís solution to this had me running to the Internet to consult a few anatomical diagrams, and while perhaps plausible, it sounded dangerous, not to mention highly uncomfortable.

But the story is entertaining and absorbing, and the author does a great job of showing the reader Markís emotions and confusion as he realizes heís falling in love. I wish the two leads had spent a bit more time together out of the bedroom (or the Crystal Palace, for that matter) but I believed in their romance, so it was a success in that respect.

Mattís story is up next (no pun intended) with Passionís sister, Patience. The teaser chapter in the back of the book features the beginning of a bondage scene, so readers who enjoy this erotic historical romance will have another installment to look forward to. Passion is that special book that mixes a sizzling romance with an intriguing story, and itís a real treat for readers.

--Cathy Sova

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