by Anne Stuart, Cherry Adair, and Muriel Jensen; contemporary (2004)
Harlequin, $6.50, ISBN 0-373-83597-3
The anthology Date With A Devil contains three novellas that share a common theme: the heroines meet supposedly dangerous and seductive men in situations the heroines do not get into voluntarily. Okay, this description fits ninety-nine point nine percent of the romance novels being released every month, but hey, it's as good a theme as any for an anthology so let's not quibble too much.
But trust Anne Rice to take things maybe a little too literally and send a devil's minion to seduce our heroine in Blind Date From Hell. This novella is Anne Stuart at her lighter moods. Our hero Gideon (no last name) is a resident of the 347th level of Hell. Life isn't that bad there, although Gideon, a debauched womanizer in a past life he can't really remember, doesn't think much of the total absence of women there. The boss of that level, Ralph, has an eye infection that can be cured only by the seduction and defloration of a virgin. So he sends Gideon to do the dirty job. Ralph gets his eyesight back and Gideon gets promoted to the 346th level of Hell.
The virgin is question is the model Samantha (also no last name). Gideon is sent to present-day as a friend of Aaron McAndrews. Aaron is a jerk that is involved with Sam's friend Jasmine. Jasmine, a foolish woman that falls for jerks like Aaron, begs Sam to go on a blind date with Aaron's friend so that Aaron will see Jasmine in a more favorable light. Sam thinks that Jasmine is just wasting her time with Aaron, but what the heck, it's just a blind date, right? She'll act like she always does if the man is a jerk - and as Aaron's friend, he's most likely a jerk - and chalks this up as another blind date from hell at the end of the day.
Despite the silly premise, this novella doesn't take absurd lengths to fetishize Sam's virginity. Sam comes off as a pretty normal heroine that's holding out for Mr Right. She's not some robotic creature oblivious to the world around her, nor is she some super-tragic naive roadkill. One can argue that she gets into sack with Gideon too early, but this story doesn't have the luxury of a longer word count, so I think Ms Stuart has done the best she could under the circumstances. Sam is a great heroine as she is an intelligent woman that plunges into a relationship with Gideon with both eyes wide open. Likewise, Gideon is a great hero in that he doesn't moan, whine, and mope about his bad boy persona.
By the way, I understand that the author is a big fan of Japanese animated flicks. It shows in this novella, especially in the hero's melodramatic breakdown scene in the rain that could have been any typical epiphany scene in those anime flicks. This novella hits a pothole when Gideon threatens to play the martyr, but thankfully his nonsense lasts for only two pages. Apart from that discordant note and the hero's perplexingly easy redemption from Hell, The Blind Date From Hell is a fabulous little story.
In Dance With The Devil, Cherry Adair has her secret agent hero Jack Ryan sneakily manipulate his ex-partner and ex-lover Mia Rossi into a mission to retrieve a disk... I think. This story, like the author's previous few full-length books, is a dud for a secret agent story because everything seems to be an excuse for sex, damn logic and context. Jack and Mia spend their time squabbling about their relationship when they should be focusing their attention on their mission, and the whole tomfoolery culminates in a sex scene in a very stupid place in a totally inappropriate context. The whole set-up makes Jack and Mia come off like two overhormonal and unprofessional idiots that don't understand that there's a time for work and a time for play. Frankly, these twits are probably recruited to be cannon fodder because they don't know how to stop their emotional issues from spilling over onto their professional lives. How unprofessional, and how criminally stupid for secret agents. And how ridiculous, Mia's valid reasons for leaving her old job completely trivialized after one night of silly - if supposedly very good - sex.
Muriel Jensen's Hal And Damnation is only marginally better plotted than Cherry Adair's Dance With The Devil. Katarina Como is trying hard to get her father to realize that she can run his Italian restaurant as good as any man, but that man is not budging. But that's just the least of her problems: that waiter Hal Stratton is infuriating as he openly defies her authority. Daddy, of course, thinks that his little girl is a fluffyhead (even as he readily uses her services for his restaurant) so predictably he's on Hal's side.
It turns out that Hal is an undercover cop, which makes sense because undercover cops always deliberately buckle authority and stand out when they should be blending in. "When Romance Authors Write About Spies And Intrigue" really ought to be a special feature episode to be shown in a time slot between Simple Life and The Newlyweds. Hal is there because Kat's father learns that someone is planning to use the restaurant as a route to sneak into the bank next door. To get Kat out of trouble - as Kat is bound to interfere, the men reason - Hal is ordered to fly Kat to San Francisco on a business trip. Because that's what you send undercover cops to do - to be a glorified escort of Miss Thing.
Despite a ridiculous set-up and an annoying underlying message that women must be kept in the dark for their own good because they are bound to cause trouble, Hal and Kat do have some decent chemistry despite the way their "Hate! Like!" relationship is written. Still, this novella is on the very average side.
Only Anne Stuart's novella is well-plotted and well-written. The other two novellas use the whole spy and intrigue set-up merely as gimmicky window-dressing, resulting in stories where the premise is ridiculous to the core. Anne Stuart's story is a good reason to give this anthology a look, but unfortunately, it is also the only reason.
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