St Martin’s Press, $6.50, ISBN 0-312-98102-3
Mixed Genre Romance, 2001
Naughty Or Nice? is obviously about the four authors involved – Sherrilyn Kenyon, Carly Phillips, Patricia Ryan, and Kathryn Smith – angling for your early Christmas present to them (read: a fat royalty check). But I must say $6.50 is well spent on the stories by Patricia Ryan (one of the best I’ve read this year) and Sherrilyn Kenyon. Kathryn Smith’s contribution is well-written but the heroine is so irritating, while Carly Phillips’s one is thankfully short or I will have to go for a cat scan.
Patricia Ryan starts the early Christmas party with her Santa, Baby. A cynical PI named Jack has submitted evidences to his latest client that her husband is cheating with one Katherine Peale. This client then asks him to perform an unusual side service: she will pay Jack a lot of money if he can steal Katherine away from her husband. Jack, still unsure of what he wants to do, goes to see what Kath is up to.
He soon learns that Kath is a nice, Christmas-believer woman who loves kids and runs a grand home for the poor and downtrodden, et cetera. Instead of screaming in horror, I’m touched. Patricia Ryan imbues in Kath an interesting blend of optimism and intelligence. She’s a perfect foil for cynical and bad Jack. I love how they fall in love, and I shed a tear or two at the happy ending. And I don’t know what others will think when Kath says that she would have embarked on an affair with the charming, dashing Mr Wrong if Jack isn’t there in her life. Me, I find this added dimension in Kath – you know, the need for companionship, right or wrong, because the lonely’s flesh may be weaker than most – makes her even more real as a character.
Sherrilyn Kenyon (you may have read those books she also writes as Kinley MacGregor) presents Love Bytes, a complete opposite of Santa, Baby but almost as great a story. It’s nothing new, really: Samantha “Sam” Parker works for a geek boss Adrian “The Giraffe, Because He’s Six-Five, People” Cole in an internet company, and when they are thrown together in some Christmas shopping thingie, Adrian flashes those abs he kept hidden under his suit and tie and wow! Conflagration!
Fun is the agenda here, with Adrian and Sam generating enough sexual tension to short-circuit the motherboard of all motherboards. The tired and familiar conflict towards the end spoils things somewhat, but for the most part, Adrian and Sam are just electric together.
Naughty under the Mistletoe suggests that Carly Phillips’s non-stop low wage slave labor at the Harlequin sweatshop may be taking its toll on the poor lady. Don’t they have some union to protect the authors? Virginal Antonia Larson decides to lose her virtue by gifting it to her hunky lawyer boss. It’s definitely Ally McBeal and not The Practice lawyer heroine we are talking about here, which is not good. Everybody knows that if you have a romance heroine lawyer representing you, you may as well bend over to pick up the soap now. Best leave those romance heroine lawyers preoccupied with hunting down victims to inflict their neuroticism on.
Anyway, Monotonia here does the Santa McBeal lap dance on the wrong guy – the lawyer boss’s twin brother – and they have lots of eeuw-look-at-that-sad-woman-moan sexy stuff. The sex takes up almost two-third of this mercifully brief story, so Monotonia’s squealing and hand-wringing nonsense are kept to a minimum.
Finally, the only historical story here, A Christmas Charade by Kathryn Smith. She can write, I tell you. It’s just too bad that the heroine Mrs Vail or whatever she calls herself is an annoying tutu.
We have the usual nobleman-and-spy hero Garrett Maxwell, Viscount Praed, who in a mission gone awry is imprisoned by the Frenchies. A mysterious Mrs Vail saves him, and they end up making lots of blooming love after some obligatory “You lonely? Yippee, me too!” bonding. Mrs Vail, after all, is the sad widow whose husband put spying fun above keeping his wifey happy. So now she sleeps with a dedicated spy. Some people never learn.
They promise to meet at some hotel the next day. And so they part ways.
Cut to eight months down the road. She doesn’t show up. He gets himself engaged to another. Alas, they meet again, and oh boy, Mrs Vail immediately launches into her “How dare you get engaged to another even when I don’t show up and even after I have led you to even believe that maybe I’m dead – anyway, you are just like all the rest, so fine, go marry that annoying wench of yours even as I keep this fire burning inside me – go, go, go marry her and leave me in the dark here, let me die alone and loveless, but see if I care! Boo-hoo-hoo, I don’t like you no siree, damn it, gogogogogogo!” diatribe. Oh shut up, you silly woman.
Bonus points given for the Other Woman, who is actually a sympathetic woman rather than the usual shrewish plot device that lesser romance authors would resort to. Garrett, however, is the stock torn-noble-hero character while Mrs Vail… well, she’s there, that’s all I can say. She’s there, clashing with the wallpaper.
Kathryn Smith’s story is very readable, even if Mrs Vail makes me want to throttle her. Carly Phillips… never mind. But Patricia Ryan and Sherrilyn Kenyon deliver such fabulous stories that make me laugh, cry, and sigh, they make anything flawed about this anthology so easy to forgive. Two out of four hit home run, and oh, what a home run it is!