by Sabrina Darby, historical (2009)
Avon Red, $13.99, ISBN 978-0-06-178028-8
Sabrina Darby's debut On These Silken Sheets is worth checking out if you are a fan of Susan Johnson's erotic historical romances. The flavor is quite similar. Like Ms Johnson, Ms Darby can create some really sensual scenes here. Both authors also tend to inject some wry, even cynical, observations about the folly of their characters. And just like Ms Johnson on a good day, when she's on a roll, Ms Darby doesn't just write sex scenes, she writes about what the characters are feeling and experiencing during those scenes. I'm not saying that this book is that good, mind you - there are some elements that work very well here, which makes this book worth a look if you are looking for erotic historical romances to read.
There are four related short stories in On These Silken Sheets and they are of uneven quality.
The opening story, Against The Wall, is also the weakest story by a considerable margin. The story is simple: Carolina Hargreaves is infatuated with Harry Bosworth ever since she caught him shagging a maid six years ago, when she was 12. Now all of 18, she catches Harry in the midst of coitus at the start of the story, gets her virginity relieved by Harry shortly after, and embarks on an affair with him.
This story is, on one hand, flirting with the element of the forbidden or even taboo. Harry is truly an unsuitable man, so in a way, it makes sense that Carolina will find him so attractive. Sex with him will no doubt be ten times more exciting because of the fact that he's the wrong guy for her. But the author then has to have these two characters supposedly in love, and I can only wonder whether poor Carolina is touched in the head. Harry is an over the top caricature of a rake that will put even Susan Johnson's more oversexed rakes to shame. That guy has no refractionary period at all - he is always boinking. He has boinked Carolina's aunt (Carolina knows of this), he joins Carolina's father on nightly debauchery in the infamous Harridan House, and his first action after breaking up with Carolina is to run to the skanky woman for comfort. I can understand why one would want to sleep with this walking vibrator, but to marry him? Come on!
The next story, The Education Of Lord Oakley, is the best story of the four. Anderson, Lord Oakley, was supposed to marry Carolina in the previous story. Obviously that wasn't meant to be. A little blue and a little defensive about his masculinity after losing a woman to another man, Lord Oakley accepts the invitation of an acquaintance to the Harridan House, one of those ubiquitous sex clubs in erotic romances where prostitution is a beautiful thing to be cherished and celebrated as a liberation of one's inhibitions, or something. At any rate, Oakley isn't a rake. He is a responsible nobleman who actually attends the Parliament with his speeches all ready to be delivered. Therefore, becoming obsessed over a masked woman dressed as Amphitrite, the consort of Poseidon the Greek god of the sea, is out of character for him. Still, he's obsessed and there is no turning back.
Margaret Coswell, a widow, learns early in this story that her cousin Diana Blount is the owner and manager of the Harridan House. Until then, she has no idea what the Harridan House is either, but now that she does, she is fascinated by the idea of a place where she can lose her inhibitions and enjoy erotic favors with abandon. She decides to give that place a try, and this is how she meets Oakley. Okay, so their first time is a little less than spectacular as Oakley takes off a little too early, but she knows how to please herself and Oakley is such an eager student when it comes to her instructions.
This story is easily the best one of the four because it has the best balance between sensual eroticism and convincing romance. These characters interact at a credible level outside the bedroom, and as a result, when they claim that they are in love, I can believe that. Oakley is a pretty convincing man of his time, which is to say that he initially doesn't view someone like Amphitrite as someone he should marry. This only makes his eventual desire to make Maggie his in every way even more enjoyable to follow - when that fellow loses it, he really loses his mind and he doesn't care at all, heh.
Roses Are Rouge is Diana Blount's story. She doesn't like Jason, the nephew of her late husband, much. But that is probably because she harbors an inconvenient lust for him. Jason has never liked Diana much either, since she married a very old man and then proceeded to run his scandalous brothel instead of selling it off discreetly like any virtuous woman would. Therefore, in his eyes, she is an immoral woman. And you know how devastatingly attractive an immoral woman can be to a supposedly virtuous man, I'm sure. It's not that Jason is particularly virtuous in the first place, considering the history behind his first marriage. At least back then, he had a wife to hold him back. Now, he is a widower. A reunion in London sets off a conflagration between these two, but can these two ever find a middle ground to have a happily ever after?
This one starts out fantastic, as Diana gives back as good as she gets and Jason, for a hypocrite, is such a devastatingly attractive and virile hero. Their antagonistic relationship culminates in a really hot scene in Diana's study, but alas, the story begins to lose its momentum as Diana leaves London for the country. The story begins to move slowly as these two start circling each other, and worse, the hot stuff stops coming. The story becomes boring, ugh. Roses Are Rouge has the potentially most interesting main characters of all four stories, so it is really a shame how dull the whole story turns out to be.
The final story, A Maid For The Taking, concerns Lucy, Diana's assistant and maid at the Harridan House who occasionally dons the Madam Rouge costume in Diana's place. When Diana goes off to the country in the previous story, Lucy takes over as Madam Rouge, the mysterious owner of Harridan House, and decides to lose her virginity to the object of her crush, Sir Robert George. Robert starts out as another version of Harry Bosworth, but fortunately, this story allows him to interact more with Lucy outside the bedroom and as a result the romance is more believable than Harry's.
This story is interesting because it's something I don't come across every day in my historical romances - it's a story of a woman who willingly becomes a man's mistress. This story explores the dynamics between a mistress and her protector, something you don't see many historical romance authors do, and as a result, the story is a fascinating read. I'm still not sure what makes a man like Robert a catch, though. If you wish to read a story involving a mistress who doesn't martyr herself or insist that she's spreading out for the sake of a sick sibling, take a look at this story. Of course, there is a conventional happy ending here, but for a long time, this story is anything but conventional.
The stories by themselves can be quite uneven in quality, as I've mentioned, with only one story that truly works for me in every way. Still, the author has shown that she is willing to play around with unconventional elements and even break a few rules in all four stories. Not only that, her love scenes are really burning hot here. In On These Silken Sheets, Ms Darby really impresses me with what she is willing to do with her stories and where she is willing to take her readers. Really, if you are a fan of erotic historical romances that are willing to take a few risks here and there, take a peek at this one.
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