Now Or Never
by Anne Stuart, contemporary (1999)
Harlequin, $6.99, ISBN 0-373-20166-4


This is my first foray into Annie Stuart's category romances. I've enjoyed her full length contemporaries and historicals, so what can go wrong with Now Or Never, right? NON, by the way, is a reissue of three old categories Rafe's Revenge, Hand In Glove, and Partners In Crime, all dating back to the 80's and early 90's.

Well, I'll stick to Ms Stuart's full length work, if the three uneven stories in NON is an indication of her series romances. The darkness in each story, severely contained by word limits, isn't allowed to expand well to make the stories palatable. Worse, pair a dark hero with a chirpy heroine and I get a lopsided story of manipulation.

Rafe's Revenge is the worst of the lot. Silver Carlysle, daughter of a famous (and dead) director, is eking out a living as a critic while trying to hawk a rewritten version of her father's script Black Canyon. Her favorite scathing sessions is with Rafe McGinnis' film studio which specializes in what seems like "dick flick" at its extreme - machine guns and blood and gore everywhere, those sort of movies.

Never mind that I wonder how Rafe can be a celebrated director if he produces such movies. Anyone remembers the directors of those awful Jean Claude Van Damme movies? Okay, this is fiction, after all. Rafe and Silver meet, sparks fly, but things get ugly when both start fighting over Black Canyon.

Thing is, Silver refuses to play dirty. She gets all guilty inside when she outmaneuvres Rafe. As a result, she is always a million steps behind Rafe, and Rafe doesn't hesitate to play dirty. The end of the day, the whole story becomes nothing more than a cunning, manipulative control freak making a woman too ninnified to bend the rules dance to his tune. It's not a pretty sight.

Hand In Glove is the most memorable, because of its horror movie overtones and not because of the romance. The problem this time around is the hero. Judith Daniels gets herself hired at Ryan Smith's puppet factory to discover the secrets behind the death of her friend Lacey. Ryan sees through her at once, of course, but hormones override his insticts to fire her. Judith snoops around and almost gets killed, and solves the mystery. Ryan broods and broods.

Now, Judith is a fine heroine who isn't afraid to bend the rules, making her a match for Ryan. Hence the power struggle takes place on equal footing between both characters, making the story more palatable. However, while Judith is strong and interesting, Ryan's a bore. All he does is to brood and brood that he hates the air con, he hates the puppets, he hates his life, and oh, he has a lousy childhood. A whiny hero isn't any prettier a sight than a clueless heroine.

Worse, Ryan displays no feelings whatsoever about Lacey's death. It's an accident. When Judith almost gets killed twice, he declares that they are all accidental. Besides, she's a journalist, could it be that she arranges it all by herself? And here he is, surrounded by a rabid old hag who hates everybody, a man-eating woman who is jealous of all women he slept with, a horny partner who sleeps with every woman he could, and not once did Ryan ever pause to consider if these "accidents" aren't accidents. When he finally wonders if his blind loyalty has blinded him to the truth, I give up on him. Nothing's worse than a dumb whiner.

Ryan is also a zombie, never displaying any emotion apart from irritation or a tendency for sexual harrassment. Even towards the end he makes no attempt to stop the heroine from leaving. Okay, a dumb, passive whiner - that's the worst.

Nice puppets though. I want one. And I have to worry too, because I find the slick, perpetually horny Steve more appealing than the zombie hero. Pass me my pills, somebody.

Partners In Crime has a sexy, roguish lawyer hero, but the heroine's a schmuck. Jane Dexter could be Silver Carlysle's twin for all I know. She actually mistakes disgraced lawyer Alexander "Sandy" Caldicott for an arsonist and asks him to help her torch a research facility. Since she's a heroine, her motive is Grand and Selfless - to save the world from the research institute selling her dead brother's Big Secret Formula to people who would make doomsday weapons out of it. Or something like that.

Sandy goes along because he's bored and he wants diversion. A man like this deserves a Ling Woo, not a librarian Ally McBeal who seems unable to do anything without hesitating and wondering if she's pretty enough for Sandy. Yucks. Jane is no match at all for Sandy, and like Rafe's Revenge, Partners In Crime is more of a manipulation session than a romance.

The main problem in NON is that it sticks too closely to the formula that heroines must be the pinnacle of virtue while their men can lie, play dirty, and cheat for all they want. In this case, it is unfortunate that strong will and an ability to see through deception seem to be left out of the catalogue of virtues a heroine can have. I can't help thinking it would be much more interesting if the heroes from Rafe's Revenge and Partners In Crime ditch their bland girlfriends and start fighting over the heroine of Hand In Glove. Or heck, why not have these men start snogging each other? Anything would be more interesting than the three stories in NON.

Rating: 62


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