What Lies Beneath
by Anne Stuart, Joanna Wayne, and Caroline Burnes; contemporary (2002)
Harlequin, $6.50, ISBN 0-373-83531-0

Everyone's passing off their stories as "romantic suspense" today, it seems like. If it's not a smalltown romance, even if the story has the same (minimal) quota of suspense as the stories of ten years ago, if it's not a story of poverty-stricken small-town single ya-ya mothers moaning about the boyfriend that impregnated them and left them ten years ago, then it's a "romantic suspense".

The novellas in this anthology are perfect examples of trivial exercises in labelling. Gold's still gold and turd's still turd no matter what you call them, right? In this case What Lies Beneath are semi-suspenseful semi-romantic tales that end up undercooked and unsatisfying.

Anne Stuart does a familiar premise: English professor Molly Ferrell goes to smalltown Hidden Harbor in The Road To Hidden Harbor to solve the mystery of a poet that died too early at his peak... or did he? Naturally, the hero is one surly sourpuss who growls at her to stay away, rally the troops to make her life difficult, but somehow she has the temerity to tell me that she loves him. Why? How? Anne Stuart doesn't even suggest drug addiction as a possibility.

Oh, and the hero's secret? A no-brainer. I guessed it the minute I read the synopsis at the back cover. File this under Waste of time.

Joanna Wayne follows with Remember Me. I don't like this story when it was called Sleeping With The Enemy, Double Jeopardy, or Enough, or one of the million "Women's TV Special Movies" thingies in between all three movies. Badly battered wife ends up in hospital under the care of her old-boyfriend who is so much better, so much nicer, so much more... Catherine-Andersonish, actually. Why does the stupid woman stays with her husband so long? Why is this story such a shameless piece of manipulative rescue fantasy?

At least J Lo in Enough wears a red-died dead raccoon wig and does some kickboxing. The heroine here wouldn't know how to get out of a burning house even if you break down three out of four walls and use surround sound ampitheatre systems to yell at her to get out or else.

File this under Waste of time, right below Anne Stuart's story.

Caroline Burnes' Primal Fear is a strange amalgamation of Jaws and... uh, something. Libby Phillips is a marine biologist investigating what seems like shark attacks at a Florida beach when she encounters two men. One is surly, spies on her from afar, and acts like a grouchy, dyspeptic asshole when he's around her. Another is a polite and gallant man who listens to our heroine when she expresses an opinion.

One is the hero, one is the villain. I'll let you guess which is which.

This one is easily the best of the three, if only because the plot is nothing like the lifeless retreads of the other two novellas. But when the author has to make the nice guy a complete wacko just to make her hero come off smelling like roses, I say she has lost the plot somewhere around page fifteen of her story.

File this under Not bad.

All three novellas fail to balance relationship development even within the constraints of a novella format. "I love you!" comes out of the blue, and none of the couple here convince me that they will last beyond the last page of the novella. Except maybe the couple in Joanna Wayne's story: the heroine will probably cling to the hero like an ivy until all life is sucked out of him by that brainless female charisma vampiress of a heroine.

Either way, I'll just file this whole anthology under "Sure? Are you sure? Really, really sure?"

Rating: 69

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