Red Hot Santa
by Cherry Adair, Leanne Banks, Pamela Britton, and Kelsey Roberts; contemporary (2005)
Ballantine, $6.99, ISBN 0-345-48349-9

Red Hot Santa is, believe it or not, a romantic suspense anthology. The "suspense" comes from whether you are able to suspend your disbelief long enough to appreciate some of the stories here. The common unifying theme of all four stories is that the heroes are from a super-secret agency that rectifies wrongs and such. Of course, given that the boss of the agency reveals to the reader early on that she knows her agents only by photographs since the agency doesn't practice face-to-face meetings, I have a good idea why nobody has heard of this agency before. The parties involved must be too embarrassed to say anything after the agency folded within a month.

Cherry Adair starts the show with Snowball's Chance, a straightforward story about Joe Zorn being sent to protect Kendall Metcalfe from a serial killer who had once captured and tortured Kendall. Dwight Treadwell - poor guy, with a name like that, he must have been damned by his parents from birth to be a serial killer - is once again on the loose and he had previously vowed to finish what he started with Kendall. Stuck in the middle of a snowstorm in an isolated house in the middle of nowhere, Joe and Kendall will have to keep themselves safe while finding imaginative ways to keep warm in the process.

This one is an enjoyable surprise because I've come to expect heroines who are way too stupid for real from Cherry Adair. However, in this one Kendall is a tough heroine who is determined not to be a victim. Joe is... well, Joe. You know what they say - read one covert action man hero, you've read them all. On the down side, the characters spend way too much time thinking about jumping each other's bones, too much for me to take their situation seriously. If I know that a serial killer that nearly killed me once is out to get me, I doubt I would be trying to get Joe into my bed. And, of course, the serial killer just happens to show up like that when Joe is away. On the bright side, Kendall kicks some ass then in a realistic manner rather than some over-the-top cartoon superhero way. If Kendall is the new trend of Ms Adair's heroines, maybe it's safe to dig out her books from my huge pile of unread books and catch up with the author.

On the other hand, Leanne Banks seems to have read one too many of Cherry Adair's older books as her Santa Slave features a heroine who is way too stupid to be allowed out of her parents' basement. Hilary Winfree not only uses her real name to pose as a gullible victim to infiltrate a flesh trade ring and locate her missing student Christine, she is also the kind of heroine that actively sabotages the hero Rick Santana's efforts to get her out of the mess she happily flings herself into. You know the drill - running off alone without a clue in the enemy's lair, mouthing off to the bad guy when she's supposed to be posing as the hero's submissive moll, that kind of thing. Hilary loves to pull these kinds of stunt. Why isn't she dead by the last page of the story? Ms Banks really should be given a stern dressing down for encouraging this kind of stupidity in romance novels.

As for Rick, he's no prize either. Despite the agency's supposed motto of helping all regardless of who they are, he insists that he is paid only to drag Hilary's braindead ass out of the place. So much for the whole "one for all, all for one" philosophy of the agency, eh? But what do I expect from an agency where the boss doesn't even personally interview her agents? She's just lucky that she hasn't accidentally hired a bratty 13-year old former Wikipedia editor to be sent to some mission in Iraq.

Pamela Britton thankfully reassures me that I have retained enough brain cells after reading that last story to enjoy her most enjoyable Big, Bad Santa. This is a most fantastic adventure romance that manages to be sexy and slick all at once. Kaitlyn Logan concerns herself with her research animals - not that she puts arsenic into the eyes of guinea pigs or cuts off the eyelids of rabbits, of course, because I'm sure that she's a cute PETA-friendly animal researcher - but her life turns topsy-turvy one evening when she finds herself being dragged by a big muscular hunk called Chance "Stonewall - and no, I'm not gay and I don't understand why everyone thinks that I am just because people call me Stonewall" Owens onto his Harley-Davidson for safety as mysterious men start firing at her rear end. It turns out that what she initially assumes to be a harmless research - a transmitter that allows one to control the flight of birds - has some folks thinking that the device will be most useful indeed when it comes to spying and carrying biological weapons. The US military wants to know more about this device but they're the good guys, naturally. The bad guys are the Libyan terrorists who clearly want the device for nefarious purposes.

This story is a most enjoyable one because Chance is really sexy and adorable without sacrificing too much of his macho male posturing while Kaitlyn is a smart cookie. I mean, she asks for a gun from Chance when he has to leave her alone because she wants to protect herself. How many romance heroines do you know that are capable of such rational thinking? The heat level is set to boiling point too. Okay, so there is at least one rather illogical "Wait, they still manage to find time to have sex?" moment here, but the story is so fun that I'm happy to overlook one or two silly moments. This is easily the most enjoyable story of the four.

And then, Kelsey Roberts just has to show up and ruin my high with her closing story Killer Christmas. Someone is killing the Santa Clauses in Meghan Beckham's department store and hero Jack Palmer is hired to protect her. This story is as long as it is because Meghan and Jack behave like complete fools. Meghan of course doesn't understand why she would need protection so she will insist that Jack must be sent away. Jack, seeing how irrational the heroine is, then reacts by ordering her around and talking to other people about her in front of her as if she's some ill-trained puppy that doesn't understand English. Naturally, this only has Meghan simmering slowly into her "lust/irritation" mode. And on and on the story goes until I wish I have a fly swatter big enough to flatten the two irritating wretches in one whack. When the story has to depend on the characters behaving like bickering children to keep the momentum going, it's indeed a killer story of the wrong sort.

If I were the one arranging the stories in this anthology, at the very least I'd have switched the positions of Cherry Adair's story with Leanne Bank's and Pamela Britton's with Kelsey Roberts'. This is, of course, assuming that completely ditching the stories by Ms Banks and Ms Roberts is out of the question. In this way, at least Pamela Britton will close the anthology on a high note. The bad stories are really, really, really bad while the good ones are too much fun. There is no middle ground between really ghastly and really terrific here, so if you're going to read Red Hot Santa, be careful and watch your steps.

Rating: 63

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