by Susan Johnson, Katherine O'Neal, and Pam Rosenthal; historical (2004)
Brava, $15.00, ISBN 0-7582-0529-5
The erotic historical anthology Strangers In The Night is a mixed bag of sorts. Pam Rosenthal's contribution is one of the most interesting stories I've read, revolving around a premise that has rarely ever been touched in the romance genre: the relationship between a prostitute and her client of sorts that blossoms into love, with neither of them having a single drop of blue blood in them. It's a very interesting, poignant, and well-written story with a love scene at the staircase that can send genteel readers into seizures. The other two stories are typical offerings from authors who don't challenge themselves, creatively, when it comes to their works.
Susan Johnson starts the show with Natural Attraction. This story isn't bad at all because both the hero and the heroine are equals when it comes to the bedroom. There is no simpering idiot virgins here, just the adventurous heroine Nicky Wemyss and the oversexed rake Jasper "The Pope" Amery having sex left and right, up and down, back and forth the moment they meet in Edinburgh. He is there to accompany a friend who wants to attend Vincenzio Lunardi's inaugural hot air balloon flight and she is Lunardi's assistant and good friend. However, while it's nice that Nicky can handle Jasper very well on her own terms (I have to admire a heroine who knows the ins and outs of the Kama Sutra), it soon becomes clear that the author doesn't have much of a plot to keep the story going once the main characters have consummated their attraction. This novella ends up a tepid rehash of the author's more interesting longer books in the past. Brazen, especially, comes to mind. All in all, a ho-hum story.
Katherine O'Neal's Fool Me Once is next. The only good thing I can say about this story is that it is set in 1933. Kate Frost is not too willing to pose as an Aztec princess in Rhys' revenge plot to get back at his enemy. Rhys controls her sexually and by control, I really mean just that: Kate is a very weak heroine hopelessly under the sexual thrall of Rhys, to the point that her "grand love" for this man feels like Stockholm Syndrome made pretty in pink. Rhys is one of those perplexing idiots who, even when he starts having doubts about his plan, insists that Kate go ahead and finish the job, even when his heart is no longer in it and who knows why he keeps going with his nonsense. Then again, if he doesn't, Kate won't have the opportunity to spring a stupid "Let me be the martyr, because since I'm already so spineless and weak-willed, I may as well go all the way!" act in the grand finale. Maybe this clumsy story of revenge will be more interesting if the plot isn't so contrived at the expense of logic or the characters aren't so stereotypical (Kate and Rhys of course have sad stories in their past to excuse their silly nonsense).
Now, let's move on to Pam Rosenthal's A House East Of Regent Street. I have a feeling that readers weaned on typical erotic romances will have dry heaves while reading this story. For one, the house in question is formerly a brothel just off Soho Square. The hero, Jack Merion, is a former seaman who has made his fortune through legal (and some not-so-legal) means. His reputation is on the rise as he is one of those men who served in the war against Napoleon and the current patriotic fever taking grip of England opens doors that are previously closed to him. He is now looking to purchase this house and renovate it before renting it out as one of his money-making investments. He is going to be married to a proper lady who comes with a big dowry. Life is good.
That is, until it gets turned topsy-turvy by the arrival of the other party also interested in the house: a self-proclaimed Prince d'Illiers, Philippe Soular, and his mistress and friend Miss Myles. Let's just call her Miss Myles because even Jack doesn't know her real name until towards the end of the story. Philippe and Miss Myles have been together since he became her customer and he later purchased her from her bawd so that Miss Myles can be with him always. Down on their luck, the both of them plan to purchase this property (one of the few they can afford at the moment) and reopen the brothel. They can't match Jack's offer, however, but they can try to convince Jack to lease the property to them at a ridiculously low and unheard of rent. The nature of this negotiation is one that Miss Myles is familiar with, let's just say.
Both Jack and Miss Myles are determined to approach this transaction of theirs the way a customer and a prostitute would handle things between them. She will meet him in the house for five days and, barring some ground rules that she lays down to protect herself, Jack can do everything and anything he wants with her. Jack knows that he shouldn't allow Miss Myles to go through this but he is attracted to her. Being a man of his time, he views a prostitute as someone to be used, not to marry, so this is probably how he believes that he can ever have Miss Myles.
Even as a short story, A House East Of Regent Street makes a stronger impact on me than many full-length novels could. The characters are unusual anomalies in a genre strongly ruled by easily-categorized archetypes, for a start. Jack is no gentleman but he is no rake either, he is just a rough sailor who has done well for himself. Miss Myles' relationship with Philippe is clearly sexual in nature and she makes absolutely no apologies for being a prostitute. She doesn't wail that she isn't worthy of any man's love. One of the story's most memorable moments of dark humor comes from Miss Myles thinking that Jack needs to learn some finesse when it comes to making love but she refuses to teach him how to pleasure a woman with his tongue because she's petty enough not to want him to make other women too happy. But eventually their relationship becomes something more despite both characters' determination not to let that happen.
Since I have no idea when Judith Ivory will ever come out with a new book, I'll be happy to take anything I can get when it comes to stories that are different, unusual, and featuring plenty of effective character development and introspection, and this short story is a good example of all these. I also love how the characters are defiantly unashamed of being what they are, especially Miss Myles. I also love how Jack, when Miss Myles mysteriously vanishes one day, eventually spends his time just waiting for her at the house until she shows up. Of course, since this is a romance story, he doesn't die in the house alone and heartbroken like I know he would if this book is written by someone with mainstream pretensions. Instead he and Miss Myles meet again and live happily ever after as common and honest people, defiantly without a title or even a secret daddy nobleman.
What don't work for me is the rather timid approach to bondage and S&M in one aborted scene and the way the author introduces a past connection between the two characters late in the story. The latter comes out of the blue to catch me by surprise. A few well-placed clues to this revelation throughout the story would have helped, surely?
While I won't consider Strangers In The Night an anthology people should rush out and buy, Pam Rosenthal's short story is worth a look for readers looking for something different from the usual romantic fare in the market today. Speaking for myself as a reader who craves for more adventurous, different, and unconventional romantic stories, based on the cover price of $15.00, I'd say that Ms Rosenthal's story is worth about $12.00.
This book at Amazon.com
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