Burning Up by Nina Bangs, Cheryl Holt, Kimberly Raye & Patricia Ryan
(St. Martin’s, $14.95, NC-17) ISBN 0-312-31108-7
There seems to be a growing trend towards novellas in romance-erotica these days. Kensington Brava has practically launched itself with this idea, and St. Martin’s appears to be trying to tap into the market with Burning Up. While this reviewer didn’t find an outright dud in the batch of four steamy stories, there’s really only one that earned my strong recommendation stamp of approval.

Nina Bangs gets things rolling with “The Flame.” Serenity So-Fine (no, I’m not joking) travels back in time from 2700 to acquire a famous erotic sculpture for her museum. When she arrives at the artist’s home, she learns she has mistakenly traveled back to 2003 and Justin Hill hasn’t even created the sculpture yet. Therefore, she decides to make the most of her time and provide Justin with plenty of creative inspiration.

While the sex scenes were nicely done, I couldn’t get past the feeling of silliness that pervaded the story. Not only is Justin a master sculptor, he’s a professional wrestler - a profession that seems to be overrunning romance novels of late. Moreover, while Serenity is from an advanced civilization, she’s merely another almost-a-virgin heroine who has been accused of being an “ice princess." Depressing to think that not much will change in 700 years, isn’t it?

Cheryl Holt’s “The Wedding Night” pleasantly surprised me. Ellen Foster has just entered into a marriage of convenience with Viscount Barbury - a marriage that Stephen is determined to keep chaste. However, our fair heroine has other ideas, and virginal Ellen is soon seducing the roguish Viscount.

Holt manages to reign in her purple writing tendencies, only venturing into lavender territory, and Ellen is a refreshing heroine. While a virgin, she’s no simpering miss, and gives as good as she gets. However, Stephen is a rake to the point of lacking morals, and I wondered how Ellen could think he’d make a good husband. In addition, while the story is supposedly a Regency, it has a decidedly modern feel, making this one strictly wallpaper.

Kimberly Raye takes the reader into the world of erotic movies in “Burn, Inc.” Gerry Baxter is a producer and finds herself overseeing the production of a final short film after her partner, and erotic brains of the business, elopes in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, Gerry’s erotic experience is extremely limited, so she calls in an expert to help her out. Logan MacKenzie shows up instead, looking for information about the woman his baby brother impulsively married. A case of mistaken identity ensues.

I liked the idea of an erotic film company that made movies specifically for women. Unfortunately Logan is one of those heroes that has been “done wrong” and therefore thinks all women have secret, ulterior motives. Blissfully, this claptrap doesn’t carry on long, and it is fun to watch Gerry and Logan succumb to love at first sight.

Patricia Ryan’s “Possessing Julia” is the highlight of the collection, a story that shimmers with passion and emotion. Widow Julia Hughes has a problem. She’s engaged to be remarried and is still a virgin. With the Civil War leaving her in genteel poverty, Julia needs this marriage to secure the futures of her son and elderly aunt. When Clay Redman, her cousin by her first marriage, shows up at her front door - she enters into a bargain with him to rid her of her troublesome maidenhead. However, what will happen when he learns that the 5-year-old son that she’s been passing off as her own, is really his illegitimate child he unknowingly sired with one of her bridesmaids?

Ryan takes the ubiquitous secret baby plot and really makes it her own by infusing this story with tons of emotion. Clay and Julia have a bit of a past, and it’s heartwarming to watch them fall in love. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily easy; Clay is Alpha to the core and Julia is determined to protect her loved ones. Along with the interesting post-Civil War, New York City setting, “Possessing Julia” had me reading straight through, and forgetting all about the mug of hot tea I had sitting beside me.

While technically not a dud in the bunch, Ryan’s entry was the only one that truly moved me. While the others didn’t have me groaning in frustration, they never really rose above more than acceptable in my mind. While not entirely strong, I did fly through this entire anthology quickly and found it an enjoyable way to spend a few days. Now to find those Patricia Ryan books I have buried in my TBR…

--Wendy Crutcher

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