Love in Bloom
by Francine Craft, Linda Hudson-Smith & Janice Sims
(Arabesque/BET, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 1-58314-319-X
Love in Bloom is Arabesque/BET Books= first anthology of 2002. The stories in the collection are drawn together by the theme of second chances. Heroines in each novella are each reunited with a slightly older hero whom she met as a child.

In Francine Craft’s “Love=s Masquerade,” Maya Williams is reacquainted with Christopher St. John when she brings a printing job for a masquerade ball she is co-chairing into the shop he owns. Christopher and Maya attended the same high school. Unfortunately, her family moved away before Christopher was able to pursue her. In the years that have passed, the two have not seen or thought of one another. However, they have two things in common. Both have built successful businesses and both have gone through extremely painful divorces.

Maya has learned useful lessons from her ordeal and has moved on with her life. Christopher, who has joint custody of his young daughter, is unable to forgive or forget and is stuck in a time warp. Still, Maya and Christopher are attracted to each other and cautiously begin to date. However, their relationship is caught in the cross hairs between Christopher=s devotion to his daughter and his ex-wife=s selfishness.

Francine Craft=s writing style is suited to the novella format. As in most Craft romances, old lovers resurface to cause problems into the main characters= growing relationship. Maya and Christopher are well-rounded characters and there is a good secondary romance. I enjoyed this story and “A Love Made in Heaven," the author’s contribution to the Wedding Bells anthology.

Linda Hudson-Smith’s “Forbidden Fantasy” is the story of copper-curled, topaz-eyed Ashleigh Ayers. As a child known as Sariah Reed , Ashleigh spent time in an orphanage and in the foster care system. For a short time, she was placed in the Texas home of Beaumont and Angelica Carrington and their triplets Dallas, Houston and Austin. The 12-year-old Sariah developed a crush on Austin, who was four years older, and was devastated when she was removed from the Carrington home. Ashleigh has never forgotten Austin. The two are reunited aboard a cruise ship where Austin and his brothers (each professional athletes in different sports) are attending a high school reunion. Although Ashleigh reminds Austin of someone in his past and he is attracted to her, he does not recognize her. She does not reveal her identity.

This is a very confusing story made even more so by the author’s overwriting. Purple prose abounds. Each noun has at least two or three modifiers. Five words are used when one will suffice. In addition, the description of the heroine’s hair and eyes are repeated so often it is hard to understand how three people who lived with her did not recognize her immediately. There are too many secondary characters who add little or nothing to the mix.

Janice Sims’ “Teacher’s Pet,” which rounds out the collection, is the story of professor Bethany Porter who teaches at Baylor College, a fictional historically Black college in Connecticut the author has used as a backdrop in other stories. Bethany and Colin Armstrong met years earlier when he and his best friend, Gabriel Merrick, helped her settle a score with a date who abandoned her. (Sims’ fans will remember Gabriel as the hero of the novella, “Keys to My Heart.”) At the time, Colin was preparing to marry the girl of his dreams; Bethany was finishing high school.

Colin and Bethany are reunited nearly two decades later at her father’s funeral. He is now a highly successful businessman and the divorced father of a college freshman. Colin never completed his undergraduate education and decides to enroll at Baylor with his daughter. Colin is a student in Bethany’s English course. Sparks fly, the roles are reversed and it is the professor who learns a thing or two from her student.

Any opportunity to revisit Gabriel Merrick, one of my favorite heroes, is an occasion for me. The characters are interesting and credible. The author uses her sense of humor and a leftover villainess well.

Although I enjoyed “Teacher’s Pet,” Sims’ story is somewhat limited by its emphasis on the heroine. And, while heroine-focused stories are the norm in the genre, Colin’s story of a self-made businessman who returns to his hometown and college years later to earn his degree is a more compelling story that was worth pursuing in greater depth.

The overall rating for the Love in Bloom collection is three hearts -- based on an average that has been rounded up to the closest whole number. The Craft story is a solid three. The Hudson-Smith novella is a two-heart read and Sims’ story rates a strong three.

--Gwendolyn Osborne

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