Under Cover
by MaryJanice Davidson
(Brava, $14.00, R) ISBN 0-7582-0646-1
Not usually a fan of anthologies, I’ve recently enjoyed two. One was Under the Mistletoe, a delightful collection of traditional Regency Christmas stories from Mary Balogh (see Lesley Dunlap’s review).

Waaaaaaay at the other end of the spectrum, like a breath of fresh air through the halls of the same-old same-old, was Under Cover. Sexy, romantic, and bursting with energy, this is the most original romance I’ve read in ages.

The first book, “Sweet Strangers” has Renee Jardin on the run from Anodyne, the biotech company where she used to be head of security. An important discovery found its way into Renee’s purse but, attempting to return it, she was accused of theft and bioterrorism. Trying to evade capture, Renee flings herself into the arms of Eric Axelrod – and discovers that Eric is part of the team searching for her.

After hearing her story, Eric believes that Renee has been set up. Now they’re on the lam together until they can figure out what’s going on.

In spite of a couple of clunky moments (a foray into the POV of a waiter, for example), this chase story is fast-paced entertainment. Renee and Eric are quick to jump each other, but the heat and eagerness are entirely consistent with the frenetic pace of the narrative and the sense of jeopardy. I also loved the fact that it took Eric some time to convince Renee that he was on her side. No matter how she felt, until she was convinced, she never forgot her goal: escape.

The second story, “Lovely Lies,” takes up where the first leaves off. Peter Random is admittedly a bit of a thug. He used to do background checks for Anodyne, but he’s out of work since the whole Renee situation blew up and he suspects his landlady won’t be sympathetic. Heading home from the bar where he’s been discussing his problems with a couple of Rusty Nails, he finds a pretty redhead passed out in the back seat of his car.

Unable to wake her, Peter takes the girl home with him. When she comes to, he finds that she needs a bodyguard. Lori was left nearly a million dollars in her mother’s will, and her mother’s second husband and his son want it. The cash is the unwelcome legacy of a controlling grandfather and Lori needs protection until she can give it away to worthy causes.

This was my favorite of the three stories. It’s the most character driven, and I’m a sucker for a character like Peter. He’s a very rough diamond with a soft center and great sense of humor, and he’s much, much smarter than he looks. He’s unflinchingly honest, surprisingly self-aware, strong, modest, and great in bed. In other words, he's a hero – and all the more delightful because he’s wrapped in such an unlikely package.

The final story, “Delightful Deception,” is the story of Thea Foster. The scientist whose discovery sparked the theft at Anodyne, she’s known as IQ, both for her intellect and her reputation as an Ice Queen. Anodyne has been bought by billionaire bio-nerd Jimmy Scrye and, while everyone is grateful for the bail-out, no one knows what the eccentric wunderkind will do next.

When Thea is distracted by sexual fantasies about Jimmy, she decides there’s only one thing for a brilliant researcher to do. It’s both funny and touching to watch, as the Ice Queen’s shell crumbles and the brash boy genius comes to terms with his own insecurities.

While I loved the headlong enthusiasm of these stories, there are a few rough spots. The mostly rock-solid characterization and the honest laughs that came from the characters’ ability to surprise me were thrown off stride occasionally when the author tossed integrity aside to go for a cheap joke. The author also has. A. Little. Bag. Of. Writing. Tricks. Including a couple of sexual moves that are repeated in more than one story. She might be able to get away with this in full-length books that come out months apart, but it sticks out like a sore thumb in novellas read back to back.

Overall, though, the things I didn’t like blew past like a billboard on a high-speed freeway. Fast-paced, funny, and full of rough-around-the-edges charm, I enjoyed these stories very much.

-- Judi McKee

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