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Wedding Bells by Gwynne Forster, Francine Craft & Niqui Stanhope
(Arabesque/BET, $4.99, PG-13) ISBN 1-58314-016-6
****
Arabesque/BET Books has released three novels and an anthology to celebrate June weddings. Wedding Bells is a collection of three stories by Gwynne Forster, Francine Craft and Niqui Stanhope. The full-color cover with a photograph of a contemporary African-American couple shadowed in yellow tones is breathtaking. You can almost judge this book by its cover.

The first story in the collection, Gwynne Forster's "Love for a Lifetime," is my favorite.

Have you ever wondered what happened to those couples who meet and quickly fall in love in exotic locales? Is there really a "Happily Ever After?" What happens after the story generally ends? When they come home and where everyday life intrudes? "Love for a Lifetime" takes up some of those questions.

Ginger Hinds and Jason Calhoun are two recently divorced attorneys who meet in Zimbabwe. Both are traveling alone and agree to sightsee together. No promises, no commitments, no strings, just temporary companionship. They exchange only first names, a bit of banter and one mind-blowing kiss.

They go their separate ways – no addresses, phone numbers or e-mail addresses. Once they return to the states, each relives their brief encounter. Both wonder "what if?" Weeks later, Ginger's and Jason's paths cross in an unlikely setting.

"Love for a Lifetime" is a strong start to the anthology. It's a classic Forster story with all the elements I find appealing in her work. The main characters and their supporting cast are warm and human. And, while the humor is subtle, there is nothing subtle about the sexual tension between Ginger and Jason. This is a wonderful story about love, second chances, choices and conflicts-of-interest.

"A Love Made in Heaven" is Francine Craft's contribution to the anthology. It is the story of editor Margo Hilliard and photographer Ronald Hyman just weeks before their upcoming wedding in Washington, D.C.

Ron is a widower who has rebuilt his life in just two years after his wife's death in an automobile accident. To all outside observers, his four-year storybook marriage to beautiful Jillian Wentworth, daughter of a Maryland state senator, was "a love made in heaven." Jillian's "Perfect 10" persona looms over Margo's upcoming marriage to Ron. But Margo has decided that she can peacefully co-exist with Jill's memory. This, despite constant reminders of Jill's perfection from Ron's mother and Jill's sister, the return of her ex-fiancé, and Ron's inability to discuss his first marriage.

"A Love Made in Heaven" is a very pleasant story about second chances, perception, forgiveness and family secrets. And – although I have not read Francine Craft's entire body of work – "A Love Made in Heaven" is the best I've read of her most recent romances.

"Champagne Wishes" is proof that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.

I recently read and reviewed Niqui Stanhope's Made for Each Other, the story Gavin Pagne and Summer Stevens. This story reprises those characters. "Champagne Wishes" is a clear case of too little, too soon. Releasing these two stories within a month of each other gives readers an opportunity to compare the two.

I really was looking forward to reading more about Summer, Gavin and his family. I like the characters.

However, as a sequel, I found "Champagne Wishes" flat. It added nothing new to the mix created in Made for Each Other. As a matter of fact, it caused more confusion. For example, a cousin in the earlier story is now a brother. There are no answers to the questions posed in Made for Each Other and the payoff promised at the close of that novel, and in keeping with the anthology's theme, never materializes.

"Champagne Wishes," with its very catchy title, may appeal to readers who have not read Made for Each Other, but I was very disappointed.

Collectively, the Wedding Bells anthology is definitely worth a look. Individually, I'd rate the Forster story a five. The Craft story is a strong four-heart read. Rating the Stanhope sequel is a bit more complex. As a stand-alone, I'd give it a tepid three. As a sequel, I'd rate it a two.

--Gwendolyn Osborne


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