Parlor Games
by Jess Michaels, Leda Swann & Julia Templeton
(Avon Red, $13.95, NC-17) ISBN 0-06-088229-8
Parlor Games is another launch title in the steamy new Avon Red erotic fiction line, and this time around all of the authors explore naughty shenanigans in historical settings. Unfortunately, unlike its contemporary counterpart, If This Bed Could Talk, this anthology doesn’t come close to getting it right. In fact, the only readable story in the bunch is buried at the end.

Jess Michaels starts it all off with “Fallen Angel,” a story about a woman who insists she isn’t a madam (sure you aren’t sweetheart) and a man betrayed by a woman so naturally all women are dirty liars.

John Valentine is a former Bow Street Runner disgraced after he is accused to aiding a band of thieves. Arabella Nichols runs an exclusive club where members pay a steep price to dine in sexual delights. How that doesn’t make her a madam or the girls that work for her whores is anybody’s guess – but Arabella vehemently maintains that she runs a respectable establishment. Anyway, someone has been threatening her with nasty letters and the threats have now escalated to attempts on her life. She hires Valentine for protection, to find the bad guy, and to have oodles of sex with her.

This story wouldn’t be half bad except both characters are set on dominating each other. Domination/submission play is all well and good – but these characters seem bent on gaining control to the point of breaking the other person. Not only is it bad behavior, its not terribly erotic.

Leda Swann clocks in with longest and most annoying story of the bunch, “Parlor Games” Sarah Chesham has fallen on hard times and has spent her last few remaining pennies on a coffeehouse dinner. Little does she know that the woman who owns the coffeehouse has a backdoor business of catering to a discerning clientele. Sarah wouldn’t have to sleep with any of them, just play little games with them and tease them. Should she choose to bed any of them, well that’s her business.

A simpering virgin, Sarah agrees to this because she figures it’s better than dying in a workhouse or in some back alley. She soon meets Tom Wilde, a tabloid pamphlet writer looking to get the dirt on an MP who frequents the coffeehouse. He buys Sarah for a solid month because he is so enchanted, but the chit refuses to have sex with him.

There is a certain entertaining camp factor this story until the reader gets to know Sarah better. She’s a tease – which is never good in any story, let alone a story billing itself as erotic. She plays with Tom then slaps his hand away when he tries for something more. She vehemently denies that she is a whore (um, yeah right) and soon takes on the role of innocent who needs the white knight to rescue her. Ugh.

“Border Lord” by Julia Templeton is a really good story that deserved to be in much better company. Terri Campbell has just discovered her fiancé boffing her much younger assistant. So she hops in her car and drives to Scotland where she wanders into an ancient priory. The tour guide tells her a story of Laird Brochan Douglas who kidnapped Annabelle MacLellan after her father murdered his brother. Terri becomes curious and wanders into a room that has been locked for the past 700 years after Annabelle’s father become so enraged at his daughter’s abduction he strangled a nun to death.

Of course when Terri wanders into the room she wakes up in 1294 and everybody is calling her Annabelle. Then Brochan shows up on schedule, kidnaps her, and starts calling her Annabelle as well. Well maybe if Terri is nice to the man he won’t kill her and she’ll somehow travel back to the future.

The time travel aspect is imaginative and resolved in a wonderful way. Terri is also the only heroine in this anthology who behaves like a normal woman, so she’s incredibly refreshing to read about. She is a real woman, with real desires and doesn’t go around talking about how she’s not this or that. She keeps up the Annabelle pretense long enough to figure out what exactly she’s going to do, but when the time is right, her and Brochan find a way to be together.

This anthology would be a disappointment at any cost, let alone at trade paperback price. With the stories ranking at two hearts, one heart and four hearts consecutively, it’s a dicey gamble for any erotic romance fan.

--Wendy Crutcher

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