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Shadow Lover by Anne Stuart
(Onyx, $6.99, R) ISBN 0-451-40869-1
I've lost track of Anne Stuart since she moved from category to single title contemporary, but judging from reviews of her recent work, she's carved out a niche for herself by releasing dark contemporary suspense novels with extremely flawed heroes and heroines. Shadow Lover seems less grim than her other recent novels, and more of a traditional gothic, but it's still not recommended for those who need light and laughter in their romances.

Carolyn Smith joined the wealthy MacDowell family as a foster child but never became a fully accepted member of the household. Although matriarch Sally MacDowell never adopted Carolyn, the austere woman was the only mother Carolyn ever knew. So now that Sally is dying of cancer, Carolyn has given up her job to return to Vermont and nurse Sally through her last days.

As Carolyn grew up, she alternately loved and hated Sally's biological son, Alex, a wild, rebellious child. When Carolyn was 13, Alex disappeared, along with a great deal of MacDowell money and valuables. Now a handsome man who claims to be Alex arrives at the house. Sally is overjoyed to see her prodigal son and welcomes him without question. But Carolyn knows this man is an imposter because of a secret that she has kept for years.

On the night that Alex disappeared, Carolyn followed him and saw him murdered by an unknown assailant. So this man can't be Alex, even if he does know details about the MacDowell family and especially about Carolyn. He's obviously a con man, attempting to claim a large portion of the estate when Sally dies. But there is just a kernel of doubt in Carolyn's mind, and the man who claims to be Alex MacDowell alternately charms, seduces and torments her.

Stuart populates the novel with a host of stock gothic characters Sally's bachelor brother Warren, her drunken, dissipated sister Patsy, and Patsy's ne'er-do-well children. She lets the Vermont winter isolate the characters together while Carolyn and Alex (real or pretend) circle around each other. Like other recent Stuart novels, neither major character is completely sympathetic. Alex admits to being a selfish, arrogant bastard whose desire to seduce Carolyn is purely mercenary, at first. Carolyn is a lonely, passive, tightly-wound woman who has spent her life in a futile quest to feel part of the MacDowell family.

Maybe Shadow Lover's white book cover, in contrast to the dark covers of Ritual Sins, Moonrise and Nightfall, is an attempt to win back some of Stuart's fans from earlier days who were alienated by those novels' unrelenting darkness. Admittedly, the characters do mellow slightly as Alex realizes his true feelings for Carolyn and eventually becomes her protector, and Carolyn learns to let loose and give as good as she gets from Alex and the rest of the family. However, their love scenes together are graphic and rough, without hearts and flowers. Alex reflects after their first sexual encounter:

Jesus F***ing Christ, why couldn't he learn? That hadn't been a casual roll in the hay, guaranteed to screw her into complacent acceptance. It hadn't been a nice, lazy f**k to scratch an itch left over from adolescence. That had been a major, Grade A, megaton, force five, point eight on the Richter scale act of sexual intimacy that was totally unlike anything he'd ever experienced before, and he had a pretty damned good idea it had shaken her even more than it had totaled him.

If that passage doesn't bother you, you'll probably appreciate Shadow Lover. There are some clever surprises in the fast-moving plot as the reader discovers the truth behind Alex's identity. I fully accepted that Carolyn and Alex were bound together by their pasts and a strong mutual attraction. But I'm not sure I believed it when Carolyn admitted to Alex that she loved him, and I'm not sure I could see them living happily- ever-after in wedded bliss. However, it was undeniably exciting to travel with them to the last page.

--Susan Scribner

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