Lovers Unmasked is an anthology of four Halloween-themed contemporary romance stories (though I wouldn’t say the holiday plays a really major role in any of them, just sort of background flavor).
Seducing Mr. Right, by Katee Robert
Grayson and Danielle work in the same building and have been meeting for coffee for a while now. They are both planning to attend the company Halloween party, and unbeknownst to each other, they both plan a seduction. The problem is, Danielle really likes Grayson, but she doesn’t “do” relationships. Grayson is certain he wants Danielle for more than just one night, but he’s keeping a huge secret from her that he knows might ruin his chances. The characterization was strong and I felt like I knew these two as well as you can in a short story. The sex scenes were quite sexy indeed–turns out mild-mannered Grayson is very bossy in the bedroom! The problem was that there wasn’t really enough time to get over Grayson’s big secret once it was revealed. I appreciated that while initially furious, Danielle doesn’t act intractable and looks at the situation maturely. I didn’t think Grayson did enough groveling, though, and there just wasn’t enough time to adequately resolve the issue, in my mind. Still, these were two interesting characters and I believed that they’d work it out eventually. Grade: 3.75 out of 5
Tempted by His Best Friend, by Cari Quinn
Steff, Lan, and Craig have been best friends since college, but in the last year Lan has pulled away. This has hit Steff particularly hard because she’s been in love with Lan for years. In desperation, she concocts a plan to prove to Lan that she’s not the same old Steff. Things get a bit out of hand at the Halloween party though, and Steff freaks out and never reveals her identity to Lan. The problem is, Lan already has feelings for Steff but has been trying to distance himself in an effort to preserve their friendship. I really liked Steff as a character. I could feel her frustration at not being able to shift Lan’s old image of her as “just one of the guys.” Lan seemed so shocked that the girl he always hung out with was actually a sexy, fun, intelligent woman, and I liked seeing his view of her evolve as Steff puts more of herself out there. As with the last story, though, I felt like the big secret that comes out near the end wasn’t given enough time to resolve. I would have liked a bit more talking about why BOTH of them behaved the way they did. Plus, I was pretty bothered by Lan’s obsession with the girl he met at the Halloween party. Yes, by the end he does say he put her out of his mind, but even after he and Steff start testing out a sexual relationship, he was still thinking about the Halloween encounter. Coupled with his fairly callous treatment of Steff for most of the book, it just didn’t quite sit right with me. Grade: 3.5 out of 5
Wicked Games, by Samanthe Beck
This is a romantic suspense novella, which is really hard to get right! I think Samanthe Beck does get it right, though. The story focuses on some secondary characters from one of Beck’s previous books (which I haven’t read). Stacy is a stripper-turned-actress, and Ian is her homicide detective ex-boyfriend. Stacy dumped Ian because she didn’t think she was good enough for him given her shady past. She sees Ian’s lack of protest about their break up as evidence that he didn’t want her, while he thinks the break up is just one of Stacy’s tantrums and if he waits it out, she’ll come back to him. Stacy starts getting threatening letters, and while she brushes them off, her sister Kylie brings them to the attention of her homicide detective fiance and his partner, Ian. Stacy is scheduled to attend a Halloween party at a strip club, so Ian comes to help keep her safe. The two have a very, very steamy encounter that actually takes up a good chunk of the book, and the sex scene really helps you understand the two better as people. You can see Stacy’s vulnerability and some of Ian’s obtuseness (as well as love) when it comes to Stacy. While a touch dramatic, I didn’t think Stacy’s reasons for ending things with Ian were completely preposterous, and while she shares the blame, Ian certainly had some ground to make up to get Stacy back. There was some suspense, though it was very, very compressed into mostly the last handful of chapters as Stacy’s mysterious letter writer finds her. No subtle build-up of tension here–just one intense encounter. As in many romantic suspense stories, it’s the danger that finally makes the hero and heroine realize how they feel about each other, and it’s what pushes them past their previous superficial obstacles. Throughout the story, you can see each character’s progression and how they’ve ended up in a different place than where they started. Grade: 4 out of 5
Protecting What’s Theirs, by Tessa Bailey
This story follows a couple from one of Bailey’s previous books (Protecting What’s His, which I have not read). Ginger has a boutique furniture shop where she sells her hand-decorated creations, and Derek is her cop boyfriend. Ginger and Derek both have major news to share with the other, but they each make a different decision about what to do with that news. Ginger plans to tell Derek her information, but Derek makes the decision to keep his news a secret from Ginger to spare her feelings. Derek’s secret forms a wedge that starts slowly driving the two apart. Even though I didn’t read Ginger and Derek’s original story, I could sense that Ginger has some deep-seated issues with trust and intimacy, and Derek’s secret rips opens all those old scars. I did have a little trouble understanding why he would do such a thing, knowing how hard it has been for Ginger to build up trust in the relationship. I thought Ginger was an awesome character–she’s smart, strong, and mature. Even when she thinks her relationship might be over, she is in pain but knows she can survive, and I loved that about her. Derek is not normally the kind of hero I like. He’s extremely alpha, overprotective, and jealous. He’s domineering in the bedroom, which I don’t mind, and out of it, which I sometimes do mind. I didn’t think he did enough groveling at the end. Oh, he does grovel, but given the hell he put Ginger through I didn’t think it was quite enough. Still, he has this intense tenderness and devotion for Ginger that shines in the spaces between his asshole moments. The scene where he finally discovers the news Ginger has been trying to tell him actually had me tearing up a little. I guess I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Derek! This was my favorite novella in the collection, and I already find myself itching to reread it. Grade: 4.25 out of 5
Overall, I thought this was a fairly well done anthology. While I liked some of the stories better than others, I enjoyed reading all of them, which I find is rare in anthologies like this. While the Halloween theme wasn’t particularly strong in any of these stories, they would be a fun way to get in the mood (pun intended!) for the holiday.
Overall grade: 4 out of 5