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leeFantasies & the Future, by Miranda Lee, would make a great Regency romance. Ava is part of the Whitmore family, wealthy merchants of opals, but her family is entwined with the ruthless Campbell family, also jewel merchants. Ava lives with her much older brother, is a virgin at thirty, hopeless at running the household and dealing with the staff, worries about her weight, and hides in a studio, painting works she lacks the confidence to finish.

Her most recent household disaster involved firing the landscaper, and now the grounds are a mess. She hires a new landscaper sight unseen, knowing only his name (Italian), and then fantasizes about his visit. Her tentative exploration of her body, above the waist, is apparently her first recognition of sexuality, perhaps stimulated by the shocking suggestion that her widowed brother may be bedding the woman he is dating.

The landscaper, Vince, arrives. He is the virile Italian stallion of her fantasies, but he’s cool to her. We later learn he’s weary of being invited in to service the rich ladies of the homes he visits. His becomes more attentive when Ava manages to slip and fall on the patio. He carries her in, rips off his shirt to stem the bleeding, and makes sure she is okay. In the process he learns about her paintings, admires them, and arranges for an art dealer he knows to see them.

Vince returns a few days later to purchase one of her paintings, overhears her invitation to a family party, and offers to escort her. Ava finds his attentions and the praise of the art dealer so confidence inspiring that she loses weight over the week, and is noticeably thinner at the party. When Vince arrives to pick her up, they go to bed first, where Vince declares that this is just an affair, she’s his property, and now he knows why virgins are so prized. Ava is pleased with all of these declarations.

Then it’s round two in the shower, the party, and back to Vince’s place for more sex. Vince’s place turns out to be a luxury penthouse apartment. Vince is not really a landscaper, he’s an engineer who owns a construction company. The landscaping business belongs to his brother. And he loves Ava so much he wants to marry her, even if spending more time with her and less on his business means he’ll be a millionaire instead of a multimillionaire. Never mind what he said last night about this just being an affair.

This is story four of six in the Hearts of Fire series, and the overall story arc concerns Ava’s relative Gemma, who is suffering through an unhappy marriage to a possibly cheating and definitely sexually abusive husband, though she does find his brutality arousing. She’s also searching for the secret of her real origins….

As I said, this would make a great Regency romance. However, it’s a contemporary, from 1994. Yes, that was twenty years ago, but it’s not just my memory that tells me this is odd. I’ve read romances from the 1980s with strong, capable, and sexually active women. Perhaps I need to chose my lines more carefully.

The story is more wish fulfillment than growth. Vince makes a financial sacrifice, I suppose, but that’s so soon after we learn he’s rich that it doesn’t resonate. Ava does acquire confidence, which is good, but it comes from being desired. Granted, that can do a lot for your confidence, but we all know you need to believe in yourself before others can believe in you. In the context of the series story arc, with failing and failed marriages in both families, it bodes ill for Ava’s future happiness that she relies external validation. Her successful effort to lose weight is also unsettling. Again, good for her, and Vince makes it clear that he was attracted to her before she lost weight, but the emphasis on her appearance seems shallow. I would have preferred more about how she used her newfound confidence to complete her paintings.

Then there’s the speed of the romance: Sex and marriage proposal on the first date, after meeting twice and two phone calls. And of course my pet peeve – people who start off with fantastic sex, especially virgins.

The six novels in the Hearts of Fire series were written in nine months, and very early in Lee’s career, though she certainly paid her dues. It took ten years of drafting for her first novel to be accepted. She’s continued to be a prolific writer, with ninety-three Harlequins published to date. Her most recent is The Playboy’s Ruthless Pursuit:

When you’re as handsome, dynamic and wealthy as British tycoon Jeremy Barker-Whittle, there’s no shortage of stunning women willing to share your bed. So when Alice Waterhouse says no, it’s a challenge the jaded playboy can’t refuse.

But discovering Alice’s carefully guarded innocence brings an end to Jeremy’s thoughts of briefly stolen passion. The cynical CEO must put aside this delicate beauty…until Alice shocks him by asking him to take her virginity!

As Jeremy toys with the temptation to be the first man to show Alice pleasure, he’s unaware that she could be the first woman to tame him…

I’m not seeing much change in theme, after twenty-two years, so this must be a formula that works for Lee and her fans. I may even read this – just to see what has changed, if anything.

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