Amelia Edwards is a "good girl." After her parents died, she was raised by a very conservative aunt, and as a consequence dresses very plainly. Outwardly, Amelia is painfully shy and rather sexually repressed, but inwardly she is a passionate young woman who lives out her most secret sexual fantasies in an online journal. The object of her desires is Jay Wagner, the hot guy who owns the Harley shop next door to Amelia's favorite cybercafe, where she does all her naughty writing. Jay has noticed Amelia when he come into the cafe for coffee, but she always retreats into her shell whenever he even looks at her. Jay senses that there is more to Amelia than meets the eye though, and his interest is peaked by the challenge she presents. One day, he spots Amelia on the website TrueConfessions.com and sees her screen name too. Jay can't wait to find out what this prim, proper young lady could possibly have to confess. When he logs onto her journal, his computer monitor all but bursts into flames, and when Jay discovers that he is the dream man that she's been writing about, he couldn't be happier. Armed with Amelia's fantasies, Jay sets out to make them all come true, but if Amelia ever finds out that he has been snooping in her private diary, she may never be able to forgive him.
Sensual Secrets contained many of the romance themes that I tend to like best, yet strangely, it failed to fully resonate with me. I also thought that the premise sounded interesting, but ultimately, the execution fell rather flat. Considering the shorter format of a Harlequin novel, I thought that the main characters had a decent amount of backstory, but even though their stories had some relatable elements, I was never able to really become emotionally engaged with either of them or their relationship. I just felt like the reasons for them falling in love were rather weak (he had never met anyone like her and he had helped her to be more confident and daring), and the overall relationship was simply too formulaic and predictable. I was also rather frustrated by the constant will-they-or-won't-they sexual element that went on for nearly the entire story. I'm not the type of reader who wants a couple to fall into bed with each other in the first chapter, but neither do I like to be teased incessantly. I understood that Amelia was shy and lacking confidence, but every time she left Jay in a state of sexual frustration, I felt for him. I know she wasn't intentionally teasing him, but after it happened several times, it just got tiresome. I also felt like Jay held back too much as well, fearing that he would drive Amelia away if he pushed too hard, but I think that if he had pushed her a little more and she had responded in kind, it would have been a much better story. I thought that Jay's contentious relationship with his father added a bit of depth to his character, but it never really went anywhere, ending in a reconciliation that had no real rhyme or reason and ultimately rang hollow for me.
Amelia and Jay were both generally likable characters, but I still thought that they could have been better. Amelia was a painfully shy woman who considered herself to be quite physically ordinary, yet her head was filled with secret sexual fantasies. Overall, I thought this made her pretty relatable, but I thought the author went a little overboard with Amelia's self-reproach early on in the story. She just kept putting herself down so much during those chapters that I felt like the author was beating a dead horse. I had easily gotten the point after the first couple of times. Of course, Amelia does grow and change throughout the story, but it just seemed a little too quick and magical for someone who was that timid and repressed. Jay embodied a lot of the characteristics that I like in a hero, but I think that the author tried to pack too many cliched romance hero traits into him which ended up diluting the character. Having a guy with a phenomenally high IQ running a Harley shop was a pretty unique element. He also had been a prodigious author in his youth, but had rebelled against both that and academia, because he disliked both and felt that his father had pushed him into it. Then later in the story Jay did a complete about-face with very little explanation as to why he changed his mind or what was going to become of the Harley shop that he seemed to love so much. One other thing that bothered me about Jay was that he was supposed to be a benevolent admirer of Amelia, seeing her for who she truly was, but most of the time it seemed like the pursuit of her was just a game to him. It was like she was a challenge to the part of him that was bored with his usual sexual conquests of which there had been a few too many for my taste. I don't usually mind a rakish, experienced hero, but what I really didn't need was quite so much information about his past lovers. When he started thinking about ditching Amelia after their first time having sex and about how he had just meant this to be another fun but short-lived encounter, I really started to loose respect for him. In the end, he only partially redeemed himself in my opinion.
I initially thought that the premise of this story would make for a fun and steamy tale, but the more I read it, the more it just seemed to be a benign plot device. I thought that more could have been accomplished if Jay had earned Amelia's trust and actively tried to get her to share her fantasies with him and then play them out, rather than him sneaking around behind her back to read her journals. Every time he tried to set up one of her fantasies it didn't go as planned anyway, and Amelia seemed a little dense to not figure out how Jay coincidentally kept doing things that were pretty much straight out of her diaries. Of course, if Jay hadn't been peeking at Amelia's writing, there wouldn't have been much of a conflict, but I still can't help thinking that having communication would have given their relationship a great deal more depth. I was also disappointed that given Jay's sordid sexual history, there was nary a condom in sight, nor even any discussion of birth control. Also, the secondary characters didn't seem to add much to the story either. Amelia's roommates seemed like one-dimensional Barbie dolls, who, in a way, took advantage of her lack of a social life to get her to do their chores. They did have their moments when they were kind and understanding with her, but they also sometimes seemed to treat her like a child. The only supporting characters that were very interesting were the elderly gay couple who lived next-door to Jay, but even they didn't play much of a part in the story.
By now, I'm sure readers are wondering why I gave this book three stars, since most of what I've had to say about it has been pretty critical. I will say that unlike some other books I've read, Sensual Secrets was a least a readable story that also kept me reading, although admittedly it was probably because I was waiting for the "main event".;-) Overall, it was a reasonably pleasant way to spend a few hours of reading time. I just wish that the characters and plot had had a little more substance. Perhaps this would be a book better left to a boring, rainy afternoon when there's nothing better to do. Sensual Secrets was my first Harlequin Blaze, so I'm not sure what the usual "heat" level is for these books. This one had a few mildly daring elements that might have pushed the envelope on traditional romances just a bit, but only a couple of full-blown love scenes. Overall, I'd have to say that I've actually read other romances that were much steamier, so readers who are looking for that probably won't find it here. This was also my first read of a book by Jo Leigh. Although I wasn't fully impressed with this one, I have several others by her on my TBR (to-be-read) list that were recommended by a friend, so I will keep an open mind about reading other books by her in the future.
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