A Stolen Heart
I have to hand it to Candace Camp: she’s a terrific writer. It was only after I’d finished reading A Stolen Heart that I realized it was based on a preposterous premise and contained a couple of elements that would have caused me to roll my eyeballs in exasperation if a writer with lesser skills had attempted to write this story. But she is good, and if you can accept the premise at face value, you’ll probably enjoy the book.
The action starts in Paris, at the beginning of the French Revolution. Simone Montford, the French-born wife of Lord Chilton, is desperate for their three children to escape the wrath of the mobs hunting down the aristos. She gives each of them a little heirloom, a keepsake, and places them in the care of a friend who promises to deliver them safely to their relatives in England. Sadly, Lord and Lady Chilton do not survive the wrath of the mob, and an eyewitness will later swear that even the children were murdered. Or were they?
Now, over twenty years later, a young American woman arrives in London. Accompanied by her frail mother and no-nonsense aunt, Alexandra Ward is anxious to make the acquaintance of the new partner in her family’s shipping business. But Sebastian, Lord Thorpe, is very reclusive, and Alexandra almost has to force her way past his army of servants. She wants not only to meet him, but also to view his famed collection of Indian artifacts – artifacts Sebastian amassed while he was in exile following a disastrous and scandalous love affair. From the first, it’s a love/hate fascination for each of them. Alexandra is intrigued by this intelligent man who remains aloof from the world, while Sebastian has to remind himself that he ought to avoid this quick-tempered, beautiful young woman. But he gives in to impulse and invites her to a ball.
At the party, Sebastian’s dear friend and surrogate mother, the dowager Countess of Exmoor, faints away at sight of Alexandra. It seems Alexandra is a dead ringer for the countess’s late daughter-in-law Simone, and the older woman is convinced that the American is her long-lost granddaughter. Sebastian’s suspicions are raised: is Alexandra nothing more than an adventuress, intent on defrauding the countess of her not-inconsiderable fortune? What does he really know about her, anyway, aside from the fact that he wants her? But when someone threatens Alexandra, then tries to kill her, Sebastian decides she needs his protection and aid more than his contempt. Once he’s assured of her safety, he can get to the bottom of the mystery.
The story just clips along. Alexandra is mugged on the street, kidnapped and sold to a brothel, and placed in danger in a hot-air balloon. Never fear, though – Sebastian’s always there to yank her out of danger and back into his arms, where another sort of adventure awaits. It reminds me of those old Perils of Pauline serials, where you just knew that Pauline’s hero was going to come along and save the day.
And like Pauline, Alexandra sometimes displays TSTL qualities, causing no small part of her own troubles. Although she claims ignorance of all things English, surely even an American girl would know better than to walk around unescorted in a city at night. She totters on the verge of being spunky, and I share Lou Grant’s opinion of spunk (from the very first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show): “You’ve got spunk. I hate spunk.” I found this quality just a little irritating, and it’s one of the main reasons I won’t be packing the book up when I run away to my desert isle, the other being the highly implausible premise of presumed-dead heirs popping up unexpectedly. But this is fairy-tale fiction, not documentary history, so I bought into the premise without too much struggle.
To be fair, Alexandra and Sebastian are a very high-spirited and likable couple, well matched in their disregard for many of the rules of society. Sebastian especially is articulate, intelligent, and logical, and when she’s not getting into one or another harebrained scrape Alexandra shows a quick wit. They both secretly acknowledge the attraction between them early on, and half the fun of the book comes in watching them squirm under its weight. The secondary characters are equally well done, especially Rhea, Alexandra’s mother, a woman who’s lived with a terrible secret for too long, and Aunt Hortense, a spinster who nonetheless recognizes the love between a man and woman when she sees it. As for the villain, let’s just say there are lots of likely candidates, and you probably won’t guess who it is until the right moment.
Camp delivers on many levels. Dialogue and characterization are solid, and the plot moves well (no sagging middle here). This is the first of a trilogy about the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Simone and Emerson’s children, and from the excerpt at the back of A Stolen Heart, the next one, due for release in August, will probably be just as good as the first. I’ll look for it. In the meantime, enjoy this one – but watch out for that almost-too-spunky heroine!