Hero of my Heart
Hero of My Heart began very promisingly indeed. I liked the set-up, the hero was immediately established as broken yet honorable with an air of instability about him, and the story proceeded to develop strongly and at a good pace. It wasn’t long before the hero was revealed to be not all he seemed to be, and the dynamic between him and the heroine was subject to frequent shifts which served to heighten my interest and keep me on my toes when reading. Unfortunately, those things weren’t sustained throughout the novel, and around the halfway mark the pace began to slacken. I often found myself wondering if the hero and heroine were ever going to stop having sex long enough for them to attend to other matters.
The story opens with Alasdair Thornham, Lord Datchworth, being rather the worse for drink in a tavern where there is about to be an auction. It’s no ordinary auction however, as the “lot” is a young woman, a virgin, who has been put up for sale by her unscrupulous half-brother who is desperate for money. He may be drunk, but Alasdair is not completely incapacitated, and so he outbids everyone else, wins the young lady – Mary Smith – and carts her off upstairs so she can sleep off whatever she was given to ensure her docility during the auction and he can sleep off the effects of the drink.
Having ascertained she is a respectable vicar’s daughter, Alasdair insists they get married. She’s spent the night in his room and is therefore irretrievably compromised and if they do not marry, her reputation will be in tatters. Reluctantly, Mary agrees to this, and the two get ready to head off to Gretna Green, but not before Mary’s half-brother arrives to try – unsuccessfully — to force her to return home with him. Alasdair arrives in time to prevent her being carried off, and they make for Scotland. The trip doesn’t go smoothly, but they arrive in one piece, only to be confronted by Alasdair’s cousin, Hugh, and a mysterious doctor.
All through these first few chapters there are hints that something is not quite right with Alasdair. He’s prone to mood swings and sudden attacks of acute pain and feverishness which the reader — although not Mary – quickly discerns are symptoms of withdrawal.
A veteran of Salamanca who lost his elder brother on the battlefield and whose remaining family is also dead, Alasdair is addicted to opium. At first, he took it for pain relief after having been seriously wounded, but has continued to take it as a way of dulling his pain and feelings of survivor’s guilt. In his addled state, he has decided to perform one last service – to save Mary, marry her, leave her all his money and estates – and then surrender to his addiction until it kills him.
Mary does not learn of Alasdair’s condition until later, when he tells her of his cousin’s plan to supply his addiction, discredit him in the eyes of society, have him put away, and then inherit his property and title.
Having disposed – temporarily – of Hugh and the doctor, the couple are married – and agree not to consummate the union, although I don’t quite know why, because they’re so hot for each other, it’s going to be impossible. Needless to say, the agreement was short lived, because Mary decides she wants a wedding night after all and it doesn’t take much for her to get her own way.
The rest of the story concerns their journey from Scotland to London to locate Mary’s mother, whom she had previously believed dead. She also believed herself to be illegitimate, but discovers that isn’t the case and that her mother is alive and well and now happily married to Lord Stainton and living in tonnish circles in London.
I thought the idea of the addicted hero who needed saving from himself was a good one. The writing was generally good and the hero and heroine were engaging characters. But as the story progressed, I began to notice holes in the storytelling which prevented me from enjoying the novel as much as I might otherwise have done.
Alasdair’s addiction is presented fairly realistically at first, I thought. I have no knowledge of how opium pills work, but he seemed to function almost normally once the drug had taken effect and the initial effects worn off, and his withdrawal symptoms seemed fairly accurate. He tries to hide his dependency, he lies, he breaks promises. Later, his lapse, his self-hatred, and belief in his worthlessness were all well written and had a real emotional impact. Mary finds out what he’s done and leaves him, and Alasdair suddenly realizes he can’t do without her. When he catches up with her, he promises once again to fight his addiction and – suddenly, he’s clean. No more stomach cramps or sweats; no more attempts to sneak off to find a supply of opium or even to buy some laudanum (in which opium is an ingredient) as a way to take the edge off.
Mention is made of the fact that Alasdair has merely swapped one addiction (opium) for another (Mary). He believes that she is “saving” him by being with him and believing in him, but I doubt that chemical dependency can be replaced by the power of luurve.
Something else that had me scratching my head was the fact that they agreed to have a sexless relationship and within no time at all were at it like bunnies. In fact, I felt as though the second half of the book had been padded out with sex scenes because there were so many of them. I have no objection to the characters getting it on, but it felt as though the sex was there just for the sake of it and I found myself glossing over the sex scenes to get to the next part of the story. But what, I wondered, had been the point of the agreement in the first place? They were married – and given Alasdair’s initial plan to get Mary settled and then spend his remaining days off his face on opium – clearly intended to remain married. Even after they’ve consummated their marriage several times, they continue to talk about and try to act upon the “no sex” rule and fail miserably each time.
And on the subject of sex – Mary is a vicar’s daughter and a virgin, who is surprisingly forward about asking for what she wants in bed and who makes the transition from vicarage virgin to sexy siren in an astonishingly short time. The book is set at a time when young women were kept in virtual ignorance of what went on in the bedroom and not only that, were brought up to think it shameful and not something women were supposed to want. I can certainly believe that a sexual awakening by a generous lover would disprove those pronouncements, but to be able to overcome a lifetime of conditioning almost immediately stretched my credulity too far.
Mary spends most of the book convinced that Alasdair doesn’t really care for her all that much and is merely using her body to satisfy his desires, a belief he reinforces when he admits to her that he needs her because she’s able to help keep his pain at bay. And when he finally decides that he loves her too much to ruin her life and that he needs to set her free (although there is no mention made of divorce) his method of pushing her away is drastic and cruel, when a simple conversation would have set all to rights.
It’s a shame, but this book didn’t live up to expectations. I realize it’s a romance and that therefore an HEA is expected, but it comes at the expense of believability in the ways I’ve suggested above. Despite his failings, Alasdair was a very attractive hero. When not under the influence, he was decisive, witty, and kind, and I liked the idea that the hero and heroine were saving each other. But it quickly became clear that the saving was heavily one-sided, with Mary acting as a kind of talisman for Alasdair as he overcame his addiction. The ending, with Alasdair visiting opium dens to rescue addicted soldiers and their families felt rushed and a bit far-fetched as was the way in which Mary simply turned up at one of them and told him she’d worked out why he’d pushed her away.
The writing was generally good, and there was some nice banter between the hero and heroine, but as a whole, I felt the story was unbalanced and that the pacing in the second half was poor.