Midnight Island Sanctuary
Susan Peterson is a good example of why I always try an author more than once. I really disliked her first romantic suspense Concealed Weapon, which was published earlier this year, then loved her second book, Emergency Contact. I was curious to see how I would respond to her third 2004 release. All I can say is, I’m glad I stuck with her. This book may not quite be a keeper, but the author is.
Midnight Island Sanctuary is the second in Harlequin Intrigue’s new line of gothic romances, and it’s much better than the first, Leona Karr’s Dangerous Inheritance. All the elements you’d expect to find in a good gothic are here: an isolated castle, rumors of a ghost, a touch of gaslighting, a vulnerable heroine, and a hero with a mysterious past. The author takes these elements and whips them into an engaging and entertaining read.
Cora Shelley survived a vicious assault at the hands of her next-door neighbor. The crazed man murdered her roommate and had planned to kill her too, until she managed to fight him off and escape. Cora is scheduled to testify against him in his upcoming trial, but she’s terrified that he will escape from jail and come after her as he promised to do. In order to protect herself until the trial begins, she takes a job far from Los Angeles, as cook for the wealthy Mackenzie family on isolated Midnight Island in upstate New York.
Midnight Island is far from her home in Southern California, but it may not be any safer. The Mackenzies have had so much trouble keeping a cook that there’s a sizeable bonus in Cora’s contract if she lasts more than six months. Their home is an actual castle (what else?). The family includes the bedridden patriarch, his cold younger wife, and her emotionally disturbed daughter. Then there’s Jacob Mackenzie, the son who runs the family empire. Dark rumors surround him involving the mysterious disappearance of his wife (of course) two years earlier. Jake’s wife was never happy with him, and he believes she ran off with the gardener, who disappeared at the same time. Others believe Jake killed her himself.
After her ordeal, Cora is uneasy around men, and the dark, aloof Jake definitely makes her nervous. But he may be the only person she can turn to when she falls victim to mysterious events. First, someone tries to break into her room in the middle of the night. Then she spots the castle’s resident ghost, The Mournful Lady. She hears strange voices calling to her. She’s beginning to believe that she’s losing her mind. Jake is the only one who seems to believe in her. But can she trust him?
This is very much an old-school gothic. There’s nothing contemporary about it. It could just as easily take place twenty, thirty, or forty years ago. If it’s going to bother you that the characters live in an actual castle (with no explanation of why there’s a castle in modern-day New York) and speak a little more formally than you’d expect them to these days, then this is not the book for you. Personally, I enjoyed the old-fashioned style that Peterson captures very well. It has just the right tone without crossing over into melodramatic excess.
There are no surprises in the storyline. It’s all built from familiar elements, and I had the mystery figured out before the book was halfway over. That’s not really a criticism, because I enjoyed the journey in spite of (or maybe even because of) the familiarity. It’s all in the execution, and Midnight Island Sanctuary is a superlative example of this type of story. One reason that Peterson has impressed me is that she writes with a little more detail and depth than many series authors attempt these days. This story has a little more breadth than I’m used to. It may only be 250 pages, but the author fills those pages with all the story she can.
Cora and Jake are both likable characters. Cora may be vulnerable, but she’s not weak. There are several times when she gets to show that she does have a backbone and a will of her own. Jake isn’t as dark or tortured as the gothic heroes of old. Instead he’s more humanized and developed, creating a nice blend of those old dark heroes and someone who works for more modern sensibilities. Their romance happens quickly, but the author takes care to develop it in a way that makes it more believable.
I enjoyed reading this book quite a bit, although a few detractions kept it from being a keeper for me. For instance, the story hit a rough patch with a particularly annoying Big Misunderstanding late in the proceedings. Most readers will see it coming, and will recognize the narrative purpose it serves, but that doesn’t make it any less aggravating. I also would have liked to see more of Cora’s past, which is hinted at but not as developed as it might have been.
Midnight Island Sanctuary is still an entertaining gothic romance. Readers hungry for a taste of those old stories should find this one hits the spot.