Return to Stony Ridge
Another month, another Eclipse gothic romance from Harlequin Intrigue. In some ways, Dani Sinclair’s Return to Stony Ridge is a better read than the last several entries, but it has a number of weaknesses that keep it from being more than average.
Teri Johnson is on a mission to save Valerie and Corey Boyington from Valerie’s abusive husband, Lester. She earlier tried to find Valerie at her Maryland home, only to discover the woman had already fled. An email on Valerie’s computer revealed that someone named R.J. Monroe urged her to bring Corey to Stony Ridge, New York, to hide out at Heartskeep, a former private mansion that now serves as a shelter for abused women and children. Teri knows she’s not the only one who saw the email; Lester did too, and he’s on his way to Heartskeep. Determined to protect Valerie and Corey, Teri tracks down R.J. Monroe to demand their whereabouts.
Unfortunately, R.J. doesn’t know where Valerie is. She disappeared from Heartskeep the previous night, leaving Corey and all their belongings behind. R.J. sent Corey somewhere he’ll be safe. He’s not about to divulge the boy’s whereabouts to the woman who shows up on his doorstep in the pouring rain brandishing a gun. Teri claims to be a private investigator hired to protect Valerie and Corey, but she refuses to tell him anything more and he suspects there’s more to the story. She wants him to take her to Heartskeep so she can interview the people there to see if they know anything about what happened to Valerie. R.J. reluctantly agrees, and Teri is drawn into the mysteries of the strange old mansion, where some of the children claim ghosts wander at night.
This is a continuation of Sinclair’s earlier, and eminently forgettable gothic trilogy, Heartskeep (The Firstborn, The Second Sister, and The Third Twin). There are some allusions to the mansion’s history and some characters sounded vaguely familiar, but I can vouch that the book stands alone and doesn’t require having read (or remembered) the earlier ones.
This is a book that works better on a scene-by-scene basis than it does overall. It’s an easy read told with good energy. The individual scenes are interesting enough to hold the reader’s attention, as the characters go about investigating the old mansion, complete with hidden passages and mysterious sounds in the night. The story flows well, moving at a good clip, and the author has a mostly engaging style. It wouldn’t necessarily be a good choice for anyone looking for a true gothic romance – the mansion itself is the only thing that’s gothic about it – but it’s not a bad sort of read.
On the whole though, it never really comes together. It’s low on actual suspense, and the storyline is fairly predictable. In order to generate some mystery where there is none, the author withholds some key information about Teri, not spelling out her motives or who she is until late in the book. (Someone at Harlequin must not have gotten the memo, because the back cover is much more forthcoming about the very information the author scrupulously avoids providing.) The author’s evasiveness is pointless and increasingly annoying, because the truth about Teri is obvious. A phone conversation Teri has with her aunt early on basically gives away the truth to the reader. There was no reason not to reveal it to us from the start instead of being so coy about it. It didn’t make the story any more mysterious.
More importantly, Teri herself refuses to tell R.J. the truth for most of the book. She has some thin reasons, but her reticence goes on for way too long. Teri and R.J. have conversations where they argue about what’s going on. He keeps trying to play devil’s advocate and suggest alternate explanations. He’s obviously wrong, but she refuses to provide the information that would prove it, so he has no reason to believe her. He gets annoyed that she’s not being upfront with him, she gets annoyed he won’t just accept what he’s telling her at face value, and this reader got annoyed that the lack of communication went on so long. Teri didn’t exactly seem like a genius to begin with, and my impression of her didn’t improve as the book went on. Because the characters are at odds for so much of the book, the love story is basically an afterthought. Not much happens on that front for the longest time, and when the sex scene suddenly arrived out of nowhere late in the book, I honestly thought, “Oh right. This is a romance novel.” There’s a happy ending, but it’s not exactly the most convincing one I’ve ever read.
Return to Stony Ridge isn’t a bad read. It’s a fairly average series romance, complete with cute kids running around (although, as you might expect given the subject matter, there are a few brief instances of violence against women and children that may bother more sensitive readers). It held my attention better than many recent Eclipse books and was a okay way to spend a few hours. At the same time, I wouldn’t call it much more than that. All in all, it’s simply an acceptable read.