Thief of Hearts
The fourth and final installment in Lynda Sandoval’s interconnected Hispanic-American romances, Thief of Hearts, is a quirky and touching romance that manages to generate heat without the characters exchanging a single kiss. The characters are realistic, the plot simple yet involving, and the language enhanced, rather than distracted, from the story.
Graciela Inez Obregon had been well on her way to leaving behind a less-than-stellar past as a bartender who dated losers and users, and on her way to a respectable new life as a third grade teacher when an out-of-control semi gave her a new goal in life: staying alive. She was barely conscious when a man pulled her from the wreckage of her overturned car, and left her in the capable hands of the paramedics. Still, a year later, she remembers him and wants to thank him for his kindness. Only now her meddling sister Lola has made a mess out of it, and Grace would rather hide under a rock than meet the man the papers have proclaimed her “Samaritan Soulmate.”
Isaias Pacias had been on the way to a bar to kick back and party, but when he saw the wreck on the highway, he had to stop and help. Since he was the only one slender enough to fit into the overturned car, he risked his life to save the woman pinned inside. And somehow ended up promising to find her Mr. Right – a teddy bear she’d had with her for comfort after a trying day. But when he called the hospital in hopes of returning Mr. Right, he was told that she died. From that moment on, Iso’s life changed. Sure, he still loved women – plural – and partying, but his professional life had taken a more serious turn. Leaving his job at his brother’s non-profit gardening organization, he started studying to be an EMT. He hadn’t been able to save Gracie, but he was determined to be able to save the next person. And he kept Mr. Right as a reminder.
A year later, Iso is well on his way to getting his EMT license when his partner Simon shows him the newspaper article declaring that Grace Obregon, alive and well (it turns out another Grace had died in the crash), is searching for her “Samaritan Soulmate.” Iso is torn between relief and the desire to run as far and as fast as he can from a woman who clearly wants more of him than he can offer. But then he remembers Mr. Right. And he knows he has to return the ragged stiffed animal to the woman who trusted him with her life.
Of course, they meet, with a full-media coverage that neither of them wants, and she manages to drag him off and explain briefly what’s going on. They decide to give the media what they want – an amorous couple happy to be reunited – and then go their separate ways. Except Iso realizes pretty quickly that he doesn’t want to. He can’t quite figure out why, but he’s not ready to let her go. And when she’s honest with herself, she feels the same way.
I think part of what I liked best about this story is that it could happen to people I know. Sure, there’s a secondary character who just happens to be a model who turned down a multimillion dollar contract in Paris, but other than that, these people are very real. And their decisions and actions are realistic, too. For example, when Iso and Grace decide to play up their situation for the newspapers, they don’t do it because anyone’s holding a loved one hostage, or because anyone’s will said they absolutely have to get married or else all the inheritance money will go to charity. They play along because, well, why not? It’s the same kind of stupid, whimsical idea that anyone I know (including myself) might have, and it fits well with their personalities and past. Sure, the reader knows that it’s an idea that will almost certainly come back to bite them in their collective rear end, but it doesn’t seemed contrived. Just natural, if not well thought out.
Also, Iso and Grace’s characteristics and histories are very real. He’s a bit of a playboy with a serious side, who discovers things about himself through his association with Grace and her family. Like a fascination for the telenovela (soap opera) Betty La Fea (Ugly Betty), leading to a favorite scene in which Grace comes home from a trying date with another man to find Iso snuggled up on the couch with her sister and grandmother, entranced by the latest happenings in the soap, and shushing her in unison when she tries to talk.
Grace, meanwhile, is trying to escape a past of charming but worthless and unreliable boyfriends, and she sees Iso as a return to that past, where she swore she’d never go again. Still, when he remains in her life as a friend, she becomes alarmed at the way he seems to see her now: as a sister. So she does what she always does when she gets stressed out. She downs a fair amount of chocolate. A half pound of M & Ms here, a $50 box of (Lola’s) Godiva chocolates there. This was a woman I could relate to. Even if the only consequence she suffered was a telling tightening in the waistband of some favorite clothes.
And the secondary characters are realistic as well. Quirky, but not over-the-top, as you see in so many novels, when the author tries just a bit too hard to make them eccentric. Instead, these, again, are people I know. Iso’s big brother Rico is a calm, quiet guy who calls his hermanito (little brother) Iso “mosquito.” Grace’s abuela (grandmother) Dolores aka “DoDo” is a little drill sergeant – she makes Grace and Lola apologize to Iso for fighting in front of company – but loving and welcoming, and seemingly always in the kitchen. Lola is the ditzy romantic with a heart of gold, which somehow doesn’t stop her from fighting with her sister, as only siblings can. Lola and DoDo both are vaguely superstitious about signs, but their beliefs are presented convincingly, neither dismissively nor overly mysteriously.
There were a few minor problems, but most are just picky. We’re told Grace has two tattoos, for example, which she only got because she was suckered into a really good deal on them. Now, I know women who love a good deal. But that enthusiasm generally wavers when the prospect of pain rears its ugly head. And as for Iso, well, he did so much winking that I started to wonder if perhaps he had a twitch.
In general, however, this an excellent book, and a touching love story about refreshingly real characters in an unusually realistic (if dramatic) situation who grow into love together. I highly recommend it.