Sometimes a book is intriguing both for the story it tells and for the story of the book itself. That’s the case with Julie Tetel Andresen’s Suspicious Hearts, an interesting historical romance with a checkered past.
First, the synopsis, courtesy of Amazon:
Richard Worth wishes to reclaim his place in Society, and he does so by offering for the hand of the well-born but penniless Caroline Hutton. The eve of their marriage is shadowed by a brutal murder in which both of them are surprisingly implicated.
Hmm. Surely we can do better than that.
Richard Worth wishes to reclaim his place in Society: That’s Colonel Worth to you, a nobleman who has served under Marlborough. So why’s he back in London, now, in 1714?
He was not about to recount how it had been those few months ago, stationed at Antwerp, that he woke up one morning and said, “No more.” That was all. No more. No more would the smell of boiled beans and blood and burnt powder fill his nose. No more would the sound of the drum and enemy fire ring in his ears. No more would he awaken to the chill of his spine on hard earth at raw dawn. He wanted no more recruits, no more bounties, no more victories, no more deaths.
…“I was bored,” he said…
I like Colonel Worth already, and it’s only approximately page three. Andresen gets men; her Colonel Worth thinks like a man and behaves like a man, even when doing so is a deviation from the usual romantic hero script, and the result is a book — and a hero — that are a bit different than what we’re used to.
He does so by offering for the hand of the penniless but well-born Caroline Hutton: Guess what? Colonel Worth left for the army in disgrace. For once, it’s a real humdinger of a disgrace, but I’ll leave you to find that out yourself. Obviously no self-respecting woman will look at him twice, so, as he tells his great good friend the Duke of Desford, he’s looking for:
“a woman of the highest possible birth and the greatest need to be married… although her case does not have to be desperate, she must be poor enough to have reason to entertain an offer from me.” His voice did not falter over the words… “what I want from you is a list of such eligible women…”
He does get a list, and he does consider them all just like he’s buying a horse. Caroline included.
Poor Caroline. Her father managed to gamble away every farthing before dying, some farmer back home in the country tried to get past second base with her and slandered her name when she refused him, she’s stuck in the city with her awful aunt, and on top of all this, she’s plain.
But she’s also clever and funny and wonderful. At a ball where she has become convinced that a certain young man intends to offer for her, she considers that:
…one need only to be desired by one to become desirable to many… invitations to dance flowed to her unprayed for. She learned how hungry was her unfed heart. She learned to accept a pretty compliment without a blush. She learned to be cruel. She learned, in short, to enjoy the London Assembly.
It is at this Assembly that Caroline and Worth meet, and sparks fly, though neither acknowledges it or recognizes it for attraction.
The eve of their marriage is shadowed by a brutal murder in which both of them are surprisingly implicated: Um, not exactly. The murder of Caroline’s erstwhile swain happens only moments after her dance with Worth at the Assembly, precipitating rather than shadowing the marriage, and taking the book even farther off the ordinary historical romance trajectory than it was to begin with.
From this point, all Suspicious Hearts lacks to make it a Gothic romance is a brooding castle or half-ruined estate. All the other elements are there, from the desperate heroine, vaguely menacing hero, dark secrets to murder. The murder mystery is supremely well-plotted, for a book that’s primarily romance — I love it when I can figure out fairly early on who the guilty parties are, but can’t figure out the motive or how it all comes together. Suspicious Hearts delivers this in spades.
Andresen also does a great job of using the murder to develop the relationship between Caroline and Worth. It’s a special breed of writer who can write characters who are genuinely wary of each other yet possessed of a sparkling chemistry, and that’s the case with these two. Over the course of the book, they both reveal themselves to each other layer by layer, finally recognizing that they are perfect for one another. It makes for a very satisfying HEA.
One of the best scenes in the book takes place just after Caroline has accepted Worth’s truly insulting offer of marriage. Her aunt — a havey-cavey sort, that one — is none too pleased with this development, and the two women are fussing when Worth appears at the aunt’s house. Here’s how it goes:
…he crossed to his bride-to-be, and took her in his arms, thereby deploying the strongest weapon of offensive warfare.
Wholly surprised, caught off guard, Caroline had no defenses and so submitted, unresisting, to this possessive and passionate embrace.
Speaking against her lips, so softly that only Caroline could hear, he commanded, “Return my kiss.”
This scene demonstrates some of what I’d call the history of this book. If the prose above seems just a tad purple, it is. Just like much of the dialogue is almost stiff. Though it’s sometimes distracting, at first, it becomes obvious early on that like the Gothic trappings employed by the author, it’s a stylistic choice — the Gothics Andresen seems to be invoking are the very first ones, written at the end of the Georgian era.
Having read a few more of Andresen’s books set in different time periods (including one set in the 1950s that I do intend to review sometime soon), I suspect that Andresen writes to the time period — i.e. she is writing a Georgian-era book in a style that evokes Georgian-era prose. This can be jarring — or more often, just boring — for the modern reader, but nine times out of ten when you see it, it’s a sure sign that the writer is immersed in the history of the period, and therefore writing with uncommon veracity. You don’t see this very often in modern historical romance, but it was once quite common, especially in Traditional Regencies and historical Gothics. Traditional Regency authors such as Sheila Simonson and Mary Balogh seem to be following Georgette Heyer’s lead, by doing this, while historical Gothic authors like Barbara Michaels and Victoria Holt seemed to be hearkening back to that classic of the genre, Jane Eyre. Another prime example is R.F. Delderfield’s Swann family saga, which was written very like the Victorian and Edwardian-era novels of the period in which the books are set.
Remember how I said this book had a checkered past? Turns out that Suspicious Hearts is a re-titled reissue of a 1992 Harlequin Historical titled Sweet Suspicions. Andresen was just Julie Tetel back then, too. As if the title Sweet Suspicions were not absurd enough, for a book of this caliber, the blurb Harlequin came up with is even worse than the skeleton blurb I exploded above :
Mystery, Marriage…and Murder
Though tainted with scandal, Colonel Richard Worth radiated a rough-hewn attractiveness that was hard to ignore. He had saved Caroline from ruin, and for that, she owed him her loyalty, but how could she build a life with a man who walked amidst whispers of murder-past and present?
Caroline Hutton was a woman of contradictions: proper yet passionate; forthright yet full of secrets. Once the unlikeliest of debutantes, she was now the most likely of marriage candidates-and Richard’s key to both titled society and untold desire. But what was her connection with the brutal murder that had taken place beneath their very noses?
The best part of this book’s checkered past? The Hideous Romance Novel Cover (TM) it was originally published with:
Is it just me, or does Caroline look a little spacey?
But anyway, a rose by any other name and all that. I give Suspicious Hearts 5 out of 5 passionate embraces. That jackal Worth gets 5 kisses returned with undeniable ardor.
Do make time for Suspicious Hearts. I think you’ll have to get it at Amazon, so here’s how:
Is this what you like, honey-pie? Then try these books: