The Heart of Christmas
by Mary Balogh, Nicola Cornick and Courtney Milan
(Harlequin, $7.99, PG-13) ISBN 13-798-0-373-77427-2
I am a sucker for Christmas anthologies (although I’ve never understood why they appear in October) and firmly believe that nobody writes better holiday books or novellas than Mary Balogh.  Hence, it is no surprise that I picked up this book when I saw it.  I am happy to say that Balogh does not disappoint.  Somehow or another I had missed the novella reprinted here, “A Handful of Gold” and it is quite enjoyable.   The Cornick offering, also a reprint is perfectly acceptable, if fairly stereotypical.  But what really leads me to recommend this book is the unusual third story by new author Courtney Milan, “This Wicked Gift.”

Milan’s debut book will be published in January and is getting good buzz.  But it appears to be a fairly typical 19th century historical romance if the description on the author’s webpage is to be believed.  The hero is a marquess and the heroine is a fortuneteller.  I’m not suggesting that Proof by Seduction won’t be a good book, only that it will fall well within the expected parameters of current romantic fiction.  “This Wicked Gift” is enjoyably unexpected because its hero is a poor clerk with no expectations and the heroine is the daughter of an impecunious proprietor of a second-rate lending library.

Lavinia Spencer spends her time running the business and counting every penny so she can support her younger brother and her ill father.  She has assiduously saved these pennies in hopes that she can provide her small family with a real Christmas.  But these hopes are dashed when she discovers that her brother has been the victim of a con man.  Not only must she part with her Christmas savings, but she must find the unattainable sum of £10 or her brother may find himself in prison.

Regular patron William Q. White overhears the siblings’ discussion.   Crumpled in his pocket is a £10 note, his “inheritance” from the man who was supposed to take care of him when his father died.  William had hoped for more, but now he sees the opportunity to achieve at least one of his dreams.  He offers Lavinia the money to pay her brother’s debt but he wants her in return.  Lavinia accepts the bargain but not simply because she needs the money.  She also wants William.  But how can these two poor people hope to marry?  Milan’s choice to set her novella among the working poor gives the story a freshness and interest.

Mary Balogh’s “A Handful of Gold” uses a familiar plot device: the genteel young woman forced into selling herself to insure her and her family’s survival.  By day, Verity Ewing is the proper daughter of a deceased clergyman who is helping her mother care for her sick sister.  By night, though her mother believes she is acting as companion to a society lady, Verity becomes Blanche Heyward, opera dancer and object of the lustful advances of more than one gentleman.  Thus far, Verity has managed to deflect her admirers, but her wages are low and her sister’s need is great.  When Julian Dare, Viscount Folingsby offers her the princely sum of £500 to spend Christmas with him at a friend’s hunting box, Verity simply cannot afford to refuse.

At twenty-eight, Julian knows that it is time to settle down and make his loving parents happy by securing the succession.  But he wants one more taste of freedom before he does his duty.  A week with the beauteous, titian-haired Blanche promises sensuous delights until, that is, he kisses his proposed mistress and figures out real fast that he is not dealing with an experienced courtesan.  Julian doesn’t debauch virgins, however willing Blanche may claim to be.  But when unexpected visitors descend upon the hunting box, Julian and Verity find there is more to each other than meets the eye.  “A Handful of Gold” is a typical Balogh Christmas story and that’s a real compliment.

Typical is likewise the term I would apply to “The Season for Suitors,” Nicola Cornick’s contribution.  The hero is the typical distant duke, traumatized by a youthful loss and the attendant guilt, unable or unwilling to achieve closeness, rakish in his behavior.  The heroine is the typical feisty miss, who combines beauty, wealth and personality.  The plot has the heroine seeking advice from the hero as to how to fend off all the rakes who are swarming around her thanks to her recent inheritance.  The twist is that two years earlier, the heroine actually asked the hero to marry her, only to be rebuffed.  Not surprisingly, she called him a cold-hearted fool.  Not surprisingly, said duke, lured back into the heroine’s circle, finds himself desirous of fending off all suitors but himself.  There’s nothing wrong with this story, but it does have a bit of a generic quality.

All in all, The Heart of Christmas is a welcome addition to the long time tradition of Christmas anthologies.  Perhaps only here could we find a story like “The Wicked Gift”  which departs so far from the conventions of the genre.  Milan is to be thanked for opening a window on a different aspect of 19th century British society.  She’ll may never be able to do it again. 

--Jean Mason

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