The Stone Maiden

Waking the Princess by Susan King
(Signet, $6.99, PG-13) 0-451-20883-8
Susan King's second book of her latest trilogy includes a young widow who is an antiquarian and a civil engineer who is the new laird of a family castle that is steeped in stories of a sleeping princess in the distant past.  It is also set in Scotland in 1858 not long after the Crimean War, a time period less often used in romance novels.  Unusual occupations and a different time period; if only the main characters would talk to each other about important feelings sooner rather than later.

Sir Edgar Neaves of the National Museum has asked Christina Blackburn to travel to Dundrennan House in his stead to investigate possible ancient walls uncovered by the blasting activities of a road crew.  If she finds that the walls have any value, he will join her after he concludes other important business.  Christina is very reluctant because she knows that the current laird owns the painting that caused her scandal.  She only agrees to go because she has the faint hope that the find will prove her uncle's claim that King Arthur once camped near there.  Her brother, still recovering from a war injury, agrees to accompany her.

Aedan McBride is not happy that the roadwork will be delayed by the National Museum.  He is supposed to have the road finished quickly so that the Queen of England can visit in a few weeks.  As the new laird, he is also concerned that if the find is historically significant, it might trigger some of the stipulations in his father's will that would mean he would essentially lose Dundrennan House.  He believes that Sir Edgar Neaves manipulated his father into including several difficult-to-meet requirements in the will.  He has been spending both the estate's money and his personal funds to restore the place to meet the will's requirements.  A long delay on the road could cause him to miss the deadline established by the will.

When Christina and her brother arrive, Aedan is quite surprised to see such a young lady.  Despite her somber clothing and glasses, he soon realizes that she is the model of the painting in his private rooms.  The painting is the depiction of the sleeping princess from his family's legends.  Aedan's father, a renowned poet, was famous for his poem about the legend.  Christina's erratic husband, who used her as the model for the sensual painting inspired by the poem, had promised her he would never sell it.  He did, however, sell it not long before he died, leaving her to face the scandal.  Aedan and Christina's first meeting startles both of them, especially since each feels a connection to the other.

There is a strong sense of place and time that is very enjoyable.  Ms. King's attention to the details of the 1850's gives Waking the Princess a very different feeling from Regency era set stories.  There are still restrictions on women, but Christina is allowed to be a published antiquarian and Aedan is allowed to be a civil engineer and a laird.  The not-so-subtle hints that Aedan and Christina will be the two people who will break the curse on the Dundrennan House and solve the mystery of the sleeping princess add a welcome dimension to the story.

So why is this book rated three hearts instead of four?  Because Christina and Aedan spend way too much time not telling each other their true feelings. Each time one or the other gets close to telling the truth to the other, something interrupts the process.  It takes a surprising twist near the end involving Sir Edgar to finally get them to declare their feelings.  I almost gave up on them.  Since I enjoyed so many other parts of the story, I wish the relationship could have been placed on more solid ground quicker in the story. 

If you like characters who withhold their feelings until almost the very end, you will probably enjoy this book.  It certainly has much to recommend it.

--B. Kathy Leitle

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