|Like a prizefight that’s over in the first round, this book opens with a mighty punch. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much to do afterward except talk about it.
Ten-year-old Hayden Olsen’s life is torn apart when he discovers his father’s body, together with the gun he apparently used to kill himself, a suicide note admitting that he kidnapped his employer’s six-year-old daughter Cameron, and $500,000 of the two million dollar ransom. Did Paul Olsen, his son’s hero, commit this ugly crime? And what happened to the rest of the money?
Nearly three decades later, Hayden returns to find the answers. Cameron survived her ordeal and is now a divorced heiress struggling with the emotional scars. Because her mother was killed during the search, Cameron became the ward of her stepfather. It was not a happy arrangement and, now that Cameron holds the purse strings, the two are engaged in a nasty power struggle.
There are enormous responsibilities associated with being The Somerton Heiress, which Cameron carefully fulfills, understanding that her status encourages people to tolerate the obsessive-compulsive eccentricities that kept her “pasted together.” She seems no more able to control them than she can the child’s whispered pleas for help that haunt her dreams.
She’s no helpless victim, though, and when a strange man stops to help her with a flat tire, she’s all too conscious that both her gender and her wealth make her a target. She effectively fends the man off, not recognizing him as her childhood playmate, Hayden Olsen.
Cameron is not pleased, however, to discover that this dubious Samaritan is the new tenant of the old farmhouse on her property, and even less delighted to find that nearly everyone she cares about, from her local girlfriends to her ex-husband, seems to find Hayden Olsen a marvelous addition to the neighborhood.
This book has one of the best beginnings I’ve read in a very long time, positively quivering with tension and wonderful gothic ambiguity, and raising all sorts of delicious questions: Is Cameron going crazy? Was the timing of her mother’s death just a horrifying coincidence? Is Hayden a good guy or a bad guy? Is one of Cameron’s few trusted friends betraying her? This is riveting stuff.
While the rest of the book is quite readable, it cannot sustain the momentum of the first 100 pages or so, and because we have that superb opening to compare it to, probably falls a bit flatter than it might have otherwise.
Thereafter, very few new questions are raised, and new information is supplied in very small amounts at what seem like very long intervals. The result is a somewhat sluggish pace that never manages to re-achieve the earlier energy.
In addition, the character of Cameron really doesn’t develop. Her reactions to Hayden tend to be uniformly defensive, for example, and while this may be realistic it also gets tiresome (she spends too much time with her hands on her hips glaring at him). In addition, while she’s not a stupid woman, she consistently insists – despite all evidence to the contrary – that she knows the people around her so well that she can accurately predict their behavior. Again, while this might be how people tend to think in real life, fiction really needs to be more interesting than real life to be compelling.
Regrettably, Hayden soon loses his mystery. Although he’s a very nice hero – strong, sexy, protective – those aren’t exactly unique qualities in romance heroes. The author does create some good dramatic irony, though, by stopping him from confiding all his concerns to Cameron; watching how his growing suspicions play out gives the remainder of the book what suspense it owns. It is also Hayden’s strength that gives the romance and the physical intimacy with Cameron their power.
By the end of the book, however, there really aren’t any surprises left, so it is as unfocused and disappointing as the opening is gripping.
If the author had managed to sustain the momentum of the first quarter of the book, this would have been a truly spectacular read. I’ll be checking out her next one with my fingers tightly crossed.
-- Judi McKee