Stolen Hearts by Sharon Pisacreta
(Leisure, $4.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8439-4375-0
Stolen Hearts is a classic example of a storyline that isn't strong enough to be sustained, and therefore the author has fallen back on the use of Implausible Coincidences and Unexplained Contrivances to keep the thing stitched together. It didn't work for me.

We meet Mattie Crawford in New York City, where she has been hired as a seamstress by spoiled debutante Evelyn Sinclair. Evelyn is in a snit because her father has forbidden her to marry the Marquess of Clydesford, an impoverished nobleman who has since headed to Colorado to make his fortune in the gold fields. Evelyn's Aunt Julia consoles her with the thought that her father can simply find her another nobleman. Evelyn shall have a title, if that's what Evelyn desires.

Later that same evening, Mattie is accused of stealing a valuable necklace. The detective on the scene recognizes her. Seems that Mattie has already served prison time for thievery, even though she was innocent and eventually released. Lieutenant Devlin wants her back in jail. To escape, Mattie hurls herself out of a fourth-floor window as the chapter ends.

This was the first of the Unexplained Contrivances. Mattie turns up in the next chapter with nothing more than a sprained wrist. She's also holding a stolen train ticket, courtesy of the Marquess of Clydesford, whose letters to Evelyn she has been reading for almost a year. The last, in a sealed envelope, was ordered destroyed but Mattie managed to sneak it away and read it anyway. It contained an ultimatum. Evelyn should either join the marquess in Colorado Springs or he would be finished with her forever. Mattie decides to use the ticket to escape. According to the story, we are led to believe she takes the letter with her.

Cameron Lynch-Holmes is waiting at the depot in Colorado Springs for his fiancée, the lovely Evelyn. She doesn't show, but red-haired Mattie gets off the train and promptly crashes into him. She appears to be hurt, so Cameron takes her to the hotel and has a doctor attend to her wrist. Mattie is overwhelmed at meeting the handsome man of her dreams and tells him she's a mail-order bride. Cameron is intrigued, but has little time to spend thinking about Mattie. He needs to get back to his gold claim.

At this point the author couldn't seem to come up with a good reason why these two would have anything more to do with one another, so she introduced one of the most unbelievable coincidences I've seen in a long time. Of the perhaps six people in New York who could identify Mattie, how likely is it that one of them would step off the next train in Colorado Springs, a thousand or so miles away? Yes, it's none other than Aunt Julia. Mattie quickly decides she can't let Cameron pay a social call on Aunt Julia, (who might talk about Mattie, heaven knows why) so she seduces Cameron and they spend a wild night together. After acting like a brazen hussy to capture Cameron's attention, Mattie is insulted the next morning when he treats her like a good-time opportunist.

Mattie wants to get out of town and announces that she'll travel to Cripple Creek with Cameron and his partner, Harry. On the way, their stage is held up. Mattie saves the day. She winds up sewing dresses in a bordello in Cripple Creek and Cameron can't get his mind off her.

You know exactly where this is going, don't you? Everyone who was anyone in New York will turn up in Colorado, though god knows how they track Mattie there, since nobody knew about the train ticket. One will be led to Mattie when he is held up by the very same stagecoach robbers and they tell him all about her, even her name, for no reason whatsoever. Except maybe to keep the story going.

I don't blame the author for this stuff, not entirely. Stolen Hearts is a book that cried out for stronger editing. Authors, take note: just because there is a .000001% chance that something COULD happen, doesn't mean readers will buy it in a book. Given those odds, maybe I'll win the Lotto and become a professional figure skater. But I'll bet nobody would buy that, either.

By the end of the story, I was so fed up with the inane coincidences and contrivances that I had virtually lost interest in the characters, which was too bad because I liked Mattie's independent streak. I understand that Sharon Pisacreta is a newer author. There are real threads of talent in her writing, especially in her dialogue. Hopefully her next plot and conflict will be better-developed and not need crutches for support.

--Cathy Sova

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