The Bride's Bodyguard

Dangerous To Hold

Princess Charming

Strangers at Dawn

Whisper His Name

 
The Perfect Princess by Elizabeth Thornton
(Bantam, $6.50, PG) ISBN 0-553-58123-6
****
A cliché exists because, believe it or not, once upon a time it was novel and brilliant, and people were impressed. Arguably even more impressive is the author who can rekindle that brilliance, so kudos to Elizabeth Thornton for The Perfect Princess, a thrilling captor-hostage saga that reminds us why we once adored this tired plot device.

Rosamund Devere, only daughter of the overly protective Duke of Romsey, has spent her life dutifully conforming to expectations. Naturally exuberant, Rosamund finds the requirements of protocol increasingly stifling; nor do her twin passions, chess and horsemanship, content her as they used to. Still, the only concession she refuses to make is a loveless marriage - not even to the Prince of Kolnbourg, despite public approval and newspaper editorials opining her suitability to be his princess.

Ripe for rebellion, she shocks even herself when she agrees to accompany her friend Callie to visit a felon condemned to execution. Though nearly everyone, including Rosamund, considers Richard Maitland guilty of murder, Callie believes the former head of the British Secret Service has been wrongfully accused, and wishes to console him on this last day of his life.

Richard has been framed, but his plans to escape Newgate so he can discover the true killer go awry when the aristocrats’ impromptu visit reveals that he is no longer in his cell. In the ensuing melee, Richard takes Rosamund hostage to win his freedom, and circumstances soon make it impossible for him to release her as intended.

Solitary by nature, Richard is unwillingly impressed by, and then indebted to, the bold and resourceful woman he has taken prisoner. And Rosamund’s resentment of her captivity falters before proof of Richard’s decency and innocence. She must fight a growing admiration of this attractive and startlingly intelligent man, with whom she can be and do everything she has always dreamed, and never dared.

Yet the insurmountable difference between their stations is not the only obstacle to an undeniable attraction. For their search for a killer will point instead to a conspiracy involving their nearest and dearest, whose resolute aim is the total destruction of Richard Maitland and anyone who loves him…

The Perfect Princess transcends cliché on the strength of its main characters alone. Kidnapped, Rosamund responds with neither hysterical petulance nor idiotic bravura; she behaves as perhaps you or I would wish to in similar circumstances, and displays a wit that actually evidences her claim to intelligence. Frankly, the novelty of this alone is enough to render the hostage plot device unrecognizable.

It’s always startling to read a novel in which a hero behaves more like a man and less like a wistful idealization of one. Richard Maitland is not, perhaps, my idea of perfection, but his wary reserve and driving focus feel very real, as does his reluctant slide into love. In particular, the passage which culminates with his realization of love is so marvelously logical yet so unexpected that it’s disconcerting. Romance readers are not conditioned to expect such subtle, credible progressions to emotional revelation; what a relief to find an author who respects her readers.

Less effective is the description of Richard and Rosamund’s initial consummation; only seven sentences long, it does some serious damage. Rosamund is not “thinking of pleasure,” and Richard is so emotionally distraught that he is “not gentle,” leading to a “swift and fierce” (ouch!) encounter that supposedly is what Rosamund wants, making her the most unusual virgin on the planet. Nor is this unnerving scene overshadowed by later sex scenes of greater effectiveness. If, as it seems, Ms. Thornton wishes to avoid explicit descriptions of sex, I think she’d do best to avoid describing it at all.

Apart from this, and some lingering doubts regarding the second half of the book, in which Rosamund’s family is bizarrely hospitable to her former abductor, The Perfect Princess is an excellent read. Keep it away from your daughters, or they might deliberately start taking candy from handsome strangers.

--Margaret Shelley


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