The Bride's Bodyguard

Dangerous To Hold

Whisper His Name

Strangers at Dawn
by Elizabeth Thornton
(Bantam, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-553-58117-1
I was in a bit of a reading slump when I picked up Elizabeth Thornton’s new historical romance: too many books that, while acceptable, lacked that spark that engaged my interest. But I knew my slump was over when I read the opening scene of Strangers at Dawn. The heroine is on trial for the murder of her brother-in-law and lover; the hero is a newspaper owner who is covering the trial and is greatly intrigued by the woman who, he is sure, has to be guilty.

Lord Maxwell Worthe has chosen a most unusual course for the son of a marquis in England in 1804. He has purchased a struggling newspaper, The Courier and is busily transforming it into a forward-looking paper that will appeal to a wider audience. Like every other newspaperman and much of the ton, he has come to the Winchester assizes to view the murder trial of Sara Carstairs, who has been charged with killing William Neville, the only son of a wealthy friend of the prime minister.

Neville’s horse was found on the downs, but his body has never been discovered. The circumstantial nature of the evidence and the absence of a corpse lead to Sara’s acquittal. But Max, convinced that the incredibly self-possessed woman in the dock is clearly hiding something, keeps the case before the public in his newspaper.

Three years later, Sara, now 24, decides that she must end the trust her father established in his will by marrying. She has chosen this course because she has been receiving threatening letters in William Neville’s hand. Should anything happen to her, the Carstairs fortune would go to her sister and thus, to her dreadful brother-in-law. But if she marries, she can divide the fortune among her sister and step-siblings. She can also leave England and the constant notoriety she experiences, largely because The Courier will not let the story die.

Sara travels to Bath where she has placed an ad for a temporary husband. While staying in an inn, she is startled when a man climbs in her window. The intruder is Max Worthe.

Max believes he is climbing into his mistress’s room. He is certainly startled to encounter a strange woman. He is also intrigued by this woman who seems somehow familiar. The two experience a moment stolen from time. But Sara “Childe” refuses Max’s wish to further their acquaintance. After they part, Max slowly realizes the real identity of the woman who so quickly captured his interest. So he decides to follow her to Bath.

Strangers at Dawn is a most entertaining historical romantic suspense novel. Thornton succeeds in sustaining the mystery of William Neville’s fate and creating an aura of danger and suspense. She provides a number of potential suspects who had good reason to wish Neville dead.

The romance is every bit as compelling as the suspense. Max and Sara move from distrust to love in a believable manner. The course of true love is not smooth; each brings a lot of baggage to the relationship. Both are strong, well-drawn characters. Max must overcome his early beliefs about Sara, and he gradually discovers the truth about her past. Sara has her own fears and secrets that keep her from telling Max the whole truth.

Thornton is equally good at portraying the secondary characters: Sara’s contentious family, the potential suitors for her hand, William Neville’s parents, Max’s assistant at The Courier, the local folk. All enrich the story.

Strangers at Dawn kept my interest and kept me guessing. The finale was exciting and satisfying. If you like historical romances and you like romantic suspense, you should find this novel a most enjoyable melding of the two.

--Jean Mason

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