The Heart Of Christmas
by Mary Balogh, Nicola Cornick, and Courtney Milan; historical (2009)
HQN, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-373-77427-2


The Heart Of Christmas isn't an entirely new anthology. Mary Balogh's A Handful Of Gold was previously published back in 1998 in the anthology The Gifts Of Christmas and once again in 2005 in the anthology Christmas Keepsakes. Nicola Cornick's The Season For Suitors made its first appearance in Christmas Keepsakes. Only Courtney Milan's This Wicked Gift is new where this anthology is concerned. Not that I am complaining since I have not read the reissued short stories before, but if you are a fan of Mary Balogh and Nicola Cornick, you may want to check your collection to see whether you already have these short stories.

Mary Balogh's story A Handful Of Gold is nothing too out of ordinary for a story from this author. Some boring Julian Dare fellow is a rake who likes his wine and women, and our heroine Verity Ewing is naturally a genteel lady who is performing in the opera only because she needs the money to take care of her mother and her sister. No, of course she's not a whore. She only puts out to Julian without asking for any offers or promises in return and she doesn't even want to be his mistress because it is far better to be a martyr in love than be a kept woman. Maybe I'd respect her decision better if she had practiced some form of birth control while giving away the milk for free, for otherwise her insistence on making some kind of point about how love must be given away freely would be simply irresponsible if a brat was conceived in the process. Naturally, Julian points out that he'd like to marry her and our heroine, who is all about honor and virtue and propriety, happily accepts his offer. I'm just glad she didn't pull that "But I'm a slut while you are a noble heir to a title, so you can't marry me!" nonsense, but maybe that's because the author has run out of space in her story.

Nicola Cornick's The Season For Suitors is a pretty familiar story. Clara Davenport has come into a sizable fortune and as a result, she is finding it most bothersome to deal with ardent men who would like nothing better than to compromise her and force her into marrying them. Instead of carrying a gun or running off to marry a decent guy, Clara asks her old nemesis Sebastian Fleet, a rake, to show her how to spot and avoid rake tricks. There is something wrong with this heroine's logic, but every time I try to think too hard about this plot, my head begins to hurt. Oh yes, of course they fall in love.

The dubious premise aside, this one is a pretty entertaining story. The hero and the heroine are likable stereotypes and I'm pleased that the heroine doesn't pull that "I'm putting out for free without thinking of the consequences but I will be darned if I let him marry me!" nonsense here. She likes the idea of marrying the hero, bless that Clara, and she also knows how to have fun. So while this one is a pretty familiar story, I've a pretty good time reading it.

Poor Courtney Milan, who deserves better than to be stuck in an anthology featuring two recycled short stories, offers The Wicked Gift, a story that is interesting if only because it features two working class characters.

Lavinia Spencer is not having a good day. It is only four days until Christmas when her brother has to drop the good news on her: he has been swindled. The best part here is that the stupid brother had managed to get in this position where he owes the swindler ten pounds. Our hero, a clerk named William Q White, has ten pounds in his savings. He's always wanted Lavinia, so he'd offer her this ten pounds if she'd share his bed.

The refreshing use of characters not typically found in romance stories aside, The Wicked Gift is... well, if this is a game of cards, let's just say, then Ms Milan is playing pretty badly in the sense that I can see her tricks coming from a mile away while I'm reading this story. Ms Milan wants to create an angst-ridden fellow in William, for example. Unfortunately, I only have to read a chapter about him before I can pretty much map out his entire psychological profile and pattern of behavior for the rest of the story, and wow, I turn out to be correct, heh.

There are plenty of good things about the story. Lavinia, for example, is a little bit more complex than your usual goody-goody two shoes heroine - she has a good sense of awareness about her, she knows what she is getting into with William, and she manages to avoid coming off like a Christmas martyr. The author writes cleanly and often elegantly, often displaying how attuned she is to her characters' follies and strengths.

All in all, Courtney Milan's story is a pretty refreshing change from the usual historical stories set in England while Nicola Cornick's story is a pretty entertaining kind of familiar fare. As for Mary Balogh's story... well, what's Christmas without a martyr or two running around, eh? If you are not too keen on paying $7.99 for an anthology of which only one story is new, though, maybe you can instead keep an eye out for Courtney Milan's full-length debut coming out shortly. I know I will, because I'm interested to see what the author can do in that one.

Rating: 72


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