My False Heart
by Liz Carlyle, historical (1999)
Sonnet, $6.50, ISBN 0-671-04054-5


Wow. I love a bad, nasty hero who turns over a new leaf without getting castrated in the process, and Elliot Armstrong oozes sex appeal in the truckload. And the sense of realism in this romance is amazing. The dialog, the atmosphere, it's all real.

Elliot Armstrong realizes that he is slowly turning into a caricature in his heedless, reckless pursuit of debauchery. His daughter is terrified of him and lacks spirit, his peers are openly terrified of him yet mocks him behind his back, and he is feeling this hollow inside that he is missing something somehow. One day, on a pursuit of an AWOL mistress, he is caught in a storm and happens to knock on the door of a house. He is whisked in and is mistaken for a guest. Evangeline van Artevalde has been waiting for the client who wants his portrait done, and she has been waiting for "Mr Roberts" for quite a while.

Elliot doesn't know it, but he falls headlong in love with Evie's chaotic, loud, and topsy-turvy family. First he is bewildered at the strangeness of this warm, friendly, and open family that is so different from that of his own world, then he realizes that he really doesn't want to go back to his own life. Aw, this is so sweet.

He and Evie is attracted to each other, of course, and poor Elliot, he doesn't know how to tell her or her family that he is the infamously debauched and hedonistic Marquis of Rannoch that they speak of disapprovingly over dinner. Then there's this problem with his opponents dying around him, and Evie has her own hands full trying to protect her family and her nieces' inheritance from a money-grubby relative.

Okay, I confess that I cheated a little - I couldn't bear to be kept waiting for the Big Misunderstanding explosion that is so common in first books by new authors that I skimmed forward. But I'm relieved and extremely pleased to say that no, the BM isn't irritatingly overblown and long, and Evie gives back as good as she gets. It is a wonder indeed that Elliot escaped with his manly parts intact when she finds out who he really is. I can then sigh happily and resume where I left off.

The story sparkles. I absolutely adore Elliot, and his hesitant attempts at reconciliation with his staff and daughter is simply well done. He moves me when he tries to read a bedtime story to his daughter. His reason for lying to Evie is actually understandable (to me, at least) - the poor man must be feeling real low and unworthy and dirty each time Evie's family treat him like one of them. When Elliot declares that he is through with his old life, I believe him. I've never read a rake's reformation done this well and in a moving manner ever since Anne Stuart's A Rose In Midnight.

Evie too is a wonderful character. An artist with real artistic temperament, she is a worthy match for Elliot. She is clear-headed, funny, and isn't afraid to consider an affair to Elliot when family obligations prevent her from asking for anything more. A refreshing change from the ninny, bug-eyed simpering innocent heroine that is everywhere I turn nowadays.

The other characters are realistic and nice to read about too. The kids behaving as kids, but minus the monster factor. In fact, every member of Evie's family practically demands a book of their own. And Hugh deserves a dowager that can keep him in line!

There are some rough areas that could do with some polishing, and the last few chapters drag a little, but overall, this is one amazing debut. For all that it's worth, Ms Carlyle has me reserving $6.50 for next book. It's coming out soon? Oh goody!

Rating: 88


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