Untie My Heart
by Judith Ivory, historical (2002)
Avon, $6.99, ISBN 0-380-81297-5


Here's why I love Judith Ivory's books. She is an elegant wordsmith. When she describes a person's face, her words capture every nuance and facet. When the hero Stuart Aysgarth is staring, besotted at the heroine Emma Hotchkiss' face, I can see in my mind the emotions that flash in her eyes, the deepening of her smile, everything. When a gust of cold wind blows through the open doors of the York Joint-Stock Banking Company, I catch myself from looking up from the book to do something, maybe to ask someone to shut the door, in time. I'm absorbed, I'm reeled in, and sometimes it feels as if I'm in the story.

Untie My Heart is a typical Judith Ivory novel - the story unfolds at a leisurely pace as our couple discover love only to rush towards a melodramatic gesture of love from our hero's part. As always, her prose is lush yet concise, and I enjoy every second of my reading this book. Indeed, fans of this author who grumble that her last few books are a bit on the too-fluffy side, rejoice: this is a dark, gritty romance novel where the hero is all about the lovely shades of gray. Sexy gray. Tortured, sexy, but unrepentently good-natured gray. Who would've thought gray is so sexy a color.

Emma Hotchkiss is a widow of a vicar, but she can tell you an interesting story about her life. She has been a con, sorry, "confidence artist", a good one too, an accomplice to her rogue husband Zach. Life was an adventure until one particular scam failed with disastrous results. Today, she is just a quiet sheep farmer in rustic Yorkshire. Her life changes one day when her male lamb gets run over and is killed by a speeding carriage. (I actually sniffled when the lamb died. Oh, hush!)

The carriage belongs to the new Viscount Mount Villars. Since the lamb was Emma's hope for a successful breeding program, she decides to claim some compensation from Viscount Mount Virile. But little does she know that the man would be so difficult to deal with. Surely he can pay her the thirty pounds she want, right? When he successfully slithers out of a lawsuit she filed, she has had enough. She will do a Mission Impossible con job, get his signature, and make him "pay" her the money with a check she will sign on his behalf.

She gets unmasked, although it's not by her incompetence. He first sees her when he assumes that she is the part-time clerk/book keeper at his bank, and he is attracted, oh yes, so much so that he actually waits for her shift to be over in his carriage. Later he will search for her even as he puzzles over the missing fifty-something pound from his bank account. When he unmasks her, he doesn't know whether he wants her to help him bilk his uncle for his mother's heirlooms or to make her his mistress.

"Why not both?" I suggest.

Smart guy. I'll never look at a chair the same way again.

The first sexual encounter may turn some readers off, because it's not exactly... well, this scene can push some readers' buttons, and while the ones pressed for me are the "Hot! Hot! Hot!" buttons, some readers will probably auto-destruct when their "Eeeuw!" buttons get pushed instead. But these same readers wouldn't be too impressed with the hero and the heroine either. If you demand your heroes to be "admirable" and the heroine "honorable", I suggest you stick to your Barbara-Metzgerian happy bluestocking and fake rake stories.

Oh, Stuart takes my breath away. He's high-handed, he's arrogant, he is an opportunist, and he is also beautifully self-effacing, vulnerable, insanely possessive, unreasonably obsessed, and oh yes, he stutters. Viscount Mount Virile is such a glorious, complex hero that I find myself fascinated and even infatuated as his defenses increasingly crumble in the face of his feelings for Emma. His past is pretty horrific, but when he can laugh at his mistakes and move on with life with determination, he has me eating out of his hands. Stuart Asygarth is my favorite Judith Ivory hero now. He's complicated, real, vulnerable, and larger than life all in one. My kind of hero.

Emma Hotchkiss, well, she's a smart heroine, but her characterization suffers compared to Stuart, glorious, glorious Stuart. On the whole, she's one of the weakest Ivory heroines. While she's smart and adept at surviving - ain't no hapless bluestockings in this Ivory Cathedral, hallelujah - she tends to be helpless against the onslaught of Stuart's desire. Her constant reluctance that eventually melts into steamy acceptance only after he has gone past second base may disconcert some readers, heck, I wish Emma will get a spine myself. But Emma's final actions really seal it for me. Let's just say she turns into one of those whiny "I'm not worthy, and I'm not only going to tell you, I'll willingly punish myself to a ridiculously masochistic extent while pushing the hero away just to drive home the message!" unnecessary martyrs without a clue. Do we need this nonsense? Look, Stuart is unapologetically flawed, he's Prince Charming and Asshole all in one, but I don't care, I adore that man. If Ms Ivory can trust me with such a magnificent hero, why can't she do the same for Emma? Why turn her into a dingbat?

But no matter. My heart cracks a little when Stuart laughs. It really breaks when he tells Emma that he wishes that she is with him because she cares for him even a little (maybe his special way of overcoming his stuttering problem?). It shatters apart when he realizes that he loves her, and all those pieces sprout wings and fly when Emma comes across his eleven attempts at writing a romantic proposal on various wadded up pieces of notes.

Untie My Heart is not this author's best work, but Stuart Aysgarth single-handedly elevates this book into near divine status where I'm concerned. I don't know how the author can create such wonderful and seductive heroes, I don't know how she writes the way she does that hook me in line and sinker, but I'm such a weak, weak person.

If Emma could have kept up with her Viscount Mount Virile, Untie My Heart will be one helluva book. As it is, it is merely a very good book that is worth probably a few more re-readings in the near future.

Rating: 94


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