Perils of the Heart by Jennifer Ashley
(Leisure, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-8439-5133-9
Jennifer Ashley’s debut novel starts a little slow, and even had me gritting my teeth in the first 100 pages. But once it got rolling, Perils of the Heart is a story that had enough unique twists and turns to garner recommended status.

Evangeline Clemens is naïve, almost too naïve. In 1790, she joins her stepbrother and his “friend”, Anna Adams, on a merchant ship bound for Boston. She has no choice really. Her fiancé was found in bed with her maid, and when she refused to marry him, her stepfather and mother disowned her. Her cousin in America has agreed to help her secure a position as a governess.

Anna is a horrible woman, intent on taking over the ship, and commandeering it with the help of some of the crew to go to Havana to free her pirate boyfriend from prison. She uses a threat of violence against Evangeline and her stepbrother to get them to help. Evangeline is given the task of seducing Captain Austin Blackwell, distracting him so that the crewmembers with Anna can take over the ship. Of course that doesn’t work. However, one crewmember who is enamored of Anna’s charms and duped by her lies helps Anna and Evangeline escape to a British frigate. On the frigate, Anna has the captain in her pocket, and off they go to Cuba. Once in Cuba, Anna forces Evangeline to help light the fuses of the dynamite and break out several men from the prison, one of whom is an English lord.

It was at this point in the novel where I made several notes to myself. I wrote - “heroine acts stupidly, hero traditional heart-wounded man”. I also noted that this obviously evil but big-breasted woman, Anna, too easily swayed all the men. At one point, Evangeline carries the gunpowder into the prison and is told to light the fuse by the guard’s door. Anna runs off to search for her pirate, and leaves Evangeline alone. She follows through with the plan, only after she warns the guards so they don’t get hurt. I was ready to throw in the towel. But here is where I urge you to keep reading! The last two thirds of the book saves the day and even makes this initial part make sense.

This naïve chit, Evangeline, who comes into his cabin to seduce him stuns our hero, Austin Blackwell. He sees through her immediately, especially when he realizes that the sounds on his ship have changed. He foils the mutiny. But he is stunned by her seduction in another way too. She awakens some feelings he had thought repressed forever. He is intrigued. So when she flees, he abandons his mission and heads to the Caribbean to find her.

Austin and Evangeline are perfect for each other. Evangeline is impulsive but means well. Once the reader spends some time with her, all those seemingly stupid acts in the beginning are a reflection of how she sees life through rose-colored glasses. She has a difficult time envisioning these things happening to her, they just do. Her fresh look on life never waivers, but she grows up as the story progresses and actually shows a lot of spunk.

Austin is a traditional tortured hero. He was married once before to a clingy, needy woman, who could not handle his life at sea. Austin swore he would never put another woman through that again.

There are several other side plots sewn into the fabric of the story that enhance it. The English lord courts Evangeline and provides for some fun scenes of jealousy and bickering. Austin is also carrying documents that could help keep the young America from British interference. The intrigue around this is fresh and not resolved the way one would predict.

There is humor and passion in abundance. The love scenes are full of steam. And the British Lord Rudolph is primed for a story of his own. As Evangeline charms the crew, she charms Austin and the reader as well. This is where the author’s skills shine.

Jennifer Ashley has written a surprisingly fresh debut novel in Perils of the Heart. Work through the first hundred pages, and you’ll find yourself engaged in a delightful romance and intriguing tale.

--Shirley Lyons

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