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Thief of Dreams by Mary Balogh
($6.99, Jove, PG-13) ISBN: 0-515-12274-2
*****
Your devoted TRR contributors have recently had a round robin discussion about the meaning of the 5 heart rating. We all agree that its requirements are a bit unclear. The boilerplate says that 5 Hearts means a keeper. But, what is a keeper? For this reader, a keeper is a book that stands out, that keeps you riveted, that causes you to tune out the rest of the world one that you can't put down and one that you want to read again almost immediately. By those exacting criteria, Mary Balogh's latest Georgian historical, Thief of Dreams is a clear keeper.

The book opens with Cassandra Havelock planning a very special ball. She is celebrating her 21st birthday and will finally be free of her guardian's tutelage. And she is ending her year's mourning for her father's death. Cassandra's doting and devoted family are busy conspiring to get Cassandra wed. Cassandra herself has no such plans. After all, she is the Countess of Worthing in her own right. Why would she want to give up her prized independence in exchange for the bonds of matrimony?

Her family fears that the sheltered young woman who has never left Somerset is unequal to the task before her. They fear that, in her innocence, she will become the victim of some fortune hunter. And their fears seem to become a reality that very day when Nigel Wetherby, Viscount Wroxley, arrives at Kedelston to pay his respects to the daughter of a man he claims as his erstwhile friend. Cassandra is charmed by his town air and delighted to have the opportunity to learn more about the father she had loved as a child but who had left to her own devices after her mother's death. And so she invites the Viscount to her ball and into her home.

Cassandra's determination to remain unwed cannot withstand the attraction she feels for the handsome man who seems as infatuated as she. Within days he has proposed, within another week she has agreed to marry and has surrendered her innocence to her dashing and determined betrothed, and within two weeks she is married. And then it is a case of "Marry in haste, repent at leisure."

For Viscount Wroxley has secrets, secrets that undermine the love that Cassandra has come to feel, secrets that relate to her father and her position, secrets that cause Nigel to suffer from horrible nightmares, secrets that are somehow tied to the scars on his back.

I am clearly one of Balogh's greatest fans, but I have generally preferred her Regencies to her historicals. Somehow the latter do not seem to have the same intensity, do not have the same capacity to draw the reader into the story. Well, let me say that Thief of Dreams attains in the longer historical format all the emotional power that characterize the best of Balogh's Regencies. The plot is somewhat complex but is beautifully constructed for maximum effect. That Balogh manages to bring so many threads together in such a satisfying fashion demonstrates her skill as a story teller.

And her characters are vintage Balogh. Nigel has suffered grievously, he has been forced to reject feeling in order to survive. He cannot admit that he has come to love the woman he has married. Cassandra is a woman who has been betrayed but who can rise beyond her hurt to understand and to heal.

All told, this is an extremely satisfying historical romance. And, yes, I wanted to read it again almost as soon as I finished it. In fact, having finished this review, I think I'll crawl into bed and do just that.

--Jean Mason


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