Samantha's Heart
by Pamela Quint Chambers
(Zebra, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-8217-6068-8
****
If you're like me and you love a good holiday romance to start the season off on the right note, then Samantha's Heart is just what Santa ordered.

A thoroughly charming and emotionally fulfilling tale of love and friendship, Samantha's Heart paints a vivid portrait of small town life in the Midwest circa 1890, and simmers with a vitality that is truly refreshing. Laced with just the right touch of homespun humor and sentiment, this holiday tale is the perfect fireside companion.

It's a cold November day when Samantha Sarahanna Spencer leaves Chicago for her home town of River Valley. A would-be Nellie Bly who wants to right the world's ills through "stunt reporting" like her famed colleague, Sam unfortunately, has a long way to go. Her first story has been scooped, and rather than languish on the society desk, she quits her job and heads home for the holidays.

Keeping her unemployed status a secret (convinced she'll be able to beg her job back,) Sam returns to the loving arms of a boisterous extended family that includes the house full of Morgan "boys" next door. An alphabetical arrangement of seven sons with ages ranging from twentysomething to teen, the Morgan boys have been a part of Sam's life as long as she's been breathing. Andrew and Charlie are employed in the bank owned by Sam's father and both are smitten with Spencer cousins; Duncan, her old compatriot, has gone adventuring after Sam's refusal to marry him; Edward is a gangly teen taken to staring open-mouthed at the auburn-haired (and equally red-faced) Sam; Frankie and Georgie are mischievous schoolboys; and Ben is the town teacher and perennial thorn in Sam's side.

It was Ben who told Sam she'd never be able to make it in Chicago as a journalist. She always assumed he was belittling both her sex and her talent. What Sam doesn't know is that those harsh words were desperation talking Ben's last ditch effort to keep the girl he'd always loved at his side.

Thrown constantly together throughout Thanksgiving and in the days leading up to Christmas, Ben and Sam become friends much to Ben's delight and Sam's dismay. And it becomes fairly apparent from the very beginning, with one of her cousins engaged to Ben's brother Charlie and another in love with Andrew, that there is nowhere to escape thoughts of the Morgan boys.

The story's gimmick having Sam and Ben pretending to court each other to escape the prodding of the town matchmakers is handled in a decidedly fresh and fun way a rather matter of fact arrangement that leads to some serious kissing and soul searching. I loved being privy to the conflicted thoughts and feelings of both these characters as they wandered through the sexually tense, snow-covered minefields of their feelings. Their fears, in addition to their desires, were very, very real.

Homespun advice is delivered through Grannie Spencer, who needs only a corncob pipe stuck between her teeth to resemble Mammy Yokum. But it is Grannie's wisdom, along with her stories and her recipes, that eventually help Sam decide that home and heart cannot be parted.

Scented and seasoned with a true holiday flavor that had me smelling bayberry and mince pies, Samantha's Heart paints a warm picture of Midwestern life before the turn of the century. The romance between Sam and Ben is just as heartwarming a true love story about friends who become better people because of each other.

I truly enjoyed every page of Samantha's Heart and can't wait to read the sequel, The Bride's Quilt, which tells the history of Grannie Spencer and her adventures in Colorado.

--Ann McGuire


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