For All Eternity by Heather Cullman
(Topaz, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-40814-4
*****
Oh boy! Isn't it just wonderful when something unexpectedly delightful comes your way. That is what readers will feel when they read For All Eternity, an altogether charming and completely enchanting romance that will leave you breathless, satisfied and aching for more. Author Heather Cullman has created a splendidly entertaining tale, using humor, passion, and forgiveness to tell a backward Cinderella story. The hero and heroine are a memorable match; he is perfection personified a handsome prince and fairy godfellow all rolled up in one. She is fallen angel that both the hero, and the reader, come to love.

But it doesn't start out that way. When we first meet Miss Sophie Barrington, she is one of the most snobbish, self-centered creatures ever to invade the upper echelon of the haute ton. Young, blonde, and beautiful, Sophie has conquered society and become the most sought after heiress of the season. She has attracted the attention of society's elite, among them Nicholas Somerville, Lord Lyndhurst. At the urging of her guardian and cousin, the selfish Miss Sophie has spent a good deal of time with Nicholas, usually drifting off in her thoughts to dream of the charming and handsome Julian Oxley. For his part, Nicholas is ready to marry and thinks Sophie is beautiful and demure. She thinks Nicholas is too tall, boring, and oh, that wretched scar on his face. She can barely bring herself to look at it.

So imagine Sophie's utter shock when her guardian decrees she must marry Nicholas for financial reasons. It seems Sophie's dowry has been used to pay some family debts and she is now in dire financial straits. Her cousin demands that she accept Nicholas' proposal and say nothing of her financial situation or else he'll leave her to the creditors and flee for America. When Sophie makes the mistake of visiting Oxley alone at his bachelor quarters to tell him of her tragedy and he notifies the entire ton of her predicament, that is precisely what happens.

Alone and penniless, with no where else to turn, Sophie flees London for the country where she lands a job as a maid in the household of the Marquess of Beresford. Her "quality" demeanor is not missed by the backstairs servants, but Sophie is now part of a world where a person's status is defined by the station they hold within the house. As a maid of all trades, Sophie occupies the lowest rung, and it is here that she begins to learn a few valuable life lessons like the satisfaction of a job well done and the simple joy in doing something nice for someone and expecting nothing in return. Sophie is just beginning to catch on when she discovers that the future heir to the household is none other than the same Nicholas Somerville she so callously humiliated.

When Nicholas finds the hated Miss Sophie hiding in his house, it's the perfect chance to revenge. This is the book's turning point where plot machinations take backseat to character development and the ashes of Sophie and Nicholas' relationship are slowly fanned into flame. Though Nicholas is determined to exact his pound of flesh, he is dismayed to find himself even more intrigued by Sophie than before. He can't quite forgive her, but he doesn't totally condemn her either.

Nicholas knows that though he was taken in by Sophie's beauty and caught up in the race to gain her favors, he did not love her. Seeing Sophie struggle through degrading and menial chores initially soothes his bruised pride. But he also sees that Sophie faces each challenge almost willingly. Indeed, she accepts her current status as penance for her previous loathsome behavior. Day by day, Sophie becomes less a self-centered girl and more a self-reliant woman. And as for Nicholas she wonders how she could possibly have viewed him as anything less than the handsome man he is. So strong. So patient. Why even the faint scar that crosses his cheek now fascinates where it used to repel.

The transformation of Sophie from spoiled brat to starry-eyed lover is beguiling in its simplicity. We experience each step of her ever changing emotions: from sullen gratitude to curiosity; from infatuation and sexual awakening to friendship and love. It's a gratifyingly enjoyable ride! Sophie's childlike belief in boogiemen and bogles and humorous thoughts about sex belie her sophistication and endear her to the reader. As for Nicholas, he makes my top ten of heartthrob heroes!

The author has my eternal thanks for allowing these characters to speak freely and openly about subjects both silly and serious. Both Sophie and Nicholas wear their hearts and emotions on their sleeves, neither feeling compelled to participate in the requisite dance where such things are usually kept hidden. I don't think I would have fallen quite so in love with Nicholas had he been one of those, "I'll never love again" types. Nor could I have forgiven Sophie her snobbery if she wasn't so honest about it. If she makes the transition from pompous brat to paragon too quickly, well, it keeps pace with the developing relationship. Nicholas' growing ardor for Sophie is palpable. When the two finally do come together in a kiss, the page practically combusts with the force and heat of their discovery.

I found it all satisfying from beginning to end. And believe me, it's been a while since I've come across a book that forced me to stay up way past my bedtime and be late for work in the morning as well! Heather Cullman's writing is so entertaining that it compels the reader to utter those deadly words, "just one more page" over and over again. With For All Eternity she has a story that makes the circles under your eyes worthwhile.

--Ann McGuire


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