Counterfeit Kisses

Easy Conquest

The Faun's Folly

The Haunting of Henrietta

The Magic Jack-o-Lantern

Marigold's Marriages

Winter Dreams by Sandra Heath
(Signet, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-21236-3
After some weak early chapters, this book blessedly finds a sense of energy and turns into a very enjoyable read. Sometimes perseverance is rewarded.

Judith Callard is a widow after nearly twelve miserable years of marriage. As a girl, she was intended for Lord Penventon, or Daniel as she knew him then. She was in love with him, but thought he courted her only to please their fathers. To fire Daniel up, she flirted with Richard Callard, only to find herself forced to marry the swine when the situation escalated out of her control.

In Portugal with her twin brother Jamie, Judith has a premonition that her brother is in peril. Jamie, like Daniel, works for the British government, and she believes that Daniel is somehow involved in the danger to her brother. (Judith has a clairvoyant bond with Jamie.) Hoping to discover the source of her fears, Judith follows Daniel one evening but is mortified to find that she has apparently tailed him to a romantic tryst.

As she is leaving, there is a sudden disturbance, shots are fired, and Judith is nearly run down by a man escaping on horseback. For a moment, she thinks heís going to shoot her, but he is distracted and rides past.

The next day, as a treat before Judith returns to England, a picnic is organized to the outskirts of Lisbon, and Judith is startled to find that the man who almost ran her down the night before seems to be stalking her, probably with no good intention. In addition, Daniel, who has scarcely spoken a word to her since she spurned him, suddenly wonít leave her side.

Daniel has discovered Judithís whereabouts the previous evening, and wonders if she is a spy. When he confronts her, she confesses her fears for Jamie. As far as Daniel knows, Jamie is not in danger Ė but Judithís rash actions have almost certainly jeopardized her own safety.

For the first thirty pages, this book definitely struggles. While there are some interesting moments, there are two major problems. The first is that Judith initially appears to be one of those tiresome heroines who insists that she must protect her brother from the evils of a cruel world.

The early going also stumbles over excessive description. For example, we are forced to slog though many paragraphs, sometimes one after the next, of what everyone is wearing. No doubt intended to give the story period color, the volume and predictability of the description made some of the early pages read more like a catalogue than a novel.

Fortunately, just as the reader is getting ready to give up, Ms. Heath actually starts telling us a story Ė and an entertaining story it is, too. Judith is not a twit after all, but a woman who made one mistake and must now live with the consequences. The situation will also throw her together with Daniel in a way that forces both of them to confront their feelings for each other.

Judith and Daniel are both likable characters, not least of which because they are both reasonably mature and intelligent. They both have their faults, of course, but thatís what makes their story interesting.

The romance is very satisfying, driven by internal conflict in the first half of the book and by the external conflict thereafter. A good balance of action and introspection enabled me to sympathize with and root for both characters, and to feel as though they deserved their happy ending.

There are no surprises as to who the villains are, but their persistent desire to remove the threat they think Judith poses contributes a great deal to the energy of the story and adds a dash of suspense. It is, perhaps, a little too convenient that Judith is saved more than once by her slight clairvoyance, but Iíll admit that I didnít give that a lot of thought until the book was over.

So, while the first four chapters feel as though they belong to a different book altogether, itís worth getting through them to find the energetic romantic adventure that follows.

-- Judi McKee

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