Man Shy

 
Shadows All Around Her
by Catherine Mulvany
(Pocket Books, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-7434-9384-2
****
A missing professor; a seventeenth-century manuscript that may hold the secret to Merlin's last resting place; a modern smuggling ring with roots in a centuries-old cabal; a Mediterranean island with everything (including a devastating curse) to guarantee its fairy-tale allure; a dashing hero, a delightfully intelligent heroine and compelling secondary characters or two - Shadows All Around Her has it all! And mismatched as this odd assortment might seem, the novel pulls them all together for a highly enjoyable, suspenseful and even touching read.

When Stanford math instructor Caitlin O'Shaughnessy receives an old manuscript and something that resembles an early calculating machine as a birthday present from her stepfather, Magnus Armstrong, she is thrilled. She does not suspect any connection between the gift and her subsequent mugging. But, when she hears Magnus has disappeared while attending an academic symposium in Edinburgh and that this might be linked to the recent suicide of another scholar, she jumps on the next transcontinental flight, her best friend Bree tagging along.

There, they are met by Dominic Fortune. A rich playboy who moonlights for the intelligence service, he has been ordered to stay close to Caitlin in the hopes that she knows the whereabouts of an ancient manuscript belonging to his country, Calix. (And if you are worrying how quickly and how much of your high school geography classes you have forgotten, stop. Calix is an imaginary Mediterranean island, whose setting pays obvious tribute to those wonderful Hollywood classics, To Catch a Thief and Roman Holiday.)

Dominic and Caitlin are immediately attracted to each other. Despite their conflicting objectives, they don't go through the usual rigmarole about not being able to trust their hearts. When Caitlin is informed that her stepfather will be exchanged for one hundred thousand dollars and the manuscript and that the details of this exchange will be provided at the Calixian Independence Day Ball, she turns to Dominic for help. She even tells him she has the manuscript. In turn, not only does he promise her tickets to the said ball, but he also resigns his position rather than undermine her plans to free her stepfather.

With Dominic's bodyguard Quinn and Caitlin's friend Bree in tow, they fly to Calix. Together, the four confront more twists and turns as they race to get to Magnus in time. Caitlin also discovers Dominic has another secret, one that potentially poses a much more devastating threat to their future happiness.

This roller-coaster of an adventure story is interwoven with excerpts from the much-coveted seventeenth-century manuscript. I was initially hard-pressed to understand its relevance and continue to feel it could have been shortened. Yet, unlike other narrative devices of this sort, the embedded story isn't completely ornamental. It holds more than a few surprises of its own and contributes an additional twist to what would otherwise have been a predictable conclusion for those familiar with the genre.

Though the plot is guaranteed to keep the pages turning, the book would not have been as engrossing without its crisp writing and memorable characters. Granted, Dominic is a watered-down Cary Grant wannabe. But Caitlin won me over as quickly as she did her first-year undergraduates: in her first appearance in the novel, she woos her bored and disinterested students with a game of mathematical charades. An unexpected entrance for a romance heroine to be sure, but totally appropriate for this one. Better yet, Caitlin lives up to her promise, even if she has an annoying moment or two.

Shadows All Around Her may have its imperfections and inconsistencies, but it still has enough to keep even the most cynical and critical of romance readers pressing to the end, a good part of them with a smile on their lips.

--Mary Benn


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