The Charm School

The Drifter

The Horsemaster's Daughter

The Hostage

Husband for Hire

Irish Magic

The Lightkeeper

Miranda

The Mistress

The You I Never Knew

 
The Firebrand by Susan Wiggs
(Mira, $6.99, PG) ISBN 1-55166-801-7
*****
October 8, 1871 was not only the night that Chicago burned, but also the night Lucy Hathaway made a fool of herself and become a mother. While attending a sermon of the Reverend Dr. Moody, Lucy flirts with and gets into a heated debate with Randolph Higgins. It seems the devastatingly handsome man does not share Lucy’s passion for equal rights for women.

Intrigued by the only man who has flirted and debated with her all in the same evening, Lucy approaches Randolph about becoming her lover. Lucy isn’t exactly a catch, and she knows she will most likely never marry, so she grabs a hold of the one man who has shown the slightest bit of interest. Problem is, he is married to the blond, petite, and utterly perfect Diana Higgins. Lucy retreats into the night, and promptly is confronted with Chicago in flames.

Randolph Higgins is more than a little curious about Miss Hathaway. He knows of her name, her father being a Civil War hero, and Lucy being a young heiress. However, he brushes his encounter with her aside, when he realizes that he must get home to his young daughter, Christine. Frantically dragging his wife through the streets, they return to the Sterling House hotel to find the building in flames, their daughter presumably still inside. Then an explosion rains down brick and debris, burying Diana and Randolph in fiery rubble.

Lucy is also trying to get home when she runs past Sterling House. A young woman is getting ready to drop a bundle of blankets out of a second story window, and Lucy stops to catch the load. Right after she does, flames shoot through the building, killing the woman. Lucy then looks down at the bundle, to discover she has just saved a baby girl’s life.

Fast-forward five years, and Lucy owns a bookstore called The Firebrand. The family fortune went up in smoke along with most of the city, and Lucy decides to go into business to support herself, her daughter, and her mother. However, she needs an extension on her bank loan and must meet with the president, Mr. Randolph Higgins.

Scarred from the fire, still grieving for his daughter, and divorced from his wife, Rand is more than a little surprised to see Lucy at his office. Still passionate about her absurd notions of female equality, he disagrees with her politics more today than he did five years ago. Will he put his personal feelings aside and allow Lucy to keep her bookstore? Moreover, what will happen when he learns that his daughter is still very much alive and being raised by a radical?

I knew after the first chapter that The Firebrand would be holding court on my keeper shelf. There are so many wonderful aspects of this story, the most important being the ingenious creation of Lucy Hathaway - one of the most memorable romance heroines I have ever had the pleasure to read about. Lucy is a crusader for women’s rights, a fighter in every sense of the word, but simmering beneath the veneer of strength and bravery is an aching vulnerability. Sure she wants to be independent, to make her own choices, but she cannot deny that she longs for true love and a family of her own. Lucy wants it all, and she fights over the course of this novel to get it. I admired her spunk, I felt her insecurities, and I rallied with her in the face of adversity.

Rand is a wonderfully complex romance hero, who has so much more to offer than what is on the surface. When we first meet him, he is a flirtatious rogue ruffling Lucy’s sensibilities. After the fire, he is a wounded, scarred and haunted man. He not only has to cope with the loss of his daughter, his looks, and his perfect society wife, but also the memory of a mother who abandoned him at a young age.

Aside from a heart wrenching story and a memorable couple, there are other beautifully done aspects of The Firebrand. Several scenes had me marking the pages to read them repeatedly. Whether it is when Lucy defends “trashy” dime novels to a customer, or the dialogue following Rand and Lucy’s first kiss, I found myself amazed, stunned, and moved beyond words.

Wiggs’ final installment of her Chicago Fire trilogy is a real barnburner, and one of the best romance novels I have ever read. I kept hoping my life would come to a screeching halt so I could devote my every waking moment to this book. If The Firebrand fails to garner a RITA nomination next year, I just may have to follow Lucy’s example and organize a demonstration.

--Wendy Crutcher


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