Mara O'Flynn has lived a hard life. She and her brother Brendan lead a hard-scrabble existence as actors, one step ahead of their creditors and constantly wondering where their next meal is coming from. Filling out their family unit is Brendan's son Paddy (his mother has long deserted Brendan and Paddy to seek her fame and fortune) and their long-suffering servant/companion Jamie. Mara's mother was a famous stage actress who became the mistress of an Irish nobleman; Mara and Brendan had the best of everything until their father tired of their mother and cast her aside. She has sworn to never love a man after watching her mother die of heartbreak.
She has become cold and calculating - when the story begins she has just cast aside an unfortunate young dandy named Julian in a most callous way. Mocking his love for her she cuts his heart and pride to ribbons. Jamie, later dispatched to return his gifts to him, hears a gun go off and learns that poor Julian has shot himself. Mara, Brendan and her family immediately leave London before anyone can connect them with the tragedy. Mara and Jamie, of course, do not tell Brendan of the outcome of her wicked game.
Julian, however, is not dead. Delirious and weak, he lies abed with his uncle Nicholas Chantale, visiting from California, keeping vigil. His mother extracts a promise from Nicholas to exact revenge on the wicked creature who has done this to Julian. "You will promise me, Nicholas - please! I beg this of you, for you are the only one I trust to be ruthless enough to do it. You have no softness in you, Nicholas. You do not forgive." Nicholas finds a locket containing her picture and follows the O'Flynns to America. The stage is now set for the rest of the novel.
The story follows Mara and her clan from London to New York then on to the California. Brendan gambles their savings on board the ship and loses to Don Luis Quintero, a Californian returning home from England. Don Luis has problems of his own and hires the O'Flynns to assist in an elaborate charade which will allow him to regain his family's land and his fortune. Mara agrees to pose as "Amaya Vaughn" in exchange for forgiveness of their debts and a promise of payment.
They travel to Rancho Villareale and the play begins in earnest. Mara and Brendan are cast in the role of a lifetime and enjoying the famed hospitality of the native Californians. One of the many guests at the hacienda
is Nicholas Chantale - convinced that Amaya is really Mara O'Flynn. Nicholas, who spotted Mara by chance in San Francisco, has followed her. He confronts Don Luis with his suspicion but is rebuffed. He accepts Don Luis explanation of her identity but is fascinated with Amaya/Mara. He begins to court her while at the Rancho. Mara lets her guard down and falls in love.
Then, of course, the house of cards built by Don Luis comes crashing down.
I won't say much more about the story except that the reader is swept along with Mara and Nicholas to San Francisco, during the heart of the gold rush, then on to New Orleans and the lush plantation Beaumarais
, where Nicholas claims his birthright. There is intrigue, betrayal, love, a death, a kidnapping, a pregnancy, revelations of long-held family secrets and, finally, a murderer is exposed. All of this is the backdrop to the burgeoning love between Nicholas and Mara -- she, who has sworn never to love, and he, who has sworn never to forgive.
I love this book. I first read it in about 1980 - one of the first historical romances I ever read (after Kathleen Woodiwiss' Shanna and Shirley Busbee's Lady Vixen) and I was hooked. The historical detail, the "sweeping" scale of the story - from Ireland, to Paris, to London, to New York, California, then New Orleans . The author transports you from the tranquil luxury of a Californian rancho to the bustle of a rooming house in San Francisco to the brooding beauty of a Louisiana plantation all without missing a beat.
It's not as explicit as I remember it being (but of course, I was 12!) but the love scenes are there. This isn't really a bodice ripper -- they come together before marriage, based only on mutual attraction with no blackmail, rape or bargain in sight. Mara falls in love first and is unable to fight her feelings for him - which she keeps from him. Nicholas, on other hand, seems to be almost unaware of his feelings until close to the end of the book. He is almost a complete alpha hero - except that he isn't brutal or "alphole"ish to her - he doesn't take the time (nor does the author!) to examine his feelings or motives very closely. What you do get to see during the course of the novel is the emotional growth of both the H/h. Mara becomes so much more than the brittle, bitter young woman she was in London. With Nicholas we learn about the tragedy in his past - he was accused of murdering his brother and disowned by his father. Nicholas and Mara overcome betrayals and "big misunderstandings" caused both by each other and outside influences and still manage an awesome HEA.
All in all a wonderful, vintage historical romance -- one that I'd recommend to anyone who enjoys an "epic" style read.
This book review has been provided by the No Book Left Behind Campaign - A Bodice Ripper Readers Anonymous
group initiative to review the un-reviewed.