Christmas is a magical time of year. Christmas stories are special because they carry a little of that magic sprinkled throughout their pages. My favorites are those that carry a strong theme that matches the season: forgiveness, redemption, self-sacrifice and the true meaning of love. In the historical romance anthology, The Heart of Christmas, I found all that I could wish for in a trio of yuletide tales.
In “A Handful of Gold” by Mary Balogh, the impoverished Miss Verity Ewing takes a job as an opera dancer to help support her family and ailing sister. When one of her theater admirers, Julian Dare, Viscount Folingsby, offers her an enormous sum of money to be his mistress for one weekend, she accepts for the chance to provide financially for her mother and sister. In a snow-bound hunting cottage in Norfolkshire, Julian discovers that the seductive opera dancer he has managed to secure as his mistress is much more than meets the eye.
Balogh goes right to the heart of what the Christmas season represents. A gift that Julian gives to Verity, which she sees as representing the Star of Bethlehem, becomes a mechanism for revealing intentions and symbolizing the hope and renewal that can come at this time of year. Her hero, Viscount Folingsby, a shallow, hedonistic man is transformed by an unexpected Christmas week. He is not a tortured hero, just blind to what is truly valuable. Perhaps that is why Balogh has him squinting through a quizzing glass for much of the story.
In “The Season for Suitors” by Nicola Cornick, Miss Clara Davencourt is determined to have Sebastian, Duke of Fleet for a husband despite his refusal of her offer of marriage. Sebastian seems like the typical Regency rake, but he is secretly crippled by self-doubt and guilt stemming from a tragedy in his past. Winter and the Christmas season trigger harrowing memories for him, but it is also the season when Clara Davencourt comes back into his life and makes a most unusual request.
The confidence and stubborn single-mindedness of Cornick’s heroine is a perfect counterpoint to the barriers her hero has erected. The flashes of humor, particularly between Fleet and his incomparable butler Perch, are wonderful. The secondary characters aren’t just background. They are vibrant and add humor and the reality of family relationships to the story.
While all the stories in The Heart of Christmas are great reads, the adage about saving the best for last definitely holds true here. Courtney Milan’s “This Wicked Gift” is a perfect Christmas story. A fresh voice, interesting plot, flawed, unforgettable characters, and a theme of redemption made this my favorite story of the bunch.
In the tale, Mr. William Q. White longs for Lavinia Spencer from the first moment he lays eyes on her behind the counter of her family’s lending library. However, his poverty and lack of prospects means that he must reconcile himself to admiring her from afar, especially after the legacy that he had hoped for ends up amounting to the meager sum of ten pounds. Then he discovers that ten pounds is exactly what Ms. Spencer requires to keep her brother out of trouble. Throwing his honor and decency to the wind in his desperation to have Lavinia, William decides to settle her brother’s debts in the hopes that she will repay him with the most precious gift of all.
Milan’s voice, the voice she gives to her characters, is so vivid that I could still hear them in my head long after I’d finished their story. She lays bare Lavinia’s and William’s hopes, desires, and fears and does not make their relationship simple, nor their happy ending easy to attain. It is the complexity of Lavinia and William’s relationship, all its darker shades, which make it so compelling.
The Heart of Christmas’ trio of tales highlights all the best themes of the season. For anyone who loves historical romance set in Regency England, this book is the perfect excuse to settle in with a mug of cocoa, watch the snowflakes fall, and read what are now some of my favorite Christmas stories.