Admittedly, Untie My Heart is not for everyone. But those of you who love sensuous romance tinged ever so delicately with a hint of decadence - and you know who you are - should plan right now to settle down under your favorite blanket and surrender yourself to this incredible writer.
If you haven't read Judith Ivory/Judy Cuevas before, it's important to understand right from the beginning that she will take you on a different kind of journey. Her characters are emotionally complicated and not always likable. She abandons the sharply defined black-and-white/good-and-bad delineations we're far too used to accepting for a richer palate of shades of gray. And while a healthy acceptance of sexuality is always a central theme, Judith Ivory's characters don't suddenly behave in inexplicable ways simply to introduce a sexual element into the story.
To say that Stuart Aysgarth's financial affairs are complicated is quite possibly the understatement of the century. Long estranged from his father and living in distant Russia, the new Viscount Mount Villiars learns of his inheritance three months after the death of his father. That delay is all Stuart's uncle Leonard needs to seize the title and the riches that go with it by attempting to declare Stuart legally dead. Even though Stuart's return obviously gives the lie to his uncle's contentions, Leonard's spendthrift ways and the legal complexities involved have resulted in a labyrinthine tangle of frozen assets and locked accounts. Though he is one of the richest men in England, for the time being, Stuart quite literally barely has two shillings to rub together.
Of course, to Emma Hotchkiss and the rest of the residents of the Yorkshire village home near Stuart's estate, the new Viscount appears to be nothing less than obscenely wealthy. The widow of a vicar who was also an experienced confidence man, Emma is desperately trying to establish a secure life for herself by running a small sheep farm. When one of her flock is killed by the Viscount's recklessly driven coach, the loss is a financially devastating one for which Emma vows to make the wealthy nobleman pay. Outraged and infuriated by the injustice of it all, Emma begins a determined campaign (so determined that it goes on for some five months) that is rebuffed at every turn by Stuart's numerous minions. When Emma is finally forced to realize that a completely inadequate settlement is all the law is likely to give her, she vows get the money she so rightfully deserves by taking a decidedly less legal approach.
Yes, Emma, is a con lady (I kind of like the sound of that.) Leaving home and landing in London at a tender age, Emma quickly fell in with an experienced gang (including her eventual husband). Though now reformed, the skills she learned so well come in handy as Emma plans to take the Viscount down for the money he clearly owes her.
Her scheme - far too complicated to explain here - involves setting up a sting operation that will allow her to meet the Viscount and his minions at a local bank and abscond with his money at another bank a few days later. But what Emma doesn't plan on is the fact that Stuart (can you hear my sigh?) is devastatingly sexy and, even more perilous to her plans, fascinated by her humble self. When Stuart discovers her theft and confronts her when she arrives days later to collect her ill-gotten gains, Emma's con turns against her when Stuart bribes her into using her talents to help him run a little game of his own.
It seems that during the months he was in possession of the estate, Leonard stole a statue with enormous sentimental value to Stuart. Even worse, earrings belonging to his late beloved mother are also missing. Leonard says he has neither. Stuart knows otherwise. And with Emma's help, he plans to get them back.
I can't think of another writer who could write so erotically about an overcoat or the dramatic entrance Stuart makes into the bank - and into Emma's life. Simply everything about Stuart is fascinating. Through the course of the book, we come to understand that the gloss and sophistication that make him so very dazzling are the weapons the wounded hero uses in facing the world. Sexually adventurous and rapturously taken with Emma, their love scenes are some of the most satisfyingly erotic I've ever read.
Emma's conflicted feelings of both grief and resentment toward her late husband make her every bit as emotionally complex and fascinating as Stuart. Her obsessive dedication to creating a safe haven for herself is completely understandable, as is her reaction to the threat that Stuart so clearly poses to that happily quiet life. As all of us know, sometimes men mess things up.
It's only fair to tell readers that since there is one scene involving an unconventional sexual encounter, anyone extremely sensitive to content hinging on a bit of less expected stuff may want to take a pass. However, I'll admit, albeit somewhat sheepishly, that I loved it.
The book does, however, have one flaw that I've noticed in other Judith Ivory books. While the first three quarters of the book proceed at a somewhat languorous, deliberate pace that I thought was perfect, the last section does seem to move at warp speed. The change of pace is disconcerting and left me feeling just the tiniest bit unsatisfied.
With the reissue of Black Silk, the Judy Cuevas classic first published in 1991, and now with the publication of Untie My Heart, it's been a banner year for Judith Ivory and those who love her books. But, while she has every reason to enjoy her success, I certainly hope she doesn't plan to rest on her laurels. Keep writing, Judith. There are an awful lot of us waiting.
-- Sandy Coleman
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