To some, the great manor of Mannerby might have seemed a lovely country retreat. To beautiful Sarah Jane Stratford, it was a hateful prison to which she had been consigned for the crime of spurning the odious boor whom her noble father had ignobly chosen to be her husband.
Always close at hand was her captor, the infuriatingly arrogant Paul Ransome, who clearly believed every scandalous rumor about Sarah Jane. Frustratingly far away was the handsome, gallant Jack Holland, to whom Sarah Jane was eager to give her hand, her good name, and anything else he chose to desire.
Sarah Jane vowed to brook no obstacle of social censure nor pitfall of prudish propriety on her path to true love--only to discover what sinister snares passion could set, and how treacherous a guide the heart could be....
Heath is a hit and miss author for me. I always open her books with a lot of expectation and sometimes they end being a bit a letdown. Fortunately that was not what happened with this one although I did find it to have some problems. The blurb is also a bit misleading as I thought that what happens before Sarah Jane goes to Mannerby is as important as what happens there and Ransome is not exactly a captor.
Sarah Jane is an illegitimate daughter that her father recognised when she was already an adult so that she could marry his heir. Neither Sarah Jane nor her fiancé love want the marriage but she is practical enough to realise that if she refuses she will be condemning herself to a life of poverty. The only person who has been nice to her is a young man and when he proposes to meet her in the woods she accepts despite some misgivings. Her fears were well founded as he proceeds to try to force but she is saved by the appearance of another gentleman, Jack Holland.
Despite having a terrible reputation Holland behaves in an honourable fashion and takes Sara Jane home. However later in the day he hears the other bragging to friends how he succeeded in forcing Sarah Jane and challenges and kills him. To Sarah Jane he becomes a romantic figure, her saviour who promises to return for her. But his actions and her future mother-in-law malicious gossip make everyone believe that she was his lover and her father decides to send to one of his estates in the country - Mannerby.
Throughout all this Sarah Jane behaves in a dignified manner but on her way to Mannerby her strength is once again tested has her maid, indeed her only friend, dies when crossing a river. Paul Ransome, the tenant of Mannerby, believes the worst of her behaviour but always treats her with proper respect; the same cannot be said of his sister who seems to have something against her. At first Sarah Jane believes that Melissa was the woman her fiancé wanted to marry and that is way she dislikes her but soon is apparent that there is something more at stake as Melissa's behaviour turns more secretive.
The problem I had with this story was that it was part romance and part gothic and there seemed to be a bit of hesitation about which should be the stronger element in the story. Sarah Jane finds herself without friends, and indeed almost surrounded by enemies, during her stay in Mannerby and stranger things keep happening has a mysterious man keeps appearing in the woods, a fire is set in a nearby inn and Melissa ends up running away with tragic results.
Ransome eventually discovers that Sarah Jane is not the person he thought but when they start to spend more time together Holland returns. All the feelings that Sarah Jane had for him come rushing back and they eventually admit their love for each other.
I had a feeling from very early about who the bad guy really was and I was proved correct. The convoluted plot that was behind his actions wasn't as easy to guess but I couldn't believe how Sarah Jane couldn't see it as clearly as I did. That detracted a bit from my enjoyment of the mystery plot and the ending came about so abruptly that I felt a bit cheated on the romance part. It was an interesting story but I think it would have felt stronger if it had been entirely a gothic or entirely a romance.