Plantation and river boat owner, Ashton Wingate, lost his beloved wife Lierin three years ago when river pirates attacked his boat. Lierin was thrown overboard into the murky waters of the Mississippi, her body never to be found. One dark night, when Ashton is traveling home from a business trip, his carriage accidentally careens into a horse and rider. When he goes to check on them, Ashton is shocked to discover that the unconscious rider is a beautiful young woman who looks exactly like his missing wife. He takes her home, but when she awakens, the woman has no memory of who she is or how she came to be out riding so recklessly, and so late at night.
At first, Lierin is frightened of the man who keeps insisting she is his wife. As hard as she tries to remember him, he is still a stranger to her. However, Ashton's kindness and gentleness soon win Lierin over, and she finds herself easily falling in love with him. Even though she still can't recall their time together in the past, Lierin is content in the present and their lives seem idyllic until Ashton throws a party to celebrate her homecoming. One of the attendees is a man named Malcolm Sinclair who declares to all present that she is really Lierin's identical twin sister and his kidnapped wife, Lenore. Even though Ashton is not convinced, Malcolm produces enough evidence to make her believe she is Lenore. While Ashton is away, Lenore leaves with her father to return to their home in Mississippi. Ashton lost his wife once and isn't about to give her up again so easily. He follows her to Biloxi and refuses to leave without her. Even though she believes that she is Lenore and not Lierin, she cannot deny the call of her heart is only for Ashton. Danger abounds as pieces of her memory begin to resurface, and she cannot help wondering: Is she really Lenore...or could she truly be Lierin as Ashton has always believed?
Come Love a Stranger was a re-read for me, and although I did correctly remember the heroine's identity, there was little else about the story that I could recall. Although it didn't quite reach the heights of perfection for me, it was still a very good read, about as good as I remembered it being over fifteen years ago. I've only read a few of Kathleen Woodiwiss' books, the last one being about four years ago, which was before I started reviewing and really analyzing how each author writes. Either that book was different, or I had forgotten how dense Ms. Woodiwiss' prose can be. I usually like detailed narratives, but sometimes I found myself zoning out a bit during these long passages. At other times though, I could see the story playing out in my head just like a movie. Although I don't have a lot of experience with it, I believe Ms. Woodiwiss, at least in part, wrote the book from the third person omniscient viewpoint. She skips around a lot between an overarching narrative and the various characters' points of view, but rarely gets inside their heads to really let the reader in on what they are feeling and thinking. This often made me feel like I was experiencing the story at a distance rather than becoming immersed in it, and for that reason, I don't think I became as deeply connected to the characters as I typically like to be. Occasionally, there were also big time jumps from one paragraph to the next which could be a little jarring, and once the truth started coming out and the heroine began to remember her identity, the ending seemed somewhat rushed and confusing. I think I finally got everything straight, but had to sit and think about it for a few minutes after turning the last page.
Ashton, the hero, was my favorite character. He is a rakishly charming seducer who had some really swoon-worthy lines. I love how he never wavered in his belief that the heroine was indeed his long-lost wife, Lieren, and even if she did turn out to be Lenore, he didn't care, because he loved her no matter what. It was very romantic how he followed her when she left to go back to Mississippi, and he persisted in doing everything he could to stay near her, not only to protectively watch over her but also to keep himself in the forefront of her mind. I loved how Ashton was able to drive Malcolm crazy by always remaining cool and collected, while the other man was livid. It made for some very amusing moments. Ashton was definitely a cocky hero, but in a good way.
Lierin/Lenore, I don't feel like I got to know quite as well, probably because she doesn't know herself. Due to her amnesia, the author spends the entire story making the reader guess which sister she really is, and to which man she is truly married. Lierin/Lenore was a likable heroine, although I think perhaps she gave in to the notion that she was not Ashton's wife a bit too easily. However, I suppose I can forgive that since there wouldn't have been as much excitement in the story otherwise, and Ashton wouldn't have had the opportunity to show how deeply he loved her either. She was a fairly clever woman who managed to get herself out of a few difficult situations and start to piece together the events of the past when the memories began to return. I also like how she was drawn to Ashton like a moth to a flame and just couldn't resist his charms even though she couldn't remember him.
When Lierin/Lenore awakens with no memory of who she is and Ashton claiming her as his bride, she is understandably frightened and reticent, but Ashton easily won her over with his gentleness. Once she started warming up to Ashton, they had a very sweet, emotional connection. I always enjoyed their scenes together. They shared some playful, teasing moments, and although the love scenes were pretty mild and bordering on being purple, there was an underlying sensuality to them which I found to be very sweet.
Since this novel takes place in the Antebellum South, primarily Mississippi to be exact, Ashton is a slave owner, although I don't recall them ever outright being referred to as slaves. However, he is a kind man who treats them with the utmost respect and allows them to purchase their freedom through their work if they wish. Also, the black characters in the story speak with a dialect that I believe is considered rather demeaning nowadays. Although these things didn't bother me or affect my opinion of the story, I thought them worth mentioning, as I know some readers might find them troublesome if not outright offensive.
Overall, Come Love a Stranger was an enjoyable re-read. Already knowing the heroine's true identity made it somewhat less suspenseful, but nonetheless, it was still fun to reconnect with the characters and go through the steps as they discover who she is. Although, not my favorite Kathleen Woodiwiss book to date, it is one that I would recommend and that in my opinion is one of her more underrated works.
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