Carter Wessex is a renowned archaeologist, specializing in Revolutionary War history. When Conrad Lyst, her arch rival and a man with no scruples, is rumored to have discovered a much sought after artifact on Farrell Mountain, which could lead to a legendary stash of lost gold from the Revolutionary era, Carter is tasked with starting a dig. Unfortunately, she must first get permission from the owner of the mountain who is known to have a distaste for archaeologists.
Nick Farrell is one of New York's most eligible bachelors. He also has a reputation as a take-no-prisoners corporate raider with a rather rude temperament. When Carter shows up at his house asking to dig on his mountain, he brusquely shows her the door, but when he discovers that she is the estranged daughter of an important business associate, he reconsiders. Nick doesn't believe that the lost gold is on is his mountain, but he does think that a reconciliation between father and daughter would put the man in his debt. Nick invites Carter back, fully supporting her efforts, and the more time he spends near her, the more her presence drives him crazy. Carter is nothing like the women he usually dates, and that alone intrigues him. As Nick and Carter slowly fall in love, Nick realizes he could never use her to leverage a business deal after all. When Carter accidentally finds out his original intent though, it may mean the end of their budding relationship, but that's only if Lyst doesn't do her in first in hopes of stealing her discoveries.
Heart of Gold was another solid story from Jessica Bird (aka J. R. Ward). It's a contemporary romance with just a touch of mystery and suspense. Ms. Bird has a history of writing unique characters and elements. In this case, the heroine is an archaeologist and her latest dig is the centerpiece of the story. Having always been a fan of history and archeology, I enjoyed this part a lot, especially the mystery of the missing gold. The heroine also has an antagonist in the form of a fellow archaeologist, who has a track record of being unscrupulous and riding on the coattails of more talented scientists like Carter. He adds the element of suspense as he periodically menaces her throughout the dig. The main characters were likable and relatable. Both the hero and heroine are fairly intense, both having some past issues to put to rest before they can experience their HEA. Everything fit together perfectly to make this an entertaining read.
I really liked that even though Carter grew up wealthy she isn't shallow. Money means nothing to her. She lives a relatively simple life immersed in her work. She's a very intelligent woman who is dedicated to preserving history. Carter has had a contentious relationship with her father ever since her mother's death. I initially appreciated and even admired her for selling all the ridiculously expensive gifts her father sent in an attempt to win back her love and giving the money to charity. However, we do eventually discover that some of the things she believed about her father are false, and she has to come to terms with that. Carter has a strong back-bone and isn't afraid to go toe-to-toe with Nick who was pretty rude to her in the beginning. I love how earthy Carter is. She's absolutely nothing like the women Nick usually dates, and I think that is a large part of what drew him to her. I was a little frustrated by Carter not telling anyone about her rival, Lyst, showing up at the dig, especially since he was behaving in a threatening manner. She did finally tell her friend and colleague, Buddy, but not Nick, who could have offered some measure of protection. It just seemed like a rather foolhardy decision for such an intelligent woman, but she was pretty stubborn and independent.
Nick behaves like as icy blast of Arctic air during his first meeting with Carter. He's very rude and condescending toward her, and initially sees her as a means to an end, thinking that he can make Carter's father a more loyal business partner by helping him to reconcile with his daughter. Nick is a relentless corporate raider who has enjoyed great success in business, but he can't find a woman who doesn't want him just for his money. Family is very important to Nick. He adored his sister and took in his orphaned nephew, although now that the boy is a teenager, they are about to start WWIII with each other. I thought these things helped to show a softer side to Nick. Writing a commitment phobic bad boy who often says hurtful things can be a very delicate proposition, but I think overall, Ms. Bird did a nice job with Nick. She showed just enough vulnerability in him to off-set his bad behavior and make his eventual turnaround believable. There were also some good moments when he had the opportunity to demonstrate that he did have emotions as well as the ability to get in touch with them, and wasn't just a cold, unfeeling businessman.
Nick and Carter have an intense and angsty relationship, but they also have explosive chemistry. Even when they were fighting during the early parts of the story, I could feel the underlying attraction bubbling beneath the surface. It tended to drive them to moments of acute anger and jealousy which sometimes turned to passion. I had very mixed feelings about Nick already having a girlfriend at the beginning though, and her being present for a while when he was already starting to have feelings for Carter. It did add another dimension to their conflict, but it still isn't my favorite way for an author to raise the stakes for a couple. In some ways it makes Nick seem fickle, because he broke up with Candace mere days before sleeping with Carter for the first time. Nick and Carter's love scenes were sensuous, but still pretty tame for this author when compared to her more recent works. I also had a small issue with them not using protection or even discussing it. Overall, I liked Nick and Carter as a couple, and their first romantic scenes together were lovely, but I think having the contention last so long put a little too much emotional distance between them and drew away some of the romantic mood.
Heart of Gold has a strong cast of supporting characters. I particularly liked Nick's nephew, Cort, and thought that Ms. Bird did a great job of rendering him as a sullen, moody teenager who develops a case of unrequited puppy love for Carter, but then turns his attentions to someone his own age. Carter's friend and colleague, Buddy, was a jovial foil for her and the voice of reason when she was being a little too stubborn for her own good. Buddy's daughter, Ellie, was the consummate good girl. There were other lesser players who also helped to flesh out Nick and Carter's characters. One of those is Carter's best friend, Grace, who also funds Carter's dig. She only appeared in a phone conversation with Carter at the beginning, but she becomes the heroine of An Unforgettable Lady. I wouldn't quite consider these books to be a series though (neither does the author or her publisher apparently), because the connections are minimal enough that readers wouldn't really be missing anything crucial or be confused by reading them out of order.
Overall, Heart of Gold was an engaging read that held my attention quite well. The only thing that really kept me from giving it a higher rating was all that distance between Nick and Carter. I think having two characters with such intense personalities and so much emotional baggage was maybe just a tad too much. But despite that, I still felt it was a very strong 4 stars that I have no trouble recommending to anyone who enjoys contemporary romance.
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