I picked up the historical romance anthology The Heart of Christmas because of the name Mary Balogh on the cover and because I miss the old Regency Christmas anthologies. I was a little disappointed to discover that Balogh’s story and the one by Nicola Cornick were both reprints, so I skipped to the only new content, “This Wicked Gift” by newcomer Courtney Milan, and for me it was the standout. From the beginning I adored its unusual premise, sense of fun, and memorable, refreshingly sensible characters.
Set in 1822 London, Lavinia Spencer manages her family’s lending library while caring for her ailing father, shielding her younger brother from adult concerns, and trying to scrimp together enough money to buy a real Christmas dinner. William White is a down-on-his-luck clerk and frequent visitor to the library, whose last hope of escaping penury has just been extinguished by an expected inheritance turning sour. Both have nursed a crush on the other for over a year, but William dares not approach Lavinia because of his lack of prospects and inability to support a wife. When Lavinia’s brother ends up indebted to a con man, William decides to intervene in exchange for the only piece of his dream he thinks he can afford—one day with Lavinia in his bed. William’s certainty that everything in life has a price is confronted with Lavinia’s belief that the best things in life are free, and their struggles for happiness address not only the issue of love but those of self-worth and taking charge of your own destiny.
One thing that really struck me about the story was how ordinary and realistic the characters are, with actions that seem like plausible human behavior rather than the kind found only in Romance Land. Lavinia and William are remarkably fleshed out for a short story, with connections to their family, jobs and neighborhood that integrate them into the larger web of Victorian society and give them authenticity as people, rather than as characters whose lives start and end within the confines of the page. And in a historical genre filled with protagonists from the ranks of the aristocracy, it was a delightful change to read about characters who worked for a living, with concerns that are perhaps more identifiable to today’s readers. Milan’s humor infuses the story with energy and gives it a compulsively readable quality, and the end result feels like the heartfelt characters of Carla Kelly mixed with the fresh wit of Julia Quinn. I would recommend it highly to fans of either of those authors, romance fans tired of the same old clichés, or anyone looking for a good fun romantic read. I can’t wait to read Milan’s follow-up debut novel, Proof by Seduction, featuring one of the side characters in “This Wicked Gift.” The quality of this short tale utterly charmed me and reminded me why I read romance in the first place. Romance readers will rarely find better than Courtney Milan.