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The Dark Stranger by Sara Seale

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This is the second Sara Seale novel I’ve read (after The English Tutor). I was expecting much of the same again, and I got it. Seale is from the “vintage” Mills & Boon/Harlequin era, when heroines were frequently in their late teens and the heroes were usually much older, and everything is incredibly innocent.

The problem is that because the heroines – in this case Clementina “Tina” Linden – are so very naive and innocent and pure, it makes the age gaps more problematic and unsettling. If Tina had been a wild child and gone around the block a few times, and knew how to attract a man, Craig Pentreath’s interest in her might seem less domineering and controlling. As it is, Craig falls for Tina when she is sixteen and still very childlike, but doesn’t let her know, and sends her off to school for a year. He never lays a finger on her, then announces they are engaged, and still barely lays a finger on her until the last few pages.

“I’ve made a beginning,” he said, and suddenly pulling her up into his arms, bent his black head to hers. He kissed her with the same hard urgency he had displayed earlier, but now the savage anger was absent and because she could not remain passive under his lips she stretched up her hands to his shoulders and offered him what acceptance she knew.

“Well!” he observed, holding her away from him. “This is better than I hoped for so early on. I can see my restraint of the past weeks was rather misplaced.”

And that, dear readers, is about as juicy as it gets. And you’ll have to wait a long time for it, because this book does rather drag. Not a lot happens, but the same conversations and arguments repeat endlessly.

The implausibly unpleasant and self-centred stepmother, Clare, is about the most interesting character, albeit drawn with the subtlety of a pantomime villain.

Tina, the heroine, is mildly sympathetic due to her status as an unloved orphan, but it’s hard to get past her passivity and insipidness. Her attempt to “run away and earn a living” doesn’t get her further than the village pub, about a mile away. And then when she learns there aren’t many jobs in one-horse town “Merrynporth” (no kidding) she gives up there and then and decides to marry the Other Man, whose advances she has previously tolerated in a very listless fashion.

That’s when the Hero storms in and announces her engagement to him instead. And Tina passively accepts. Of course in the last couple of pages they both manage to reveal that they loved one another, but it’s not terribly convincing.

One for fans of age gap and vintage romance.