Thief of Shadows by Elizabeth Hoyt is one of my favorite romance novels ever. It ranks with Prince of Midnight in terms of sheer numbers of rereads and in a superficial way, it's a similar book. Our hero Winter Makepeace is also known as The Ghost of St. Giles, a Spiderman-like character who defends the weak and the poor in this very rough neighborhood of the Dickensian London setting. His alter ego is that of the "dour manager" of the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children. However, while both S.T. Maitland and Winter Makepeace wear a mask and excel at swordplay, that's pretty much where the books diverge.
Unlike Leigh Strachan (the heroine of Prince of Midnight), Isabel Beckinhall is a wealthy widow ten years Winter's senior, secure in her femininity and her place in the world. She is calm and confident under pressure, unafraid to pursue her interests and an emotionally whole, capable human being who most definitely does not require rescuing from, well, almost anything. So when her patronage of the Home brings her into intimate contact with Winter, we find the traditional historical romance roles of the experienced, older rake and the young, virginal heroine quite thoroughly reversed.
In fact, Thief of Shadows manages the tension between historicity and feminism very well. Isabel is a widow (more freedom than your average virgin heroine), an heiress (no economic necessity for marriage), sterile (no reproductive necessity for marriage) and not shy or ashamed of her physical desires. However, when a secondary character is left unmarried and pregnant, she moves swiftly to protect that character from the consequences society would impose upon her. In this book, women routinely rescue each other and the heroine saves the hero several times over the course of the story. I don't think any argument can be made against it not being a feminist book and yet the circumstances keep it from feeling anachronistic. Still, our hero is allowed to be a hero within the context of a suspenseful and ultimately satisfyingly twisty sub-plot. Just not in the context of saving Isabel, which would be the much more standard trope.
Oh, and what a hero. I admit to having a fondness for virgin heroes in any context, but with Winter we also get Robin Hood/Zorro/Captain America super hero alpha qualities that are captivating in combination with his sexual innocence and strict moral code. It's easy to see why Isabel finds it so difficult not to lap him up. Which she does. And he does back. In the hottest possible ways.
Thief of Shadows is one book that has it all: a dreamy hero, a confident heroine, a plausible love story arc, a spirited sub-plot and super hot sex. Honestly, I think it's pretty much the perfect book.
When I write these reviews, I try to find a place in the story where the food involved becomes a memorable plot point. On practically the first page of the novel, Isabel rightfully blames warm scones for the impulse to volunteer, an action that brings her more directly into Winter's path. As a United Methodist used to being plied with food to volunteer for committees, this is a familiar concept to me. Isabel says:
Never volunteer. Not even when pleasantly filled with warm scones and hot tea. Warm scones were obviously the work of the devil or perhaps Lady Hero Reading, one of the two founding patronesses of the home. Lady Hero had refilled her teacup and looked at Isabel with guileless gray eyes, asking prettily if Isabel would mind meeting with Mr. Winter Makepeace, the home's dour manager, to look over the new building. And Isabel had blithely agreed like some scone-filled mindless cow.
And, of course, I knew they had to be cherry scones when Lady Penelope Chadwicke wrong-headedly brings hothouse cherries to the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children during her frankly moronic attempt to replace Winter as the home's manager with a gentleman of greater social standing and more polished graces.
Though this recipe can't be in any way considered healthy, it does avoid two of the more persistent problems I have with commercial American scones: 1) it's not too sweet and 2) it doesn't leave that odd film on your teeth. I have no idea if these two things bother anyone else, but they bother me immensely, much like the failure to maintain the proper tension between historicity and modern feminist ideals in historical romance.
If cherries or almonds aren't your thing, they can certainly be replaced with three-quarters of a cup of nearly any fresh or frozen fruit (or half a cup dried) and the almond extract and sliced almonds can simply be omitted. If you're using the extract, I do recommend the sliced almonds as I like to give people a hint at the flavors contained in my baked goods.
And then you too can charm and cajole people into doing your bidding with warm baked goods.
Cream Scones with Cherries and Almonds
adapted from The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook
Prep time: 5 minutes
Total time: 40 minutes
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for the pan and workspace
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes and chilled
3/4 cup fresh or frozen cherries, pitted, rinsed, drained and chopped
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
3 tablespoons sliced almonds
1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 450 degrees. Pulse the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt together in a food processor to combine, about 6 pulses. Scatter the butter evenly over the top and pulse until mixture resembles coarse cornmeal with a few slightly larger butter lumps, about 12 pulses.
2. Add the cherries and quickly pulse once to combine. Transfer the dough to a large bowl. Stir in the cream and the almond extract with a rubber spatula until the dough begins to form, about 30 seconds.
3. Turn the dough and floury bits out onto a floured workspace and knead until it forms a rough, sticky ball, 5 to 10 seconds. Press the dough into a floured 9 inch cake pan (to ensure round edges). Unmold the dough and cut into 8 wedges. Place the wedges on an ungreased baking sheet prepared with parchment paper or silpat. Sprinkle tops with sliced almonds and press into dough to ensure they stick.
4. Bake until the scone tops are light brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Be very careful not to let the bottoms burn. Cool on a wire rack for at least 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature with butter or and jam or better yet, clotted cream.