Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Third Circle by Amanda Quick

Leona Hewitt is a crystal worker, a sensitive who can manipulate crystal energy to heal others. When she attempts to retrieve the Aurora Stone at a fancy house-party given by Lord Delbridge, she encounters the dead body of a woman and very living body of Thaddeus Ware, a skilled psychohypnotist who is on the trail of the same stone.

Thaddeus saves them both when the woman's body is discovered by a man at the party, hypnotizing him to forget them being in the same room, and not remember that he had discovered the body for a half hour. But in the course of retrieving the stone and escaping, Thaddeus is poisoned with a substance that will make him both murderous and suicidal due to visions of unutterable horror. Leona is able to use the stone to bring him out of the visions and return him to sanity, but only just barely, and not before Thaddeus realizes how intensely he desires her.

The next morning, he awakens in an Inn with no Leona in sight. Despite the fact that he only knows her first name, he manages to track her down and finds that she is the close friend of a woman named Caroline Marrick, a woman who can see auras and is about to marry a man who shares her passion for Egyptology, but her leaving will have Leona living alone again. Alone, and lonely.

Leona wishes to keep the crystal they retrieved for herself, believing it belongs to her. It had previously belonged to her mother, and was stolen from her when her mother died. Since then, it has been missing, and as it belonged to her grandmother before her mother, she believes she has the right of ownership. Thaddeus believes it belongs in the hands of the Arcane Society, who can protect it from those trying to steal it, and he believes that Leona is in danger from both the man whose possession they retrieved it from, but from the man who killed the woman they found, who Thaddeus believes was the "Midnight Monster", a serial killer who preys on lower-class prostitutes. Why he would prey on an upper-class mistress, he has no idea, but the thought of Leona falling prey to such a man chills his blood, and he convinces her to stay with him at his family house, even though the Aurora stone has already been stolen back from Leona.

At his house, Leona meets Thaddeus's aunt, who apparently looks down upon her, but when Thaddeus tells her that Aunt Victoria has lost almost everyone who matters to her, she is more charitable towards the woman. Thaddeus also apologizes for his behavior to Leona when he was under the effects of the hallucination poison, as he never would have tried to seduce her if he was in his right mind. She says she understands, but when he reveals that he is still extremely attracted to her, they end up becoming lovers, which although he thinks was done in stealth, the entire household is aware of.

The next morning, Victoria makes him aware of this fact, and unbends enough towards Leona to ask her for help in sleeping. Leona quickly agrees to help and finds out that Victoria has a psychic power of her own: she can tell whether a man and woman are truly suited for one another, or if they are not. As part of helping her with her problems, Leona suggests that Victoria use her powers to help others, and as some people don't appreciate advice unless they pay heavily for it, to charge for her services.

Meanwhile, Lord Delbridge gets the stone back from his hired psykiller, the Midnight Monster. Delbridge only wants the stone because it is his ticket into a secret society called the Society of the Emerald Tablet. If he lost the stone, he would forever be denied access to the society. He has it back now, but without a woman who is able to manipulate the stone, it is useless to the society. They tell him to get a woman who is able to manipulate the stone, and a position in the third circle is his. He sends the Midnight Monster to try and kidnap Leona, but Thaddeus is able to head him off and use his powers to drive off the killer, who jumps from the top of the house they are in and dies.

Thaddeus realizes that Leona has a secret she isn't telling him. She is the descendant of Sybil the Virgin Sorceress, the chief rival of the Arcane Society's Founder. Obviously, she wasn't really a virgin, but she did refuse to surrender her virginity to Sylvester Jones when it became clear that he only wanted her to see if their psychical powers would be passed on to their offspring. She refused to become part of his experiment, and it rankled him. With Leona as her descendant, it is probably true that the stone belongs to her. But she isn't safe yet.

The "Midnight Monster" may be dead, but Delbridge is apparently missing, until they return to his home and find him dead within. Believing the danger to be past, Thaddeus relaxes his vigilance, only to have Leona kidnapped from his very own home.

The Society of the Emerald Tablet still wants Leona, and need her to use the Aurora Stone to open a sealed box that once belonged to Sybil, her ancestress. But there was a warning that a crystal worker powerful enough to open the box could also use the stone to kill, or to "make nightmares become reality". When they try to force Leona to use the stone to open the box, can she take control of the stone to touch its power? Have the Society of the Emerald Tablet taken on more than they can handle? Or will the alchemist responsible for the hallucinatory poison use it on Leona and send her spinning into madness and death?

This was a really excellent mystery and romance, with each thread balanced against the other so that neither felt slighted or overplayed. Despite the fact that not that much lovemaking goes on, you are constantly aware how Thaddeus feels about Leona, and how Leona feels about Thaddeus. Their foes are well-written, with an air of real menace, especially Lancing, the character also known as the "Midnight Monster", whose attitude towards the women he stalks and kills reminds me of Jack the Ripper, right down to seeing the women as whores.

Possibly the only thing worse than a Jack the Ripper would be one with psychic powers, and that's what readers are presented with here. His scenes sent a palpable feeling of cold down my back, giving him a menace that nearly rippled off the page. In contrast, the passion between Leona and Thaddeus was hot and heady, and so real it almost makes you sweat. The contrast between the two is wonderful, and this is a book you should definitely pick up. Another triumph for Amanda Quick/Jayne Ann Krentz.

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