Holt's latest romance-suspense bustle, set in England and France circa 1865-1870, has a wonderful beginning, a fine windup . . . and a middle that seems lifted (though without the explicit sex) from a primitive bodice-ripper. Narrator and heroine here is Kate, daughter of famed British miniaturist Kendal Collison--who, alas, is going blind. So, when Collison receives a superb invitation to paint the Baron de Centeville over in Normandy, he can't accept . . . until Kate (a splendid talent in her own right) agrees to come along and secretly execute the portrait. Onward, then, to the Baron's chateau--where Kate falls for the Baron's gently handsome cousin Bertrand, trembles at the sight of the demonic Baron, paints brilliantly, and is at last accepted as a woman-artist in the open. (The Baron commissions her to paint his pathetic young bride-to-be, the Princesse de Crespigny.) But this charming story suddenly switches to heavy-breathing melodrama: the Baron, out for revenge on Bertrand, abducts Kate, drugs her, and rapes her repeatedly! Kate fights him off as best she can. (""I was fighting not only him but something in myself . . . some erotic curiosity . . ."") Bertrand is lost to her now, of course. And when Kate realizes she's pregnant, she sets herself up (with help from the Baron's cast-off mistress Nicole) as Madame Collison, Paris painter. A son is born; the Franco-Prussian war heats up; Kate has become stoically self-sufficient. But then, amidst the bombardments, the Baron--now miserably wed to the sickly Princesse--reappears to save Kate, risk his life for their son's sake, and start re-wooing his rape victim. Can Kate, soon ensconced at the chateau, allow herself to love this demon who raped her? And how will the Baron extricate himself from his grim marriage? Will he go so far as to murder the miserable Princesse? Holt has a neat answer to this last puzzle: there's a dandy psycho-mercy-killer wandering demurely through the novel. And the woman-painter-as-heroine notion gets the book off to an unusually engaging start. But, while this is finally another brisk, punchy Holt winner, the character of the Baron is a disappointing hunk of Cartland-esque cardboard--and more than a few of Holt's fans may be put off by the implicit moral here: that rape is still really the most direct way to a woman's heart.