After the Kiss
Margaret Esterly is both widowed and impoverished the night her husband’s London house-cum-bookshop burns down. The only things left to her are three volumes of erotic literature called The Journals of Augustin X. When she discovers two years later that her husband had several potential buyers lined up before he died, she thinks she has found a road out of the grinding poverty she faces as a teacher in a small village.
The night she delivers the first volume to the buyer also happens to be the night of a costume ball and, curious soul that she is, Margaret cannot help but spy a little. She is caught, however, by Michael Hawthorne, Earl of Montraine, and the two of them share a sizzling almost-kiss. Michael, who also happens to be one of England’s best code breakers, finds his logical, orderly life disrupted by beautiful Margaret: he’s unable to concentrate on anything until he discovers who the mysterious woman is and claims the interrupted kiss. Needless to say, Michael successfully tracks Margaret down, and after some bargaining, he gets his kiss (and a whole lot more – cue this reviewer running to the kitchen for a much-needed glass of cold water at this point).
Margaret is an honorable soul and refuses to become Michael’s mistress. He is nothing if not persistent, however, and he finally manages to maneuver her into staying with him for a week. At this point, their relationship finally transcends mere physical obsession and becomes something more meaningful. But naturally the path to happily-ever-after is not smooth. Michael’s family is dangerously close to financial ruin and he needs to marry an heiress, not a penniless commoner. Then there’s also the secret contained in the Journals of Augustin X, and the man who is willing to kill to acquire them.
Ranney creates some of the best heroines I’ve ever encountered, and Margaret is no exception. Her steadfastness and bone-deep honor are a credit to Romance Heroines everywhere. Even though her life would be much easier if she accepted Michael’s offer, she refuses to compromise her principles, no matter how tempted she is. She is humorous and strong without being shrill. Even when an extremely cliched romance situation arises, Margaret’s reaction and her reasons for doing what she does are completely believable.
Michael is a slightly more difficult character. Initially he’s stiff and cold, and his obsession with Margaret at the beginning almost verges on disturbing. But the reasons for his aversion to love and passion are very convincingly explained, and once he realizes that he loves Margaret, he does something rather unexpected and crazy but completely right. Ranney deserves respect for not giving these two lovers an easy out, such as Margaret discovering she’s actually the illegitimate child of an eccentric millionaire duke. Margaret remains a commoner, and the two of them don’t achieve the heights of ridiculous opulence that so many authors feel necessary for a HEA.
The above-average villain in this book also deserves a mention. In many ways he’s the stereotypical control freak/megalomaniac of so many romances, but the twist given to his motivation is very refreshing. The suspense plot is interesting and not completely extraneous to the romance (although the Fortuitous Coincidence is abused freely), and the secret contained within the Journals will probably surprise you.
The one problem I have with the book is the long, draggy beginning. It has a lot of wheel-spinning and empty prose, which is very stylistically pretty but also rapidly wearing. After 130 pages of endless internal musing and mutual longing, Margaret and Michael still haven’t interacted very much beyond a very hot sex scene, and I admit I began to despair. Persistence pays off, however, and the resulting love story more than makes up for the slow beginning. And those love scenes… Ai-yai-yai!
After The Kiss may be one of the hardest books I’ve had to grade. It started out only so-so, picked up a bit around the middle, and by the end I was sighing with happiness. Strangely enough, every time I think back on the book I like it more and more. Ultimately, the wonderful characterization, interesting plot and sizzling love scenes created a much bigger impression in my mind than the occasional slow spot.