The Sum of All Kisses
Having listened to – and enjoyed – the previous two books in the Smythe-Smith series, I’m inclined to think this is the best of them so far. Each one has been full of Ms Quinn’s trademark wit and excellent characterisation, but for me, The Sum of All Kisses had a little something extra in the romance between the maimed hero and sharp-tongued heroine.
Each of the books in the series opens with an account of the events which lead to Daniel Smythe-Smith’s (hero of the previous book) flight from England told from a different perspective. In this book, the viewpoint is that of Hugh Prentice, the other participant in the duel that almost ruined Daniel’s life and which left Hugh so badly injured that he will need to walk with a cane for the rest of his life.
Hugh is highly intelligent – a mathematical genius, in fact – which he confesses is the reason he’s so good at cards. He’s the second son of the Earl of Ramsgate, who we know from the previous books is – to put it at best – mentally unstable (and to put it at worst, completely off his trolley!). Hugh might be the second son, but he’s the ‘favoured’ son (insofar as someone like Ramsgate could favour anybody) because his older brother, Freddie, prefers the company of his own sex and is therefore unlikely to marry and produce the heir for which Ramsgate is so desperate. When Hugh was badly injured in the duel, Ramsgate swore that he’d have Daniel killed, going so far as to send hired killers after him when Daniel fled to Europe. Guilty, heartsick and destined to be in pain for the rest of his life, Hugh knew the duel had been his fault and wanted the killers called off – but Ramsgate refused to listen, causing Hugh to come up with a somewhat drastic – albeit creative – way to force his father to leave Daniel alone.
The previous book, A Night Like This saw Hugh’s plan put into action and Daniel’s return to England; The Sum of All Kisses picks up Hugh’s story shortly following Daniel’s return and before the latter’s forthcoming marriage.
It’s another wedding, however, that sets in motion the train of events followed in this book. The hero and heroine of book one, Just Like Heaven, the Earl of Chatteris and Honoria Smythe-Smith are about to walk down the aisle, and as a long-standing friend of Chatteris, Hugh has been invited to the wedding. Hugh is still full of remorse for the actions which caused so much hurt to Daniel and his family, but knows that his absence from the wedding of one of his oldest friends would also cause upset (besides the fact that neither Marcus or Daniel would permit him to absent himself from so august an occasion!) Hugh had expected to be able to keep his presence at a minimum and lurk in the background of events, until he’s asked by Honoria to be one of the wedding party and to take a vacant place at the head table.
Hugh is not insensible of the fact that it’s an honour to be asked – but his reluctance is not just due to his preference to remain as unobtrusive as possible. He learns that he is to be partnered at the occasion by Lady Sarah Pleinsworth, one of Honoria’s cousins whom he doesn’t particularly like. Sarah is not at all pleased at having to spend her time in Hugh’s company, either. She hates him intensely – an emotion Hugh found himself completely at a loss to explain at their first meeting a couple of years back, but which he has since attributed to her penchant for the overly dramatic and her tendency towards hyperbole, things with which he has little patience.
It’s true that Sarah is rather outspoken and given to fits of high drama, such as when her desperation to get married urges her to insist she’ll die if she doesn’t marry that year. She also bears a massive grudge against Hugh because of the duel – but not just because of the danger to her cousin. No, the cause of her displeasure is far more selfish. The duel and ensuing scandal meant that her family removed itself from London until things had died down somewhat, meaning that Sarah missed her come-out and the chance to ensnare an eligible bachelor in that year. Even though she agrees to Honoria’s request to partner Hugh, she does it without much grace and makes it abundantly clear that she’d rather be doing something – anything – else instead.
They are awkward together – Sarah barely able to conceal her dislike, and Hugh his contempt. But even though their conversations are stilted, there are flashes of humour underlying them that neither is able to ignore. I do enjoy a good “enemies-to-lovers” story, and this was certainly a very good one. Because, to start with, Sarah doesn’t much care what Hugh thinks of her, she is able to all but force him to let her help him when he won’t acknowledge that his leg pains him; and Hugh finds himself talking to her about things he’s never mentioned to anyone else – partly because she does not scruple to ask the questions other people think to spare him.
But when Sarah injures her ankle and experiences just a tiny piece of what Hugh must have gone through, her opinion of him – which had already been softening a little – undergoes a major change, as she starts to really think about the obstacles Hugh must have had to overcome since his injury. She’s already surprised by the fact that she finds him attractive, but in the time they spend together because they are the only two people amongst a large house-party who are unable to participate in the numerous excursions and entertainments taking place, Sarah comes to see much in Hugh to admire and respect.
Hugh is a truly lovely beta-hero. He’s quiet, considering, and somewhat aloof, but there’s an innate kindness in the way he never talks down to Sarah’s precocious youngest sister and even puts himself out to spare her from being teased. He is still torn apart by guilt over the duel, unable to forgive himself even though Daniel has offered Hugh his forgiveness several times over, and one of the most heartbreaking things about the story was the way Hugh felt himself to be diminished by his disability. Even though he is determined never to give way to self-pity, there are times he can’t help feeling bitter about the things he will never be able to do again – to run, hunt, dance or sweep a woman off her feet.
Both Hugh and Sarah were very likeable characters, and I thought that their developing friendship was a real delight. Their spoken exchanges, once they’d begun to shed their mutual dislike, were warm and full of wit, and even though they appear to have fallen in love in quite a short space of time, I nonetheless felt there was a true and deep affection between them, and not than the “insta-lust” that so often seems to take the place of relationship development in some romance novels. There was some truly delicious sexual tension simmering between them from quite early on which built gradually, culminating in what I thought was one of the most romantic scenes I’ve read recently, in which, although suffering from differing degrees of lameness, Hugh and Sarah actually manage to dance together.
Up until the last section of the book, I was thinking I’d be giving The Sum of All Kisses a B+ at the very least. Ms Quinn has once again given us a very appealing central couple and imbued them with intelligence and wit. She also gives us a splendidly observed look at the family dynamic between the Pleinsworth sisters and their female cousins, who needle each other and argue in that way that siblings do, all with that sense underneath it all of a deep caring and love.
She contrasts those familial relationships very starkly with what she shows us of Hugh’s childhood, of growing up in fear of his cruel, autocratic father – and given the type of man Ramsgate is, it’s a miracle Hugh has grown into the sensible young man he is.
But then, at around three-quarters of the way through, the story descended into what I can only describe as the sort of melodrama that would probably have inhabited the pages of the book so favoured by many of Ms Quinn’s characters, Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron!
Hugh is forced to confess to Sarah what he had to do in order to secure Daniel’s safety, and she is both utterly devastated and utterly enraged. Her reaction felt rather over the top to me, and what followed – in which Hugh’s completely bonkers father embroils them both in an unpleasant and ridiculous scheme – felt even more so.
I would also have been quite happy had the book not contained what seemed to be the obligatory sex-scene near the end. I have no objection to sex in romance novels, but I do like those scenes to feel as though they’ve happened naturally and as part of the story; but this one, coming as it does after the resolution of the conflict between Hugh and his father, did feel somewhat “tacked on”.
That said, however, there’s much to enjoy in The Sum of All Kisses and even though the story went off the rails a bit towards the end, I’m still going to recommend the book to anyone who likes their romances to be character driven and full of warmth and humour.