With This Kiss
by Victoria Lynne, historical (1999)
Dell, $5.99, ISBN 0-440-22334-2

After reading this author's previous and mediocre effort What Wild Moonlight, I'm almost afraid to pick this one up. But I'm glad I did - this book is very good. Not exactly a keeper, but it has wonderful characters and a good plot to keep it moving. I'm glad the author's back in top form after the last book, as this is one author who isn't afraid to add in original elements in her stories.

In fact, I haven't read any other books that expose Regency London as the fire trap it was. Balls crammed with people, wooden-stone buildings... light a tinder and just see the conflagration!

Morgan St James, Viscount Barlowe, is called The Beast by the Ton because two years before, he was badly scarred while trying to rescue his staff from a fire. He lost his fiancee and reputation as a result. His reputation is badly shredded too because it was well-known during the time of fire that he had way too many servants packed in the staff quarters. Now, he will give anything to see that the arsonist is brought to justice. One night he is approached by Julia Prentisse. Julia is the anonymous writer behind a gossip column that also doubles as a reformation advocation column. As all good columnists go, she is being hounded by letters from a crazed admirer called Lazarus who is almost certainly the man behind the fires. There's a serial arsonist on the loose, and if Morgan wants him, Julia will help him get that man. The only catch is that he must marry her. Julia is being sold off to the highest and most unpleasant bidders by her guardian and she'd rather control her own destiny. Ergo, marriage to a pleasant, passable husband material. All her enquiries led to one likely candidate - guess who. How fortunate she has an ace card to bargain with him!

What makes this book unique and a joy to read is the interaction between Morgan and Julia. Julia is level-headed, practical, and no-nonsense type of heroine. She is understandably unnerved by Morgan's appearance, surly mood, and stature, but she makes logical and rather rational decisions that earn Morgan's and my admiration. And Morgan, guilt-ridden, well, he takes a bit too long to pull himself out of his pit of self-pity, but he is a kind man, if a little gruff, and he is smart enough to recognize what a catch Julia is. Their slow development of uneasy alliance to love is gently and wonderfully handled by the author. Their sparring of verbal barbs should be read to be be savored - they are funny and chuckle-inducing.

However, two things kept me from giving this book a keeper status in my personal library. One, I can't help feeling Miss Lynne has played it safe a little. Morgan is scarred, but his face is unblemished, and apart from those scars being mentioned at convenient points, Morgan might as well be a normal, unmarked Viscount and none would be wiser. I would love it if Morgan is really scarred badly, face, hands, legs, everywhere! Not because I'm a sadistic hag, but it would definitely be a testament of true love and that real beauty lies within one's self if a Beauty like Julia can fall in love with a really badly scarred Beast.

Two, after all her level-headed intelligence, Julia has to do something really stupid that places herself in danger at the end. Hello? Anybody home? Who replaced Ms Intelligent with that dumb Scream Queen In B Grade Horror Movies? The one that dumbly... never mind, I may get lynched if I give that away.

Still, these two are minor annoyances that don't hold me back to enjoying With This Kiss tremendously. I think I may check out the author's next book when it comes out.

Rating: 84

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