The Christmas Kiss
by Elizabeth Keys, historical (2003)
Zebra, $5.99, ISBN 0-8217-7454-9


Elizabeth Keys is the pseudonym for collaborating authors Mary Lou Frank and Susan C Stevenson. I'll just call them Elizabeth Keys for simplicity's sake. The Christmas Kiss has an undercover US Marshal hero, but the story is more appropriately a historical story set in Warm Springs, Illinois, in a boarding house there, to be more accurate.

Former pampered beauty Amelia Lawrence's life hasn't been the same since her brother fled the country, leaving the family fortune in shambles, and her mother fell in love with and married a butcher soon after. In an attempt to regain her old life back, she answers the ad for mail-order bride by a gentleman seeking a wife to "grace his grand estate". Unfortunately, the elderly Robert T Mitchell dies on the wedding night, leaving Amelia a virgin still and also the owner of the grand estate in question. Imagine Amelia's shock when "the grand estate" turns out to be a boardinghouse named The Grand Estate and Robert's family consists of the motley bunch of tenants living there. But never mind, Amelia decides to make what's best in situation and set about trying to rebuild the boardinghouse. Cash flow is a problem as neither she nor her late husband has any money to boast of.

Meanwhile, our hero Michael Thompson is ordered to get close to Amelia Lawrence, now Amelia Mitchell, because she happened to travel to Chicago to meet Robert in the same train compartment with some people suspected to be involved in a plot to assassinate Presidential candidate Stephen A Douglas. You can guess what happens next.

The Christmas Kiss has a truly painful start-up as all Amelia does early in the story is to cry or to faint. Even if I'm trying to be understanding here - she's lost a hubby she's very fond of, after all - all that constant weeping and lamenting about her problems really get on my nerves. Amelia keeps saying that she must be strong even as she eek-eek-eeks her heart out, so at least she's not deliberately trying to drive me crazy. But she still drives me crazy nonetheless. Michael isn't an attractive hero at the start either as he constantly judges our heroine even as he lusts (and paws) after her. Once these two get their act together in the later half of the book, however, the story becomes much more enjoyable. Michael's single-minded obsession at avenging his brother's death (come on, you know he has to have one of those baggages) at the expense of everything else can be annoying to read at times, but Amelia displays a trait that is increasingly rare in today's historical romances: she tries to take charge of her life and attempts to make intelligent, educated decisions. Here is a heroine that knows what she is doing - falling in love with a liar notwithstanding - and I like her. She experiences character growth, and that's a good thing.

The secondary characters are familiar: the old people are dotty types with an eye for matchmaking, the usual suspects turn out to be the usual villains, the usual. The suspense is nothing to shout about either, if anything, the grand finale is catalyzed by the villain capturing the heroine, the usual, really. Still, barring the irritating start-up of the story, The Christmas Kiss is a pretty decent read starring a coherent couple. This is not the best book nor is the book the most original when it comes to the characters, but this story has enough pluses to be a welcome change from the usual Western romance fare out there.

Rating: 82


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