More Than A Stranger
by Erin Knightley, historical (2012)
Signet, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-23771-2


Twelve years ago, Lady Evelyn Moore - already a creepily precocious teen - and Benedict Hastings became penpals. But he decided to then drop her - the Crown recruited him to do that da-da-dum James Bond thing, you see - and that was that. She had a sad pout on her face, but hey, at least England was safe and cozy, thanks to fresh-faced blue-blooded barely-adult guys recruited by the Crown like the whole secret service agency is Wheel Of Fortune desperately seeking planted contestants or something. Wanted: hot spies to bed and wed artless dingbats in romance novels. No actual spy skills necessary, just bring abs and working penis.

Today - twelve years down the road - Benedict is still BFF with Evelyn's brother. He needs to lay low and some mean dude is after him. It's only logical that a supposedly capable spy like Benedict would lay low by following a guy everyone knows to be his best friend to this best friend's home, where the woman he supposedly loves is there. Putting the people he care about in jeopardy without even telling them he's a spy - why, that's basically lesson one from the Spy Manual for Romance Novel Heroes right there.

Evie and her sisters do not recognize Benedict at all - I don't know, maybe he has a new nose or something - and Benedict sneakily makes it harder for them to know who he is by calling himself James Benedict. Evie knows that her brother is BFF with a Benedict Hastings who also broke her heart and contributed to her being jaded about guys and never wanting to marry forever - and you know it is a special kind of heartbreak when she gets to this state without actually having the man in question lay a finger on her naughty places - but when her brother brings back another guy with the name of Benedict, she can't make the connection. Maybe she's distracted - she is trying to muster the courage to talk her parents into letting her follow some half-baked nonsense she is convinced is her lifelong ambition without needing to marry... forever.

So, Benedict hides his identity while canoodling with Evie, and Evie falls in love with this guy even as one of the most bumbling bad guys around manage to stomp around the neighborhood without much difficulty (our capable spy hero is too busy trying to look down the heroine's cleavage). Will she continue to bat her eyelashes and invite him to drink from her milk jug when she discovers his deception? Would the hero get a clue before he gets her killed?

Under other circumstances, Evie and Benedict have a decent relationship. Both of them resemble dim-witted puppies too often for my liking, but there is a sweetness in their relationship that reminds me of the type of coupling found in traditional regency romances.

Unfortunately, just look at the plot of this story. On one hand, I like the fact that the author is aware of Benedict's stupidity, and she lets Evie catch on quickly that something is amiss with Benedict's abrupt arrival at her home. However, Benedict's guilt won't be necessary if he had been a spy that is capable of... well, being a spy. He doesn't cut it as a spy - he's not believable because he is way too inept and oblivious to be anything but a dead spy - and this story has a plot that is propelled by Benedict being a dumb spy. I can't wrap my head around this; it's as if the author deliberately had her characters being peabrained just to get the story in motion, and I can't help thinking that there has to be a better way to serve up a romance novel. "They're so stupid that they end up falling in love!" - okay, that's nice but I'll be over there, tasting the cupcakes, so don't bother me.

Erin Knightley has a charming low-key way with humor, and the narrative is clean and easy to read, but no, sorry, this debut effort doesn't work too well for me. Maybe next time.

Rating: 60


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