Stranger's Kiss
by Mary Blayney, historical (2009)
Bantam, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-440-24428-8

Stranger's Kiss is a very tough book to grade. Sometimes it's so good, it's sublime. At other times, I want to pitch this book out the window in frustration. Ultimately, I have to go with my gut instinct with this one.

This is, simply put, the story of the slow, hesitant, and sensual developing relationship between two unlikely soulmates.

Lynford Pennistan, as the Duke of Meryon, is one of the most powerful men in England, and he currently tries to use his position to press home some reforms that he feels are needed for the widows and children in a post-Bonaparte era. Poverty is widespread, the upper class doesn't seem to care, and he feels frustrated and unsure of himself. Also, he has a side mission to occupy himself with: the utter destruction of the man who staged the kidnapping of his sister (see Lover's Kiss).

The woman known as Elena Verano is a talented singer from Rome. She is the widow of a famous violinist. In London to arrange for her stepdaughter's first Season, she also accepts various invitations to perform at ballroom parties here and there. Her first encounter with Meryon is more of an emotional bonding moment than a sexual clinch, and this encounter leaves indelible marks on the both of them. Both of them realize that they have recently lost spouses that they did care for much, and yes, it hurts even with the passing of time. But as they slowly explore the possibilities between them, Elena being the daughter of the man Meryon is determined to destroy is just one of the few stumbling blocks in their path to the happily ever after.

Meryon is a beautiful hero. A formerly arrogant man who barely cared for the world outside his small privileged existence, he is now taking small steps into being a more pro-active reformer. Hence the dents on his confidence. But what makes him a truly amazing hero to behold is how he becomes beautifully deconstructed when he falls in love. We are talking about a man who is so miserable when she's out of his life that he resorts to getting drunk and sleeping in the bed they both shared so that he could dream that she is back with him again. My favorite scene in the entire book can be found from page 142 to 143, a heartbreakingly sweet moment when Meryon dreams of bringing Elena into his private sanctuary so that he can show her why his favorite house in the country gives him so much comfort of mind. It also enhances Meryon's appeal that he is not a stereotype. He's not a rake, he's not a spy, and he doesn't jump to silly conclusions because of the heroine's blood ties to his enemy. Instead, in his private and more vulnerable moments, Meryon talks to his late wife's dog and tries awkwardly to hang out with his kids.

Alas, I find this book increasingly hard to read because the author keeps introducing contemporary values and imbuing the good guys with these values to set them apart from the others, when the others are in truth merely holding values that could be very well true to their time. For example, our hero and his friend are aghast that a boy's mother is beating him. Given the attitude of the folks of that time about the need of disciplining children and women, I find our main characters' liberal attitudes more out of place than anything else. It gets worse with the heroine's maid. We are talking about a lady's maid who openly meddles with her employer's love life and even accuses Elena of being jealous when Elena's stepdaughter vanishes with her cousin for a night of who-knows-what. A maid accusing the mistress of being jealous!

But what really sets off every fuse in my body is the heroine turning into a typical Avon romantic crackpot in the second half of the book. She breaks off with Meryon when he wants her to be his mistress. Because sleeping with a man for money is degrading, you see, so clearly, he is not respecting her when he offers her a stable ongoing relationship where he will take care of her. Poor Meryon becomes so miserable for the next few chapters that I don't know whether to cry for him or to shake my head in embarrassment when he gets drunk and falls asleep on the bed they shared, dreaming of her. And yet, throughout it all, Elena is like, how dare he doesn't come see her. It's true, he doesn't love her! And after Meryon has demonstrated in action that any sane woman would see as a sure sign that he loves her, Elena still refuses to see the obvious because he doesn't tell her the L word. When Meryon finally steps in to protect her honor, she rewards his gallantry and his subsequent marriage proposal by telling him that she doesn't want to marry. Ever! The story then sees Meryon apologizing and generally behaving like an emasculated doormat toward her.

I like groveling heroes when they have done a lot of bad things. Here, I don't think Meryon has done anything wrong other than to behave like a man of his time - and he is punished for it because the heroine has bizarre notions about love that is definitely not of her time. And seriously, he knows that she doesn't want to marry, so he is offering her something more or less similar to a long term relationship. So tell me, what the hell does Elena want in this instance? Meryon is damned if he proposes, because as I eventually see, she will throw the proposal back at his face, and he is also damned if he doesn't, because Elena believes that she is respected more if Meryon allows their relationship to remain as one of friends with benefits. The way I see it, Meryon wanting her to be his mistress shows that he wants more than sex from her - he wants her to have some kind of tie to him so that he won't lose her easily. And seriously now, she knows he believes that she is the illegitimate daughter of his enemy. Can this heroine honestly expect him, a Duke, to get down on one knee for her?

As I've said earlier, the author is inserting way too much contemporary values into her story and, worse, she is condemning the hero and making him suffer for doing something that most men of his time have done. It is a testament of Ms Blayney's handling of Meryon's character that I momentarily forget that he is a fictitious character and feel this need to defend him from what I perceive to be a most unfair situation.

The first half of this book is very good, with great relationship build-up and introspective scenes that can rival the best of Karen Ranney's books. However, the second half is utterly derailed by Elena acting like a spoiled and childish twit who doesn't even know what she wants from Meryon, causing poor Meryon to be unable to catch a break from her. Average out the two halves of such disparate quality and I get a book that is right in the middle where the bar is concerned. But because I like Meryon, I'd toss in a few extra points for the final score.

Rating: 72

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