by Karen Ranney, historical (2000)
Avon, $5.99, ISBN 0-380-81298-3
Forgive me if I sound like a reviewer for Romantic Times, but After The Kiss is simply exquisite, sometimes painfully so. The author has simply outdone herself; After The Kiss is truly the romance dreams are made of.
There is actually not much of a plot here, for this story is character-driven in all the sense of the term. It is an erotic story of sexual awakening as well as a heartwarming tale of soulmates finding completion in each other. Reading this story arouses so many emotions in me, sometimes I am hard-pressed to define each one. I laugh, I cry, I sigh, and I ache inside in bittersweet wistfulness as well as pleasure. For a few hours, I am in another world, hanging to every word of the author as she spins the story of Margaret Esterly and Michael Hawthorne.
Adding to my pleasure is the fact that this story has no easy clichés. It is poetic, elegant, and an experience to savor.
Margaret is a middle-class widow, living in reclusive solitude with only her friend and maid Penelope as company. She lost her husband when their bookstore burned down, and all she has to remember her past life are three erotic novels. In these novels, called The Journals of Augustin X, she realizes not only that there are many ways to feel pleasure in the bedroom, she also finds herself dreaming of being the woman in the graphic illustrations in those books.
When she decides to sell one of these books for money, she meets Michael. Michael is a near-bankrupt Earl who prefers the solitude of his study and the deciphering of numbers and codes to his life as an Earl. It is only the need to marry an heiress that compels him to cruise the London season.
In a masked ball, in total darkness, he meets the woman who would soon haunt his dreams and becomes the catalyst for his own coming to life. Margaret, who is actually spying at the party below (she has never seen one like it), in turn is stunned by how much this man seems to be her Augustin X fantasies made life. It terrifies her.
There is a minor subplot about a deluded half-brother-in-law of Margaret who wants these journals, but this subplot only surfaces in the last few chapters for the penultimate moment. The story actually focuses on Margaret and Michael, and what a story it is.
Both have never known passion that is as violent as they feel for each other. All in elegant prose, laced with self-effacing wit, that only drives home how right they are for each other. With her, he knows for the first time the meaning of dreams and a life outside responsibility. And with him, she finds her dreams given wings. Two lonely people who never knew how lonely they were until they have met each other.
I find myself hanging on to every word - in fact, I can't help but to be in the story, feeling every ache, need, and love of each character. I especially love Michael's thawing from a controlled and well-disciplined man to a man who just cannot live without her. Here is a man who changes his world, his rules, and his stakes for her. When they both realize they would do anything for each other, to the point of defending each other from danger, I really sigh.
And I must say this book has one of the best "hero realizes he's in love" moment ever. There's nothing like it. It's a beautiful moment of irony, humor, and poignancy, and for me to explain the nature of the moment would spoil this story for readers. But suffice to say, I just don't know whether to cry or laugh. I think I did both.
The mating dance between these two is devastatingly erotic. No, not in the sense of banana splits or kitty sex a la Robin Schone or Dara Joy, but erotic because the author made me a willing captive to her words. I could feel every moment of yearning and desire, unspoken and kept inside, of Margaret and Michael. These are people who never really know what it feels like to lose oneself in the rush of the moment, so to speak, and their slow sexual awakening is almost painful for me to follow. Especially Michael's - what a man that is. There is nothing like a controlled man who thaws in the most sensual manner.
They decided on a kiss. Only to extend it to a week. And soon one week isn't enough. The love scenes are elegant, almost musical, and best of all, they are part of the emotional developments of these two people. And yeah, that ribbon and hundred licks thing don't hurt either.
Dear Margaret and Michael - two honorable, intelligent people who just can't be anything but right for each other. After The Kiss is toe-curlingly sensual, but best of all, it is a powerfully emotional, complex story of two people falling in love no matter how hard they try to fight it. It's not always pretty, and sometimes these characters don't do nice things like giggling and adopting cute Pampers babies while getting compromised in moonlit gardens. But they are more real for it, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
"Margaret." They lay so close that the speaking of her name was no more than a breath on her cheek.
Her hair was the color autumn; her mouth curved easily into a smile and bestowed kisses with the flavor of eternity. The words were not his usual ones; they were almost poetic.
He'd thought he understood desire. Had experienced it, shared it with women in his past. He had tucked it into his mind along with other necessary emotions. Something to be understood and accepted. But Michael was beginning to recognize the depth of his ignorance.
She opened his eyes and looked at him. Her expression made him smile. Irritation, and sleepiness. She didn't rouse easily.
The words must be said before another moment passed, before another second clicked upon the clock.
"I accept you, Margaret," he said, looking at her beloved face. "Unconditionally. Madly."
Margaret looked startled at his description, but then it seemed she remembered their earlier conversation. "I accept you too, Michael," she murmured, her smile luminous. "Unconditionally. Madly."
A realization occurred to the Earl of Montraine in that moment. He had not entirely believed in love, but it was all too evident that it truly did exist. He had never understood, however, that love flowed outward, from the soul of one person to another. Until that moment, he had never realized that it was an all-encompassing thing, an emotion that blessed both the recipient and the giver.
Not at all a sensible thing, love.
She cuddled against him. He wrapped his arms around her as she buried her head against his shoulder, nuzzling his neck with her lips. A moment later her breathing was rhythmic, soft. She'd fallen asleep again. He smiled and held her there safely in his arms.
Ah, love, it may not be sensible, but it sure is one fine damned thing indeed.
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