A Lover’s Kiss by Maria Greene
(Zebra, $5.50, R) ISBN 0-8217-6869-7
Nicholas Thurston is leading a double life. By day he is the respected, adopted son of Sir James Leverton and by night he is the notorious Midnight Bandit. Robbing from the rich who travel the roads outside of London, Nick uses the spoils from his adventures to pay off the mortgage of Sir James Orphanage, which he founded.

He’s almost succeeded in collecting enough money, when his cover is blown sky high by a young woman running from her past. Serena Hilliard witnessed her uncle murder her father during a heated argument. Fearing for her own safety, she takes flight to London, only to have her carriage held up by the Midnight Bandit. During their confrontation, she pulls off his mask, revealing his true identity.

Nick can’t leave a witness to his identity behind, so he takes Serena hostage. Taking her to a seedy hideaway in London, he is determined to hold her captive until he is convinced she won’t give him up to the authorities. Will these two people who don’t trust each other or know each other’s true identities, be able to overcome their obstacles and live happily ever after.

Nick is a paradox I just couldn’t wrap my mind around. On one hand he’s a criminal in the fine tradition of Robin Hood and a perfect gentleman. On the other hand, he starts off his relationship with Serena by doing his best to humiliate her by 1749 standards. He forces her to cook for him, and then is disgusted when she is completely inept at all household chores. Well of course she is, she’s a lady - and ladies in 1749 only learned how to manage the servants in the household, not the actual labor. The fact that he has a younger sister should clue him in to Serena’s lack of practical household skills. Instead he seems determined to break her.

Serena puts up an amiable front with Nick, throwing out barbs and scheming for her freedom. She’s just not very good at it. She almost immediately succumbs to Stockholm Syndrome, and is drawn by Nick’s charm and devilish grin. The relationship is quickly consummated, and they spend the rest of the novel unable to keep their hands off each other.

This is the biggest problem with the story. I just couldn’t believe that Serena and Nick were hopelessly in love with each other. For one thing, both of them go the majority of the novel without even knowing the other’s last name. Once they do make love (on several occasions), there is still the underlying mistrust between them. The lust rings through loud and clear, and I just never felt they actually moved beyond that point.

Nick does almost immediately reveal his love for Serena, but she continually uses the “you’re a highwayman” excuse to keep him at arm’s length. Of course, the fact that by this time she knows his motives behind his life of crime does nothing to soften her resolve.

Add to the mix Serena’s murderous uncle and Nick’s wastrel stepbrother, and the villains soon take over the story by adding more conflict for the couple. Their evil schemes are pretty predictable, and the situation gets worse when Serena has one of the most blatant “too-stupid-to-live” moments by falling right into one of the bad guy’s hands.

There were a couple of bright spots in this story, which did make it a quick read. For one thing, Greene really knows her way around a love scene, purple prose and all. Also, several of the secondary characters are intriguing, most notably Nick’s sister and her best friend.

Aside from that, I didn’t find much to recommend in Greene’s second book of her Midnight Masks series. Nick and Serena’s mistrust of each other, coupled with some predictable villains just didn’t leave a lasting impression on this reader.

--Wendy Crutcher

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