Not So Innocent

His Every Kiss
by Laura Lee Guhrke
(Avon, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-06-054175-X
Laura Lee Guhrke’s books are always worth the wait, and she’s at her finest with His Every Kiss. This one will undoubtedly be on my Best Reads of 2004 list, and I’ll bet I won’t be alone in that assessment.

Dylan Moore, black sheep son of a wealthy and respectable family, is a brilliant composer whose sonatas and symphonies garnered him acclaim throughout Europe – until the day he was thrown from a horse and struck his head on a rock. Since that time, he’s heard a high-pitched whine in his ears. It’s ever-present and drowns out his ability to compose. The music has fled.

Dylan storms out of his house in despair one night, and finds himself in front of the theater in which his first composition debuted. Dylan enters the dark theater, determined to end his misery with a pistol shot to the head. The unlikely sound of violin music, one of his own pieces, interrupts him. The lovely charwoman playing for him badgers him into putting down the pistol, then gently chides him for thinking of suicide. She vanishes before he can ask her name. For just an instant, Dylan heard fragments of a new composition in his head again, and he determines to find this unlikely young woman.

Five years later, Dylan has sunk into a life of debauchery, resorting to hashish and laudanum to drug himself to sleep at night and still the ever-present ringing in his ears. He’s managed to keep his reputation alive by releasing old compositions from his earlier years, but his ability to compose remains as elusive as ever – as elusive as the charwoman with a violin. Then, at a fancy dress ball, he finds the woman he’s been seeking. She’s Grace Cheval, and she’s one of the musicians.

Grace is the widow of a temperamental French artist, with whom she eloped at seventeen after a clandestine courtship of one week. This rash act brought scandal upon her respectable Cornish family, and they have disowned her. Grace is now selling oranges and playing at the occasional ball in order to survive. Before Dylan has a chance to approach her, he receives a huge surprise. An eight-year-old girl is deposited on his doorstep, the result of a short-lived affair years earlier. Young Isabel is also a talented pianist, and when she plays one of her own compositions for him, there is no doubt as to her paternity.

Now Dylan needs a governess, and he wants Grace more than he imagined. They strike a bargain, for the duration of one year. Dylan may fire Grace, but she cannot quit. At the end of the year, he’ll give her the country cottage she so desperately dreams of. Grace agrees to tutor young Isabel, but she informs Dylan she won’t, under any circumstances, become his mistress. Dylan, happy at the thought of gaining Grace as his muse and regaining his music, agrees, though he warns her he’ll try to seduce her.

This book never puts a foot wrong as Dylan and Grace gradually maneuver their way into an unforgettable romance. Grace’s initial girlhood adoration of her artist husband turned to despair when he lost his ability to paint and blamed her, exacting his revenge with a series of women. Grace fears that Dylan would abandon her if his musical talents refuse to return, and she’s not about to open herself to that much hurt. Dylan tries to convince himself that he wants Grace as his inspiration and his mistress, nothing more, though readers know full well he’s only deluding himself.

The girl, Isabel, is a delight. She’s obstinate without being a brat, intelligent without being precocious, and Grace knows just how to handle her. Their interactions are a highlight of the book, as Isabel tries to worm her way out of lessons and proper behavior, and Grace refuses to let her. Again, the author sets up Isabel’s character perfectly. Daughter of a courtesan, she has never really known a family, though she’s dreamed of the day her father would come and rescue her. A rash act by Isabel finally convinces Dylan to try and become the father she dreams of, and once he’s in this role, his life will never be the same.

One of the many strengths of this book is that the characters are completely normal in most respects. Grace is a competent violinist, but she’s no virtuoso. A scene in which Dylan asks her to play one of his compositions with him is poignant as we feel her self-consciousness at playing in front of him. Dylan may be a master composer, but he has no idea what to do with an eight-year-old girl, and as he fumbles his way toward fatherhood, we feel his awkwardness.

There are a number of secondary characters, but they all act to propel the story forward, rather than setting themselves up for their own novel (a tiresome trend in romance these days). The story moves from London to Devonshire and Dylan’s country home, where his estranged brother, Ian, will play an important role in the resolution. It’s just right.

With its clever, interesting plot, wonderfully lifelike characters, and beautifully developed romance, His Every Kiss is a book to savor over and over again. Laura Lee Guhrke must be considered one of the top talents in romance. Make room on your keeper shelf – this one is not to be missed.

--Cathy Sova

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