All the Queen's Men

A Bouquet of Babies

Cry No More

Dying to Please

A Game of Chance

Mr Perfect

Now You See Her

Open Season

Strangers of the Night

Kiss Me While I Sleep
by Linda Howard
(Ballantine, $25.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-345-45343-3
Kiss Me As I Sleep is a compelling five-heart read. Powerful characters drive an inventive plot to a forceful and somewhat quixotic ending

At eighteen, Lily Mansfield was a marksman of note. So much so the CIA recruited her for her skill. She became a world-class contract assassin. Years prior while in Eastern Europe, Lily found an abandoned baby as she was escaping the country. Rather than consign the baby to a certain death, she took her, loved her, and treated her as a daughter.

Because of the constraints of her employment, Lily permitted her closest and only friends, retired contract agents Tina and Averill Joubran, to adopt Zia early on in order to provide a stable home. All three of them loved Zia and thirteen years later when Lily returned from a mission, she found them all executed.

This left Lily bereft, her last human contacts with the world gone. She has made revenge her lifeís work.

Locating the executioner, Salvatore Nervi, in Paris is childís play. Killing him is not. Lily has spent most of her assets buying a designer poison that can be injected into a bottle cork that will kill so quickly an antidote is impossible.

Lily, in one of her many disguises, has maneuvered Salvatore to a dinner table with the poisoned wine being served. Her persona is that of a wine hater, but the vintage is so rare Salvatore forces her to take a sip. Knowing it could kill her, she takes a sip, demonstrating poignantly how dehumanized she has truly become in her nineteen years of killing. Salvatore dies that night. Rodrigo, his son and heir to the very large and powerful syndicate, vows to find the killer.

The first place Rodrigo looks is to his fatherís dining partner. His thugs find Lily near death and Salvatore has his staff nurse her back to health just in case she knows something. She recovers with a defective heart valve and, satisfied she is not culpable, Salvatore returns her to her home.

But Lily has only just started her revenge. She moves to step two; to find the reason her friends apparently came out of retirement to accept a job that resulted in their death. Because Salvatore Nervi was also a CIA asset, she knows that her bosses will now consider her a rogue agent and send someone to kill her.

Among the more lawful holding of the Nervi huge financial empire is a pharmaceutical company. It is engaged in a project to find a vaccine for the very lethal avian virus. This is indeed a topical issue, as one of todayís concerns is that this virus will mutate so that it will be spread from human to human. In this story, the Nervi lab is not only engineering the successful vaccine, but also is genetically altering the virus so it can spread rapidly from human to human, thus creating a market for the vaccine.

The CIA dispatches Lucas Swain to Paris to find Lily. She has disappeared, which awakens Rodrigoís suspicion so he throws his entire network into the same project. Lucas finds Lily first. Knowing how deadly she is and in order to lull her suspicions, he offers to work with her.

Lily has held herself aloof too long from human contact. Swainís funny human touch begins the process of recivilizing her and an incredibly strong and sensuous love evolves between them, all within the workings of a suspense story fueled with double agents, evil scientists and family syndicates. Thus interwoven in the tight structure of plots and subplots, the romantic interludes are wisely used to vary the pacing of the story.

It is truly a testament of an authorís talent to create a protagonist who is an assassin and evokes so much empathy. She does it in true Howard style, by creating a multi-layered character whose actions are derived from who she is and what she wants, while each of these actions contributes to the ultimate change in her.

Kiss Me While I Sleep is truly a keeper, and it will not require rereading to remember the story and its characters.

--Thea Davis

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