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The Kissing Game by Kasey Michaels
(Warner, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-446-61085-2
There is the old saying that one bad apple can spoil the barrel. In the case of The Kissing Game, one bad plot device spoils an otherwise pleasant book.

Lady Allegra Nesbitt is the daughter of a reluctant Earl. Her father, Oxie Nesbitt assumed the title Earl of Sunderland through a strange twist of succession. The family's first trip to London five years ago was an utter disaster. Dubbed the Countess of Bumpkin by the ton, Allegra's countrified mother did not fit in and Oxie's penchant for practical jokes didn't help matters any.

So when Oxie announces that the family will be returning to London to find Allegra a suitable husband, she is convinced it is yet another of his pranks. Unfortunately for Allegra, it is not and off the family goes along with Allegra's cousin Elizabeth.

Once in London, it looks like it will be a repeat of the first visit. No invitations are forthcoming and the family is shunned by London society. It is only after Allegra catches the eye of her handsome neighbor, Armand Gauthier, that things begin to take an interesting turn.

Armand is something of an enigma to the ton. He appeared a few years ago and was sponsored by a respected member of the ton. By all outward appearances he is high society, but there is something mysterious about him. No one is quite sure where he came from, or who his family is. Intrigued by another potential odd duck, Armand includes the Nesbitt's in the invitations to his party.

After Allegra and Armand meet, they work out a scheme where Armand will pretend to court Allegra in order to keep Oxie from bothering to look for a husband for her. Armand is also looking to find out more about his past. The two of them spend a lot of time together and eventually their pretend courtship evolves into real feelings.

Although there is not a lot of lot in this book outside of Allegra and Armand's budding relationship, it is still an enjoyable read. Both Armand and Allegra are fun, down-to-earth characters that neatly sidestep being pigeonholed into the typical Regency era hero and heroine molds.

Allegra is something of a fish out of water in London, but she has such a good humor about it. She doesn't turn all bluestocking and mock society just because she isn't comfortable in it. Allegra is also refreshingly honest with her feelings and motives. When she pretends to turn her ankle in order to gain entrance into Armand's house, she graciously admits it when he catches on. She has the ability to laugh at herself and admit she acted foolishly, which endears her to the reader. It also endears her to Armand, who himself is a likeable hero.

So what's the bad apple? It's Allegra's father Oxie and his pranks. A couple little pranks might have been amusing, but the depth and breadth of this man's immaturity sets the reader's teeth on edge. It's made worse by the fact that his family enables him and does nothing to stop his obnoxious behavior. When Armand starts getting in on the pranks, it just grates on the reader that he is lowering himself to that level just to impress Allegra. The annoyance Oxie causes is distracting, and one finds themselves popped out of the story with the sheer urge to smack him upside the head.

The ending is a tad convenient, particularly with its revelation of Armand's true bloodline. Still, The Kissing Game is an agreeable enough way to spend an afternoon, just try to resist the urge to rip Oxie right out of the book.

--Anne Bulin

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