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A Scoundrel's Kiss
by Margaret Moore
(Avon, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-380-80266-X
****
What a pleasant surprise! A historical romance set in an unusual era if not an unusual place! And it was a surprise. I picked up Margaret Moore's new release, looked at the standard Avon clinch cover, read the standard back blurb, and was all set for a standard Regency historical. Instead I got a book set early in the reign of Charles II which brought that bawdy era to life.

The London of the 1660s was a far cry from the London so frequently portrayed in most of the romances we read. It was a raucous, dirty and yes decadent place. Recently released from two decades of Puritan rule, the city and its people were on a pleasure spree, led by the king, the court and the upper classes. The strict social mores, which placed such a high value on good ton and the appearance, if not the reality, of propriety a century and a half later, were unheard of. Moore takes full advantage of this setting in telling her tale.

Neville, Viscount Farrington is at home in this free and easy London. He counts among his friends playwrights and actors, as well as the aristocrats of Charles' court. Indeed, he is one of the king's favorite tennis partners. His free and easy life is ended one day when his father, the Earl of Barrsetshire, arrives on his doorstep in the company of his ward, Lady Arabella Martin.

The earl and his son have never gotten along and for the past seven years, Neville has kept away from his father's presence. The earl abhors the way of life his son has chosen and informs Neville that he has brought Arabella to London to find her a noble husband. Then, he intends to leave all of his estate except for a pittance to the virtuous Arabella and wash his hands of his son.

Although the daughter of a duke, Arabella has led a most constrained and sheltered life. After her mother's death, her father adopted an extreme form of puritanism and devoted himself to religious causes. One of Arabella's few warm memories is of a young man who visited her home and was kind and sympathetic to the unhappy girl she was. Arabella has kept that young man's image in her heart, but she finds the Neville she now meets a very different person. Is he indeed the heartless and heedless rogue he appears to be?

Neville is understandably distressed and angered by his father's plans, especially since the very fortune his father plans to bestow on Arabella exists solely because he secretly took control of the family's shaky finances, unbeknownst to his father. So he decides to demonstrate that Arabella is not the paragon of virtue that his father believes by seducing her. Her response to his first stolen kiss convinces him that this will not be a difficult challenge.

Complications arise when Arabella's beauty and sweetness catch the eye of some of the debauched nobles who would think nothing of destroying her innocence. And the plot thickens still further when Charles himself becomes interested in the lovely young woman.

Moore's fascinating depiction of society during this era may come as a surprise to many who are not familiar with its free and easy ways. But, in fact, she paints an accurate picture of the excesses of Restoration life. Her interesting secondary characters both real and fictional convey very well the careless morals of the era. Her portrait of Charles II is likewise well drawn as she presents a man who is both a heedless pleasure seeker and a wise monarch.

Arabella is a proverbial innocent thrust into a foreign and frightening world. However she does not come across as a prude or a cipher, but rather as a young woman of warmth and sense who is understandably out of her depth. Neville must come to accept the reality of love in a world where lust prevails. Moore effectively details his inability to recognize his own better self or his own feelings.

The plot of A Scoundrel's Kiss is pretty standard fare, but Moore has shown us that a familiar plot placed in an unfamiliar setting can achieve an unexpected freshness. I will end as I began. What a pleasant surprise!

--Jean Mason


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