There is an old adage among novelists that “There are no new plots.” The corollary to this is the contention is that what matters is not the plot but what the author does with the plot. The truth of all this was brought home to me this past week when I read two books (by the same publisher no less) that had essentially the same plot. Yet said books, while both quite enjoyable, were totally and completely different.
The plot is as follows: an orderly and scholarly gentleman has inherited a title (earl) but the accompanying estates are grossly inadequate. Said new earl also inherits four female encumbrances (in one case, three nieces and a cousin; in the other, three sisters and a mother). It behooves the earl to marry well but just as he steels himself to look around for a bride, he meets and falls under the spell of a most ineligible woman. Likewise, this ineligible female is in danger because of a secret from her past. The first book with this plot was Elizabeth Boyle’s No Marriage of Convenience; the second is Karen Ranney’s, After the Kiss. While the former is best described as a romp,
the latter is anything but.
The story opens in London in 1820. Margaret Esterly wakes to discover that her husband’s bookshop is on fire. She escapes with only the clothes on her back and her husband’s strongbox. Jerome is not so fortunate. He dies in the fire, or so it appears. We soon discover that Jerome was murdered by a minion of his half-brother, the Duke of
Tarrant. Apparently the duke wanted some journals that were in Jerome’s possession.
Two years later, Margaret is living quietly in the country, having left London and its bad memories. She is nearly out of money and decides to sell one of the volumes found in the strongbox, the pornographic Journals of Augustin X. She contacts one of Jerome’s old clients and when he agrees to buy the book, takes it to London. A masked ball is going on, and as Margaret stands outside on the terrace, she encounters one of the guests. The two converse and banter and almost kiss, but they are interrupted. Margaret flees.
Michael Hawthorne, Earl of Montraine, had come to the ball as part of his reluctant quest for a bride. He is much happier working on difficult ciphers for the Foreign Office, but hard times and an expensive family have convinced him that the only way he can restore his estates is to marry money. Then, he meets this unusual woman, one who can converse with him logically, who can give as good as she gets in an argument, and who almost kisses him. He becomes obsessed with finding her again, and when she returns to sell another volume to his friend, he insists that she owes him that kiss.
Instead of a single kiss, the two share an afternoon of unparalleled passion. Michael offers to make her his mistress; there can be no other relationship between an earl and the impoverished widow of a bookseller. Margaret refuses his offer, but the pull between the two, their mutuality of both body and mind, is too great. Michael cannot let her go, but he loves her too much to subject her to the disrespect that being his mistress would bring upon her.
Ranney does not take the easy way out; Margaret does not turn out to be an heiress after all. If Michael is to marry her, he must make some very hard choices. Yet Ranney has so successfully developed the special-ness of the relationship between the two that we can believe that Michael will happily face a reduced standard of living, the ire of his mother and sisters, and the dismay of society to choose the woman who is clearly his soul-mate. But will their happiness be cut short when the Duke of Tarrant seeks to recover the journals that could ruin him forever?
After the Kiss has a lovely romance, wonderful love scenes, a great hero and heroine, and just the right amount of suspense and danger. It is a most enjoyable book and I recommend it enthusiastically.