|Why aren't publishers putting out more books like Jo Goodman's If His Kiss is Wicked? It's not that I've been disappointed with all the other romances I've recently read. It's just that unexpected plot twists, likeable characters, and story-telling that rises above formulaic expectations make this book so much more.
Ever since her parents died on a sea voyage, Emmalyn Hathaway has been living with her painter-uncle Sir Arthur Vega and her flirtatious cousin Marisol. Although she doesn't always agree with them, she feels indebted. So when her cousin asks her to go in her place to an amorous assignation, she reluctantly agrees. Emma never makes it. She is kidnapped and viciously beaten instead.
Several months later, Emma seeks the help of Restell Gardner, an aristocrat who specializes in difficult situations. Emma doesn't remember much about her terrible ordeal, but she is convinced her kidnappers weren't after her. She wants Restell to protect Marisol and Sir Arthur.
Restell takes the job, but quickly discovers that nothing is quite as it seems. For one, the relationship between Emma, Arthur, Marisol and the latter's fiancée is much more complicated than expected. For another, he is very attracted to his client, even when it turns out that she hasn't been quite as straightforward as necessary.
Emma bears internal and external scars from her recent experience. It may be pretty obvious to us that she has post-traumatic syndrome, but she can't but wonder whether she is going crazy. Madness runs in the family: her grandmother was committed to a mental institution, and Emma is worried that this will be her fate as well. Restell is as determined to convince her otherwise as he is set on winning her love.
If not entirely original, the mystery is fairly complicated and Goodman does a fine job leading us through the tangled web of family jealousies, financial intrigue, greedy criminals and personal foibles. The story unfolds at a relatively slow pace, but there are more than enough twists and turns to keep the readers' attention throughout. Most importantly, Goodman rarely neglects the mystery plot for the romance one.
Although Emma desires Restell and the protection he offers her, she doesn't fall in love with him overnight. Her hesitations and his insecurities are extremely credible. This is what the history of a long-term relationship looks like.
Emma's and Restell's romance is all the more convincing because they are engaging characters. They obviously share much with standard romance types, but Goodman's deft pen brings freshness to worn-out clichés. Restell indulges in his protective instincts without becoming a caveman. Emma preserves her independence without endangering herself. She has her secrets, but she isn't stupidly stubborn about keeping them. Their interaction of both the verbal and the sensual kind is truly wonderful to witness. It confirms a growing suspicion that much of my pleasure in reading romances lies in a slow build-up – in entertaining repartee, stolen glances and shared jokes; in understated friendship as much as or even more than in outspoken sexuality.
For this, for all the above, and for so much more, If His Kiss is Wicked is an unexpected treat.