Gallant Waif

The Perfect Rake

The Perfect Stranger

The Perfect Waltz

Tallie's Knight

The Perfect Kiss by Anne Gracie
(Berkley, $7.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-425-21345-5
The much-anticipated conclusion of Anne Gracie’s series about the Merridew sisters features the irrepressible Grace, youngest sister and current toast of London. While Grace is mostly as charming as ever, much of the story is contrived and often defies logic. It’s a bit of a disappointment.

Grace has enjoyed a successful Season or two, but has found nobody she loves. In fact, she doesn’t feel worthy of love, thanks to her evil Grandfather’s upbringing. (Wait a minute. Grace has been out from under Grandfather’s thumb for almost ten years and has been nothing but doted on since. Her older sisters are all happily married, making this motivation a bit forced.) Grace’s best friend, Melly, is betrothed to a man she’s never met: Dominic Wolfe, Lord D’Acre. The engagement was contracted when both Melly and Dominic were children, and neither of them wants it. But Melly’s impoverished father wants to see his daughter cared for, so Melly must travel to D’Acre’s estate and seal the deal. Grace contrives to dye her hair brown, paint her face with henna freckles, and travel along as Melly’s “companion.”

Nobody expects Dominic to actually be at the estate, and everyone is startled when he shows up. Dominic has been away since childhood, leaving his hated father behind. Now wealthy in his own right, he cares nothing for the estate and its tenants. Since his father’s will stipulated that Dominic must marry Melly in order to inherit (sigh - not this old chestnut again), Dominic is quite willing to let the place go. He even offers to settle a chunk of money on Melly, but her father refuses. Dominic is well and truly stuck. I’m not sure readers should examine all this too closely, but there it is.

Frustrated, Dominic agrees to a marriage in name only. For Melly, who hoped to at least get a home and children out of this, it’s a heartbreaking arrangement. Meanwhile, Melly’s mousy companion catches Dominic’s eye. Grace is astonished to find herself powerfully attracted to Dominic, her best friend’s fiancé. Soon she’s on a mission to make Dominic undertake his responsibilities to the estate, while trying to stay out of his bed.

My biggest issue with this book was that none of these characters try to think their way out of anything – they just react. The solution will be staring the reader in the face by the fourth chapter, but it won’t occur to anyone else until the end of the book, and even then it’s someone else who comes up with the answer to the problem. Dominic came across as more spoiled child than grown man, at least initially. He wants Grace, and yes, he’s going to marry the weepy Melly, but Grace could be his mistress, couldn’t she? Since he believes she’s a member of the servant class, this was fairly repugnant. Dominic’s change of heart near the end was a welcome relief, and throughout the story, his feelings deepen faster than Grace’s, which was a nice twist.

Grace, for her part, can’t seem to make up her mind as to what she wants. She want to help Melly, she wants to kiss Dominic (and maybe more), she wants to help the estate tenants, she needs to stay away from Dominic but she just can’t help herself… it’s dizzying. There is a subplot about a legend involving a Gray Lady, and a secondary romance for Melly, but none of it is well-developed. Melly and her swain conveniently fall in love at first sight. The Gray Lady thing only crops up when there’s a need for Grace to go swimming in a pond in her underwear (anyone want to guess who shows up, and what happens next?) The introduction of a harem into the story was amusing, but contrived as well. Who knew that 19th-century harem wives would know just what to put on mud-brown dyed hair to make it revert to strawberry blonde again? L’Oreal could use these women.

For all that, the romance is touching, and Grace is still the impulsive, optimistic girl from the previous books. She may harbor doubts that she will ever find a true love, but it doesn’t stop her from throwing a few home truths in Dominic’s eyes, especially about his responsibility to his tenants. If anyone can get through to the self-absorbed Dominic, it’s Grace, and once she shakes him out of his self-imposed high dudgeon, his life will never be the same. Ms. Gracie wisely allows the older sisters and their husbands to share a few pages of space, giving us an update on their lives without having them overstay their welcome. This was neatly done.

If readers overlook some of the contrivances, The Perfect Kiss offers a warm wrap-up to the Merridew family series.

--Cathy Sova

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