Never Kiss A Stranger
by Heather Grothaus
(Zebra Books, $6.99, G) ISBN 978-1-4201-1242-9
Never Kiss A Stranger….you don’t know awaits you. Never Kiss A Stranger is the awkwardly titled new release by Heather Grothaus that showed great promise and never quite delivered.

Piers Mallory is a hot mess. He walks, fevered and beaten, not quite healed from a recent altercation with his stepbrother Bevan and his stepmother Judith, trying to get through the snow to London to see King Edward. Piers knows that his chances of gaining an audience with the King is unlikely, but he feels like he has to try. Piers has just lost his father and he confessed on his deathbed that Bevan isn’t his son.

Piers only wants to gain what is rightfully his now – the lands of Gillwick and freedom from the barbaric Bevan and the horrific Judith. Piers has been walking for a while now, and he only wants to find a place to lay his throbbing head and let his impossible situation slip from his mind for a few hours. He comes upon Foxe Ring, the old stone ring where it’s said that fated lovers meet and are wed by the power of the ring.

Lady Alys Foxe is an eighteen year old girl, the youngest of the three Foxe sisters who have lost both their father and recently, their mother. The eldest, glacial Foxe sister, Sybilla, has tried to keep Alys’ temper and whimsical nature in check but on this night of the Fallstowe Winter Feast, she has failed most spectacularly. Alys is roused into a confrontation with the horrible, animal abusing Lady Blodshire at the feast, and embarrasses Sybilla horribly by hurling insults at her invited guest.

Sybilla decides that she must marry Alys off to one of her suitors quickly to keep her in line, and she quickly chooses one of the guests and announces the betrothal. Alys is incensed at being treated like a child – after all, she has reached the lofty age of 18. She retreats to her room, bringing with her the abused Lady Blodshire’s monkey Layla that she has just saved, and comes up with a plan to spend a few days at Foxe Ring, which is near Fallstowe Castle, and she will make Sybilla realize the error of her hasty betrothal by giving her a few days to stew about it.

Alys heads to Foxe Ring with Layla in tow. She eats the small meal she’s packed, and falls asleep on one of the stones. When the distraught and sick Piers stumbles upon her, he first thinks that she may be a fairy. That is, until her attack monkey bites him, injuring him further. Alys is awoken by the fracas and promptly decides that she is saved, since she and Piers met in the Foxe Ring, they are married, and she will follow him wherever he will go.

Piers is amused by the girl’s insistence that they are married until he tries to leave her behind and finds out that she is very persistent, and also determined to help him in his quest, though she innocently has no idea what it will truly entail. Piers tries to lose Alys but that doesn’t work either, and he’s ready to dump her back on her family’s doorstep when he realizes that Judith and Bevan are right behind him, and that Alys is now an unwitting pawn in their game as his “wife.” and he must come up with a plan to save their lives immediately.

Oh, Never Kiss A Stranger, I had such high hopes for you in the beginning. While the books starts with quite a strong premise, it doesn’t deliver on much of it and I must say that I was disappointed to have it turn into a two heart read.

Piers was a very good leading man. He was strong without being overpowering and had enough heartbreak to be sad but not desperate. Piers was raised as a commoner, he doesn’t possess the arrogance and snide comments of many heroes, which was refreshing. When I read over and over that a male lead character is being overbearing, sardonic and arrogant, I wonder what the heroine sees in him and whether or not she has other choices. Not in this story. Piers was a little too quiet and remote for my taste, as it made it very hard to get to know him, but was otherwise a very attractive man.

Lady Alys is a very eighteen year old girl. Do you know what I mean? She is typically teenager: self-centered, self-absorbed, self-righteous, a know it all, irresponsible, passionate, determined, stubborn and headstrong. While there were moments that she had minor self-realization and I liked her, in general she was a spoiled child playing at being an adult and a wife, and I didn’t blame Piers for wanting to dump her somewhere in the woods.

Alys has led a sheltered life, but she has chosen to think only of herself and it shows in her stilted, self-serving interactions with Piers. She initially tries to convince him that their stone ring marriage is valid to save herself from her unwanted betrothal, and later spouts some shallow drivel about being completely dedicated to Piers’ mission, though she knows very few details as Piers is a very private man.

Add to this sad summation of our heroine that there is no chemistry, no flirting, very little touching and no banter between our leading couple, and it can only very loosely be called a romance novel.

There was a wonderfully scary byplay with the coldhearted Sybilla receiving the nasty Lady Judith and Bevan at Fallstowe, and there are some other interesting minor characters like Alys and Sybilla’s sainted sister Cecily, and their shadowy manservant Graves, and from reading the back it looks like Cecily’s story is next to be released by Grothaus.

A side note on the storytelling in this tale – I don’t overly mind cursing, but is it really necessary to typeset a lot of curse words? They can usually be forgiven when a character has injured themselves or has a deep realization, in my opinion, but when it becomes a book’s common vernacular, it’s a little much.

Never Kiss a Stranger has some strong points, and a lot of weak points, and I’m sorry to say that the promise of Cecily’s tale doesn’t tempt me in the least if it continues in the same vein.

--Amy Wroblewsky

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