Judith Lansdowne has garnered loads of fans with her excellent Regency romances. The Mystery Kiss is her first venture into the longer format and is, I believe, quite successful. If the complex plot - dealing as it does with the machinations of traitorous aristocrats and London radicals and a 19th century serial killer - sometimes spins out of control, the quirky hero and the delightful heroine make the story worth reading.
Fleur, Viscountess Marston, has not had an easy life. Her cruel husband married her for her fatherís money - he was a wealthy ship builder - and the ton, following her husbandís lead, treated her with disdain. But she has been a widow for a year now and she is determined to brave the scorn of London society so that her beloved step-daughter, Althea, can have the season she deserves. But Fleur is a dreadful traveler and while their coach is stopped so she can recover, a gentleman rides to her rescue.
Atticus Howard, Earl of Hartsfield, is also on his way to London, a place he has visited little in recent years. He is coming at the behest of his mother-in-law, to discover what kind of mischief his brother-in-law has gotten into. A decade or so earlier, Atticus was a
fixture in London, not only as a member of society but also as the elusive Spectre, whose ability to move unnoticed through the city foiled more than one plot against the crown. Atticus retired to the country when he married and even though his beloved wife has been gone for four years, he has not returned to London.
Atticus is immediately intrigued by Fleur, especially when he realizes how brave she is to return to the scene of her previous hurt. So he sets himself up as her helper, both publicly and in secret. As her mysterious advisor, he tells her how to handle the snubs and bad manners she encounters. And one evening, when he finds her alone in a dark garden, he kisses her. The mystery kiss.
Fleur finds herself strangely confused. She has come to like and admire Atticus, but her mysterious protector also has stolen her heart.
Atticus is the best part of the book. He is a most unusual hero, a man of surprisingly little self-conceit, despite his title and his accomplishments. Atticus is a very big man, with an ordinary face and what he perceives to be extraordinary ears. His size and appearance
made him the butt of many jokes when he was younger, and he lacks self-confidence with women. Indeed, had his first wife not pursued him relentlessly, he might never have realized that the woman he loved loved him too. Once he sets Fleur on the road to social success, he is sure that a handsomer man with more address will win her heart. It takes
the combined efforts of his family, Fleurís family, and his servants - and Fleur, of course - to convince Atticus that she loves him. He is a very sweet hero, one that every reader would like to take home.
As I noted above, the plot is complex and mostly fun if highly unlikely. The younger, secondary characters - Lord Connington, the brother-in-law; Lord Marston, Fleurís stepson; and Althea - are enjoyable additions to the story as are the mysterious maid, Atticusí unusual valet and butler, and the villain of the piece. Or should I say
villains, because there are a passel of them.
At the center of the plot is the romance of Atticus and Fleur and if two people ever deserved their happily ever after, itís these two. While Lansdowne has written some darker stories, she is at her best when she combines adventure, romance and fun. The Mystery Kiss has just the right combination.