What Wild Moonlight

With This Kiss by Victoria Lynne
(Dell, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-440-22334-2
Do you like beauty and the beast stories? Do you like historical romances with a very well done mystery? Do you like books that do a good job of catching the ambience of the time in which they are set? If you do, then you like me will enjoy Victoria Lynne’s With This Kiss.

As the story opens, Morgan St. James, Viscount Barlowe, has a most enviable life. Rich and handsome, he is soon to be married to the beautiful Isabelle Cartwright. He arrives home in the early morning hours and encounters an intruder on his grounds. He gives chase, but the man escapes on horseback. Then Morgan smells smoke. The old house which he uses for his servants is on fire. Morgan rushes in to awaken the sleepers and rushes to the top floor where his coachman’s family is living. He succeeds in saving one of the children, but the rest of the family is caught in the flames. Then, the floor gives way.

Two years later, Morgan is visiting a popular gaming club. Since the fire, he has become something of a recluse. The burns he suffered have left ugly scars on most of his body, while public opinion chose to hold him responsible for the deaths. Isabelle broke their engagement and is now to wed another. He has become known as the Beast.

Morgan spies a lovely woman at the vingt et un tables. The mysterious woman gives him unmistakable signs of interest and so he pursues the acquaintance. She makes an assignation at a rather unusual address near the docks. Morgan chooses to meet her.

But Julia Prentisse has more on her mind than a rendezvous. She places a most unusual proposition before the viscount. Julia is the anonymous author of a gossip column in a London newspaper. At the time of the Barlowe fire and two other arsons, she received letters from the arsonist who called himself Lazarus. A body found in one of the fires was presumed to be that of the criminal. But now Julia has received another letter from Lazarus.

Julia’s father died in disgrace and she has been living with her unpleasant uncle. He has given her an ultimatum to choose between three very unattractive suitors. She offers Morgan the opportunity to find the man who was responsible for his pain and suffering in exchange for marriage. Morgan accepts.

Thus has Lynne set up a very engaging plot. It combines a marriage of convenience story with the pursuit of the villain. She handles both with finesse.

Julia is a strong-minded heroine. She wants more from Morgan than a convenient arrangement and induces her new husband to postpone the consummation of their marriage until they have become better acquainted. This creates lots of sexual tension for Morgan desires his bride, but has his own insecurities, based on his scars.

Morgan is, not surprisingly, a bitter man. He is tormented by the fire and by the screams of those he could not save. His attitudes are diametrically opposed to those of his bride, who uses her column not only to describe the doings of high society, but also to expose the injustices of mid-Victorian life. Yet his hard edge is gradually worn down by Julia’s more positive outlook.

The mystery aspect of With This Kiss is very effective. Lynne allows us into the twisted mind of the mysterious Lazarus as Morgan, Julia and the authorities attempt to find him. While his identity is not a complete surprise, Lynne provides alternative suspects while at the same time providing enough information about the real arsonist. And she succeeds in creating a real sense of menace.

Perhaps the best indication of the compelling quality of this book can be found in the way I ended up reading it. When our power went out, I first retreated to my steamy deck to catch the fading light and then I finished the book by candlelight. I have new respect for all those past readers who couldn’t simply turn on a lamp.

The beauty and the beast myth is endlessly attractive. The idea that a lovely woman can see beyond beast’s scars, both physical and emotional, and can, through love, redeem the beast is the epitome of romance. Lynne’s take on this enduring myth is a very good one.

--Jean Mason

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