Moonlight Becomes Her
by Meagan McKinney
(Kensington, $23.00, PG) ISBN 0-57566-787-8
This book is absolutely consistent with my two previous forays into McKinney territory (which, for the record, were The Fortune Hunter and The Merry Widow). All three books feature: a New York City setting in the second half of the 19th century; a heroine forced by circumstance into a life of infamy; a cold, abusive man who could, under no circumstances, be mistaken for a “hero;” cold, abusive sex; and no romance whatsoever.

Two years after being pulled from his coach and held up at knifepoint by a masked female and her gang in a Manhattan slum, Rafael Belloch meets an intriguing young woman at an upper crust soirée. Mystere is attending Mrs. Astor’s party with her uncle, Paul Rillieux, who recently became one of the famous social doyenne’s inner circle, entertaining her guests with demonstrations of his “psychic” abilities.

Rafe is almost certain that Mystere is the masked woman who robbed him then forced him to strip and go home in his underwear. He is also soon convinced that she is the infamous Lady Moonlight, a society thief who infiltrates the balls and parties of the elite and steals their valuables from under their very noses.

This preoccupation with proving his theories about Mystere is so compelling it even distracts Paul from his self-appointed task of destroying the lives and reputations of Mrs. Astor and her cohorts. You see, when Paul was just a child, his father committed suicide after losing his considerable fortune in bad investments. Following the scandal, New York society turned its back on Paul and his mother, condemning her to a premature death in penury.

Paul, through wits and hard work, has amassed an even larger fortune than his father lost. With it, he has purchased back his position in society with the sole intent of wreaking havoc among those who turned their backs on his family. Mystere also has a secret objective - she uses her share of her ill-gotten gains to search for her beloved brother, taken by a press gang 12 years ago and not heard from since.

The majority of the book is taken up with Rafe hounding Mystere and her sniping back at him. There’s no mystery - he knows who she is, she knows he knows, and we know everything everybody knows. Dramatic irony it isn’t. It is, however, nasty and mean-spirited. For example, he chases and bullies her relentlessly in spite of her attempts to avoid him, then blames her for interfering with his plans for revenge. I guess we’re supposed to believe it’s a romance because it says so on the cover.

Occasionally they stop snarling long enough to wonder why the other “stirred a pulsing loin warmth” or notice the “demands of physical desire.” But when he takes her virginity, she’s suffering from a gunshot wound and he’s just shown her the basement cell he’s going to keep her in if she doesn’t cooperate. I mean, honestly, this guy is so cold I can’t believe her tongue doesn’t freeze to him when they kiss.

Under the circumstances, her rationalization that this as the “one night of love” they can share before she disappears from his life forever is inexplicable. Her difficult childhood has obviously left her with such a warped idea of “love” that we can trust neither her judgment nor her feelings. What fun.

I will give Ms. McKinney this - she has mastered her setting. The geography, society, sounds, smells and life of 1880’s New York feel absolutely authentic. She has done her homework, and reading her descriptions of Manhattan and imagining the tanneries and tenements and farms where office towers and luxury hotels and high-end retailers now stand is fascinating stuff. Unfortunately, “I Love New York” was not the romance I was looking for here.

If you enjoyed the two books I mentioned before, it’s very possible this will be right up your alley. But if you’re looking for a love story, this is a dead end.

--Judi McKee

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