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Kissing A Stranger
by Margaret Evans Porter
(Avon, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-380-79559-0
****
One of the hardest parts about reviewing is assigning the correct rating. However, there are certain times when this task is easy. I always figure that if a book keeps me up until 3:00 in the morning because I can't wait till the next day to find out what happens, then it's four hearts for sure. And Kissing A Stranger kept me up way past my bedtime!

Porter sets her story in the late 18th century. France is convulsed by revolution, but the English aristocracy is continuing its heedless ways. Into this world where infidelity is commonplace, where fortunes change hands over the turn of a card, where marriage is a business proposition comes the lovely and innocent Lady Lavina Cashin.

Lavina has been raised on the Isle of Man far from the sophistication of the London elite. Her father has a title; he is the Earl of Ballacraine. But the family has no money to support their position. It has always been understood that Lavina must marry well to restore the family fortunes. Thus, the earl and his daughter head to the capital so she can take her place in society.

London is a strange and frightening place to the young woman and when, as she alights from her carriage before their rented house, an elegant man steals a kiss right in public, she is shocked at his behavior. She is also struck by his handsome person. But she scurries into the house.

Lord Garrick Armitage is on his way to visit his prospective mistress when he accosts Lavina in the street. Her fair skin, gray eyes and luxuriant black hair remind him of the ladies of Italy where he has lived much of his life. Although the son of a duke, Garrick was disinherited when he broke his engagement to an heiress three years earlier. He has lived by his wits and his gambling skills. He has come home to England because he wants revenge against Lord Everdon, a man who betrayed the only woman Garrick has ever loved.

Lavina and her father are innocents in an unfriendly world. No one has heard of the Earl of Ballacraine and the funds he had hoped would pay for Lavinia's society debut fail to come through. The earl finds himself taken up for non-payment of a debt and ends up in prison. Lavina finds herself without a place to stay. When Lord Garrick discovers her plight, he searches her out and takes her to stay with his cousin, Mrs. Francesca Radstock, a highly respectable member of the ton.

Under Mrs. Radstock's sponsorship, Lavina enters society, where she garners exactly the sort of attention her father had hoped. Mrs. Radstock, ever a matchmaker, sets her sights on the Marquess of Newbold as the perfect husband for her young protegee. And Newbold is much taken by the beauteous young lady. Mrs. Radstock, Lavina, Lord Garrick and the marquess are all invited to spend Christmas with the Duke of Halford, Garrick's brother.

Obviously, I liked the characters in Porter's novels. Garrick has lived a life of excess, but there are good reasons why he has behaved as he does. Lavina is an innocent, but not a fool. She is brave and sensible in the face of overwhelming problems. Likewise the villain and the secondary characters, especially the ever optimistic earl, are well drawn.

But what I especially liked was the interesting and complex plot that Porter has created and her sure recreation of the world of the late 18th century. She is equally deft in describing London society, its gambling hells, the bucolic beauties of the Isle of Man, a country house party and the horse racing at Newmarket.

This is Porter's second long historical after a distinguished career as a Regency author. I believe she has made the transition from the short to the longer format very well. She brings to her writing a deep appreciation for the world of late 18th century England which enriches her book.

Kissing A Stranger kept me interested, kept me entertained and kept me up. A line in the epilogue makes me wonder if a sequel about Lavinia's brother is in the works. I hope so; I want to renew my acquaintance with Garrick and Lavina because I liked them so much. I think you will too.

--Jean Mason


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