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The Key by Lynsay Sands
(Leisure, $4.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8439-4482-X
****
Color me quirky, but I never thought I'd admit to enjoying a book wherein a chastity belt (yes, you read that right) plays a major role in the plot. But much to my surprise, I found Lynsay Sands' The Key to be pure entertainment from start to finish. This one definitely fits into the "don't judge a book by its cover" category; the cover illustration features an 18th century carriage for a story set in the 14th century and a heroine draped in a very frothy pink Victorian number. What's more, the back cover copy is enough to make you blanch.

Despite these inauspicious beginnings, however, (which I know have absolutely nothing to do with the author, but I can't help shaking my finger at the publisher) The Key is a lighthearted and funny romance that never takes itself too seriously, and maintains a genuine respect for its audience.

Historic romances that can be classified as "zany" or "slapstick" often fall into the dreaded trap of also being just plain stupid. But the author clearly knows that silly humor doesn't mean you talk down to your audience and let your plot run away with your characters. Silly can be smart, and thankfully, that's the case here. You have a feisty heroine who never caves into the pressure that befalls so many romance heroines – in other words, she doesn't take one look at the hero and chuck her all her good intentions for a steamy night in his arms. On the contrary, Iliana Wildwood takes one look, and one whiff of Duncan Dunbar and almost gags.

He smells, you see.

Not just smells…reeks. The man hasn't taken a bath in almost six months.

The fact that Iliana has been forced to wed this Highland warrior in order to save her mother's life (a rather absurd plot device) doesn't mean that she has to accept the deplorable conditions that come with her new husband. His castle is a mess pure and simple, and Iliana flat out refuses to allow him anywhere near her until he cleans up his act.

That's where the dreaded "belt of chastity" comes in. Iliana dons the leather "garment" (a new Italian invention) as a way of safeguarding her, well…wares, until her husband complies with her wish that he take a bath. Duncan, who is really quite intelligent and sweet underneath all the grime, refuses on principle. He is the husband and he'll make the rules.

But Iliana won't relent – she won't have a flea-infested husband rolling around on her mother's good linen sheets. So a battle of wills ensues, with Iliana cleaning everything in sight, winning the support of the hitherto suspicious Dunbar clan, and slowly capturing the heart of the thick-head Scot who does everything in his power to divest Iliana of her unusual garb.

Iliana, for all her insistence on cleanliness, is no shrinking violet, and certainly no prude who takes any kind of pleasure in donning a leather g-string. Despite her stance on cleanliness, she is not completely averse to Duncan's dirty, but still visible charms. Some lively love scenes result from Duncan's determined seduction of his new bride.

So, all in all, The Key is a happy surprise. The author has created a whimsical tale that never sacrifices smarts for silliness. Lynsay Sands knows how to turn a fun phrase, and her repeated and varied use of the word "muckle" caused more than a few giggles.

Give it a try.

--Ann McGuire


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