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Mine Till Midnight, by Lisa Kleypas

Title: Mine Till Midnight (Hathaways #1)
Author: Lisa Kleypas
Year of Publication: 2007
Length: 360 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars

The Hathaways have accidentally inherited a viscountcy, and oldest sister Amelia is trying desperately to hold the family together with both hands. Their inheritance comes with massive expenses and no money, the manor house could be knocked down by a strong breeze, brother Leo, the new viscount, is attempting to drink himself into oblivion as an escape from grief, sister Win is nearly an invalid after scarlet fever, sister Poppy is beautiful but entirely unprepared for the social whirl, sister Beatrix has an obsession with animals and mild kleptomania, and adopted brother Merripen is a prickly and protective Rom with a dangerous temper.

While trying to sort this mess out in her head, Amelia wanders onto familiar territory and into a familiar character (at least for continuous Kleypas readers) — her family’s new lands, as it turns out, stand adjacent to those of Lord Westcliff, of the Wallflowers series. The man she encounters is Cam Rohan, half-Roma factotum of Lord St. Vincent’s gaming club, out in the country for a weekend. Cam’s struggling through some personal challenges of his own at the moment, feeling shame over his inexplicable ability to accumulate wealth and over the extent to which he has become tied down, to one location, in conflict with his Romany roots.

The cultural differences provide the first hurdles — Kleypas doesn’t succumb to “gypsy” stereotypes and treats the Roma with a great deal of respect (though I honestly don’t know with how much accuracy or romanticizing, in spite of the careful treatment), but she also doesn’t gloss over the prejudices (which are not only historical but very much still extant). Both Cam and Amelia start out viewing a relationship between them as impossible for this reason. When Cam makes up his mind that Amelia is the girl for him, however, he won’t be gainsaid — even by the lady herself. Amelia seeks to retain her independence, having mentally placed herself on the shelf, devoted entirely to her family. Cam has to tease out her romantic side, but also proves himself indispensable when it comes to managing the family. He’s a great hero — as I knew he would be when we first met him — dark and mischievous, practical yet cheeky. He coaxes Amelia into loving him — or, at least, into admitting what she already feels — with a great deal of charm and sly humour. I’ve seen from some reviews on Goodreads that other readers have been frustrated with Amelia’s delay in succumbing, but I find it quite realistic, both for the social considerations and for emotional veracity. That feeling of not wanting to surrender independence, particularly when you’ve just gotten used to the idea of it and the responsibility it entails, can be powerful, and I was glad that Kleypas gave us a  heroine who didn’t melt immediately and forget her own values and goals at the first sign of interest from a dark and handsome stranger. I like Amelia for her stubbornness and her occasional fits of pique; they make her a far more interesting and relatable character.

The conflicts in this book are a lot less predictable than in many romance novels — as is often the case with Kleypas, since she frequently steps outside the traditional bounds with her subject matter. Ex-fiances, rooms covered in bees (a personal horror for me), possible hauntings — they all swirl together, giving Mine Till Midnight an extra edge of excitement alongside of the romance. As ever, Kleypas shines best with the ensemble, and the Hathaways are certainly no exception. From the first book, we get a cast of three-dimensional characters, each with their own quirks and foibles — and some with darker demons to face down. The seeds of the rest of the series are all here, but they never threaten to overwhelm the main plotline. Overall, Mine Till Midnight is a thoroughly enjoyable book and a great start to another lively, engaging series from Ms. Kleypas.

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Worth Any Price, by Lisa Kleypas

Title: Worth Any Price (Bow Street Runners #3)
Author: Lisa Kleypas
Year of Publication: 2003
Length: 388 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3 stars, on credit

I always find this one disappointing. I think it’s because I don’t care as much for the heroine as I might. It’s not that there’s anything really wrong with her — there are just ways in which I feel she lacks substance, and that makes this the weakest of the three Bow Street Runners novels. And that’s a shame, because Nick Gentry deserved better. Unfortunately, with so little to play against, he’s not exactly showing to his best in this book, either, and so the whole thing just ends up feeling like it missed the mark.

Well. The plot. Nick Gentry is three years into his forcible reformation as a member of the Bow Street Runners, atoning for his past as a criminal mastermind. He’s also still taking some private commissions, and one of them involves hunting down the would-be bride of the much-older and creepily-obsessed Lord Radnor. He finds her, but quickly realises she’s not what he had assumed — rather than a willful, spoiled girl being petulant, he finds an openly terrified young woman who still doesn’t let her fear jeopardise an iron core. Nick is impressed enough — and attracted enough — to offer to marry her as an alternative, to remove her from Radnor’s influence forever; Charlotte is desperate enough to accept. Then they have to figure out how to be married to each other, and there’s lots of negotiating back and forth, and a lot of Lottie trying to break through Nick’s defenses. It’s somewhat predictable, and without enough flair to make the predictability of the plot worth it. Kleypas does do a nice job with the villain; Radnor is a pretty scary creature, who invested a lot of money trying to turn Charlotte into “the perfect woman”. It’s sort of 19th-century Stepford thinking. It’s also implied that he molested her when she was a teenager, and when he realises Lottie is out of his reach, he kidnaps her younger sister to lure her away from Nick. Despite the promise of that set-up, the action sequence at the end deflates pretty quickly.

The other side of the plot comes from Nick’s sister Sophia, from (obviously), Lady Sophia’s Lover. Sophia is nudging Nick to reclaim his latent viscountcy, and her husband is supporting her — rather forcefully managing Nick’s life from a distance — because they’re both worried that Nick is going to get himself killed working for Bow Street. There’s also the matter of Bow Street’s tenure coming to an end, ceding to make way for the Metropolitan Police, which is an interesting but under-used historical tidbit. This plotline had potential, but didn’t get explored nearly enough; Nick has a temper fit, but then acquiesces in a grumbling sort of way. But Kleypas doesn’t do much with it past that. The announcement is the setting for a plot point, but we never really get to see Nick come to terms with his responsibilities in an emotional way.

The sex scenes were still good. I do appreciate that we open with Nick learning how to be a lover from a famous madam, and I like that Kleypas toys with a little bit of bondage play in this book. A little. Not much, because, well, historical romances just never seem to want to go there, much to my dismay. But it is there, and I’m glad for it. Other than that, though — I just don’t have a lot to say about this book. It’s serviceable; it closes out a trilogy; it could be skipped without feeling like you’re missing too much.

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Lady Sophia’s Lover, by Lisa Kleypas

Title: Lady Sophia’s Lover (Bow Street Runners #2)
Author: Lisa Kleypas
Year of Publication: 2002
Length: 377 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars

I remember being seventeen years old and recommending this book to a friend because “it has lots of different kinds of sex in it”. This is probably something of an odd trait to tout, and yet, it’s a lot of what sticks with me out of Lady Sophia’s Lover. That’s not to say that the plot and characters aren’t engaging — they are — but Kleypas somewhat pushes the norm for eroticism in historical romances here, and I say, bless her for it.

Sophia is a woman fallen both from grace and circumstance, and she’s looking for revenge. Born the daughter of a viscount and orphaned in her youth, Sophia only barely managed to keep her head above water by entering the household of a distant relative. Her brother wasn’t so fortunate, and got trapped in a life of crime in London, eventually sentenced to a prison hulk for his part in a highway robbery. The man responsible for his sentence and thus, in Sophia’s eyes, his death? Sir Ross Cannon, head of the Bow Street Runners. Sophia concocts a plan to bring the famously virtuous magistrate down, which hinges on seducing him and then embroiling him in scandal. She presents herself as an employee, and against his better judgment, he agrees to let her work as his assistant. Heat smoulders between them from their first meeting — but, as is the case when you’re headed for a HEA, Sophia’s heart gets overinvolved. She discovers that Ross is not at all the heartless tyrant she’d imagined, that he’s done a lot of work as a reformer, and it rather dampens her desire for vengeance. For his part, Ross is utterly entranced by the charming woman who has stepped in and rather ruthlessly organised his life, adding all the little domestic touches that he’d been missing. A widower, Ross rediscovers love and newly discovers real passion with Sophia.

I don’t know that I’ve felt this way about this book in the past, but on this re-read, I was sort of wishing for more of the revenge angle. Kleypas drops it pretty quickly. Honestly, Sophia’s heart never really seems in it, even at the beginning. There’s always a hesitation, and it rather lowers the stakes. This is one case, however, where I can at least believe the oddity of a woman choosing to insinuate herself into a man’s house in order to ruin him (unlike, say, The Rake, where it strains credulity) — Sophia clearly has nothing left to lose, so it’s not quite such a strange step for her to take. The twists that come later in the book are handled deftly and are definitely out of the norm as well.

This is a solid historical romance. If the circumstances of Sophia and Ross’s situation are improbable, the emotions are portrayed quite believably, and the sex sizzles. As always, I appreciate Kleypas’s willingness to step outside the usual class boundaries for historical romance. Lady Sophia’s Lover isn’t an all-time favourite, but it’s a book I always enjoy coming back to.

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Someone to Watch Over Me, by Lisa Kleypas

Title: Someone to Watch Over Me (Bow Street Runners #1)
Author: Lisa Kleypas
Year of Publication: 1999
Length: 362 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3 stars

This book starts with an interesting conceit, combining and altering a few more typical plot devices to create an unusual situation. Grant Morgan is a Bow Street Runner — the intermediate stage in the development of London’s law enforcement between the constabulary system and the Metropolitan police. This alone is a fairly unusual choice for hero material, but Kleypas is really great at that. She never shies from venturing outside the typical ranks of the aristocracy for her material, and the Bow Street Runners are interesting material to draw from. They provide a grounds for not only a new view on late-Hanoverian/early-Victorian society, (it’s hard to tell precisely when this book is set, for what it’s worth, and that is always something that will bother me. I would generally put it somewhere in the 1830s, however, so either William IV or Victoria is on the throne), but also for professional life and the underworld.

So. Our story begins when Grant arrives on the scene of an attempted murder; a woman was strangled and thrown in the Thames, but she didn’t quite die. He recognises her as Vivien Duvall, a notorious courtesan who had embarrassed him at some time in the past. Except, when she wakes up, she has amnesia, with no idea who she is or how she ended up in the river — and the personality she displays is entirely at odds with what he knows about Vivien. Far from being the brazen, caustic gold-digger, she is sweet, modest, and compassionate. Attempts to jar her memory by exposing her to her past — including a rather lurid diary, scandalous clothing, and a nude painting of herself — only result in embarrassing her. And then we learn that Vivien was visibly pregnant not long before she disappeared — but definitely is not now.

This might be a spoiler, but, honestly, I think you’d have to be pretty dense not to figure it out quickly, so I’m going to go ahead with it: Vivien is not, in fact, Vivien. When Grant seduces her, they find out — whoops! — she’s a virgin. Eventually, as her memory trickles back in, she pieces together that she’s been mistaken for her (gasp!) twin sister. Her name is actually Victoria, and she’s been living in genteel poverty out in the country somewhere. Vivien told her that she was in a spot of trouble, and she came to London to try to help, at the same time that Vivien fled London for the country; someone else mistook her for her sister and tried to kill her.

There are some logic-holes in this story. The “secret twin” thing is a little cliched, though at least spiced up with the courtesan angle. That a respectable man would just up and decide to keep a notorious woman in his house under the guise of figuring out her near-murder case is a little odd. (I mean, even if you were keeping a courtesan, you don’t bring them home, you get them their own apartments). But, then, Kleypas rarely lets things like good sense stand in the way of her plots. Vivien is a little too good to be true, and that makes her, honestly, a little bland as a heroine. The book doesn’t have as much quick wit and humour as I like from my romances. But, it is serviceable as a story, and it opens a nice trilogy on the Bow Street Runners.

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Scandal in Spring, by Lisa Kleypas

Title: Scandal in Spring (Wallflowers #4)
Author: Lisa Kleypas
Year of Publication: 2006
Length: 374 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.5 stars

This is one that doesn’t stick with me quite as well as the other Wallflowers books, and I’m not sure why. We’re back at the Westcliff manor to marry off the last of the Wallflowers, Lillian’s impish sister Daisy. The story starts off with her getting pretty brutalised emotionally by her father, who calls her a parasite and dares her to explain how the world has benefited from her existence. Ouch. He informs her that she has till the end of the season to find an English aristocrat to marry (the reason they hopped the pond in the first place), or he’s taking her back to New York to marry Matthew Swift, his protegee. Daisy revolts at the idea; Matthew as she remembers him is scrawny, dull, and overbearing, with all of her father’s worst business faults wrapped up in an unattractive package.

Well, imagine her surprise when the man himself turns up at the manor, filled out and handsome and doing charming things like making wishes in the well and freeing geese from snares. We learn, from Matthew’s internal dialogue, that he’s been in love with Daisy for ages, but that he never let himself believe in a future with her because of some mysterious skeletons in his closet. But, as is so often the case, the attraction becomes too compelling to ignore, and though he attempts to help Daisy to an entirely different husband, it becomes apparent to everyone involved that he wants her for himself. Daisy, at first infuriated by his high-handed manner, finds herself amiably provoked by him and eventually developing deeper feelings. Along the way, Daisy also learns to stand up for herself a bit, and she makes it clear that she won’t stand for a husband who dismisses her as inconsequential. She also comes to realise — and this is an interesting point for a romance novel to make — that the kind of ideal husband she has in mind (someone a lot like herself, romantic and bookish and impractical), would not at all make a good match for her. Scandal in Spring stresses a more practical balance in matrimony than a lot of books in the genre do, which is an interesting approach.

Needless to say, as is nearly always the case with Kleypas, the sex scenes are everything you hope for when you pick up one of these books. Kleypas has a talent for melding the physical and the emotional in a way that’s quite satisfying, and her erotica is never paint-by-numbers. I also enjoy that, for all she’s a historically-appropriate virgin, Daisy is not a frail and wilting flower. She takes initiative and demonstrates real sexual hunger of her own, without any of the virtuous, apprehensive hemming and hawing about it that can get so old so fast.

I think I would like this book more if the skeletons in Matthew’s closet had packed more of a punch. As it is, you sort of forget about them for most of the book, and then when they do pop up at the end, it’s clearly only to provide that necessary last-minute peril to the Happy Ever After. The subplot doesn’t really end up affecting much. It gives Matthew a reason (sort of) not to jump at the chance to marry Daisy in the first place, and it provides the third-act twist, but other than that, it’s pretty blurry and useless. I would much rather Kleypas have spent that time and those pages showing us some of Daisy and Matthew’s marriage. This was one story that didn’t need to end at the altar; I feel like they could still have a lot to work out with balancing their different natures, and there could’ve been a more interesting conflict there than the slightly odd hard right turn the story takes with the revelation of Matthew’s background.

Overall, Scandal in Spring is a perfectly adequate historical romance. It serves its purpose, it tells a nice story, it entertains for a few hours. Ultimately, thought, it’s not one of the ones that makes a tremendous impression. It’s not one I’ll pick up unless I’m deliberately revisiting the whole series, but it’s certainly no hardship to get through when I decide that’s what I’m doing.

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Devil in Winter, by Lisa Kleypas

Title: The Devil in Winter (Wallflowers #3)
Author: Lisa Kleypas
Year of Publication: 2006
Length: 374 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars
Spoiler Warning: For the events at the end of It Happened One Autumn

This book surprised me when I first read it, I recall. I had been tremendously intrigued by St. Vincent in the earlier books, but after his abduction of Lillian at the end of It Happened One Autumn, I really wasn’t sure how I felt about a kidnapper and potential rapist serving as the hero of the novel. As for Evie, well, I had nothing against her, but she faded into the background of the first two Wallflowers novels — the most wallflowery of the wallflowers, as it were. I felt less personal resonance with her, though she did remind me of people I’ve known.

But really, that Kleypas crafted her in that way was masterful. Through the first two books, Evie is the shyest of the Wallflowers, victim of a pronounced stutter which makes conversation painful — all the moreso when she’s nervous, which, of course, she is around precisely the men she’s meant to be attracting. She’s also, as we had hints of earlier but have confirmed in Devil in Winter, the victim of substantial abuse from her family. She’s the daughter of a well-born lady who ran off with Ivo Jenner, owner of a gaming club (who readers may remember as a secondary character in one of Kleypas’s Regency novels, Dreaming of You). Her mother died, and a gaming club being no place to raise a young girl, her father allowed her mother’s family to reclaim her. As Jenner’s done quite well for himself, Evie stands to inherit an enormous fortune on his death — which looks to be soon, as he’s quite ill. Her mother’s family, after years of punishing her for her mother’s behaviour, now seek to force her to marry a cousin so that her money will stay in the family.

Thus is the setup at the beginning of Devil in Winter, when Evie takes desperate action no one could have predicted: she runs to visit Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, and asks him to marry her. No one is more surprised than St. Vincent, but he takes the bait, since his family’s financial ruin has driven him to desperate measures already (see: his attempted kidnapping of Lillian). So away they hie them to Gretna Green for a quick wedding. In this section, I  appreciated Kleypas’s vivid descriptions of the cold and 19th-century methods of combating it on their way up to Scotland. Weather is a frequently ignored component of storytelling, unless there’s the need for a suitably dramatic storm. It was nice to get such detailed description to evoke the journey. They get their marriage of convenience, Evie insists they’ll only have enough sexual congress to consummate and then no more, except she ends up rather liking it, St. Vincent finds himself more attracted to her than to any woman before her — and so forth.

In many ways, the plot of Devil in Winter would be quite conventional — the rake reformed by the blushing virgin — if not for the unusual setting. Here as elsewhere, I appreciate Kleypas’s willingness to delve into non-standard elements of British society in the 19th century. For when Jenner dies, St. Vincent finds himself unexpected drawn to the business, furious to realize that Jenner was being cheated in his infirmity, and astonishingly capable of setting matters to rights. Not that his transition from utter reprobate into manager of a gaming den is smooth. He has to prove himself in a few fights, untangle a financial mess, raise the club’s standards to attract a better clientele, and, oh yeah, also save his new wife’s life from a jealous man believing himself to be Jenner’s son and rightful heir. The story turns when St. Vincent literally takes a bullet meant for Evie; what follows is a somewhat typical sickbed plotline, where St. Vincent’s life being in danger makes Evie realise just how much he means to her.

Again, the plot itself is somewhat formulaic, but Kleypas’s characters are what make it special. St. Vincent’s character comes across particularly well, with a great, unique voice, and watching Evie’s transformation from helplessness to self-assertion is a nice journey to follow. Kleypas actually deals with the aftermath of abuse and the tremendous strength it takes to come out of that, giving Evie a degree of psychological realism that I always appreciate, even in a fluff book. As ever, Kleypas fills out her world remarkably well — particularly in the person of dashing Romani croupier Cam Rohan (of whom more in a later book). We also see the further progression of the friendship that holds this series together. That friendship gets tested here — which is a nice touch, that it isn’t just assumed and easy — because, after all, Evie does marry a man who kidnapped and at least threatened to rape one of her best friends. But Annabelle and Daisy help to mend fences, and Lillian and Sebastian manage to come to terms (it helps when he nearly gets himself killed for Evie’s sake). Overall, a solid and enjoyable installment in the Wallflowers series.

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It Happened One Autumn, by Lisa Kleypas

Title: It Happened One Autumn (Wallflowers #2)
Author: Lisa Kleypas
Year of Publication: 2005
Length: 382 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.25 stars
Spoiler Warning: I generally find it very silly to put spoiler warnings on romance novels, because the outcome is pre-determined. The characters on the back cover are going to end up Happily-Ever-After. That is a foregone conclusion. However, because there’s a twist to how it happens that I wouldn’t want to give away, and because it affects the next book in the series, Devil in Winter, I will place a mild spoiler warning on this review.

Lillian Bowman and Marcus, Lord Westcliff have fought like cats and dogs since the moment they laid eyes on each other, which in romance novel terms clearly indicates that they are meant to be together.

I’m a sucker for this trope, and I freely admit that. It showed in some of my earliest ships. Han/Leia, Indy/Marion, Beatrice/Benedick, Dimitri/Anya — my sexual awakening was characterised by this dynamic. Anyone who read my review of Julia Quinn’s The Viscount Who Loved Me has already witnessed how strongly this sort of relationship will attract me in a romance novel. So, in some ways, It Happened One Autumn was almost too easy for me to like. The cards were stacked in its favour from the beginning.

As in Secrets of a Summer Night (and many of her other historical romances), Kleypas complicates her love story with the realism of the society her characters live in. Westcliff represents the old guard in some ways, though he’s innovative and progressive in others. An aristocrat who knows that he must move with the times or get left behind, Westcliff focuses himself on finding ways to use his inherited wealth and status to integrate himself with the new, industrial world. Progressive as his economic views are, however, personally, he’s turned into a stoic, unyielding man, due in great part to his upbringing. I found myself wishing his family had been fleshed out a bit more — they’re important and yet periphery at the same time, which is an odd combination. His sisters seem like interesting characters, but they don’t get nearly enough screen time (and I still can’t figure out if they have prior novels that I’ve somehow missed or not). His mother is a classic dragon, though, and figures into the end game in a critical way.

By contrast, Lillian is new money and American. The Bowmans have traveled to London after utterly failing on the New York social scene, aiming to catch aristocratic husbands for the two daughters, thus uniting their money with a bit of class and respectability. Lillian the soap heiress is utterly unsuitable for Westcliff — loud, boistrous, bold, unrefined, incapable of keeping her opinions to herself (are we catching on yet as to why I like her so much?), and he doesn’t need her money. The attraction is inescapable, though, particularly when the Bowmans find themselves back on Westcliff’s estate for an end-of-season shooting party.

Predictably, chaos ensues, but the great fun of it is watching Westcliff thaw out. In Secrets of a Summer Night, he definitely comes across as the staid and immoveable businessman; in It Happened One Autumn, his sense of humour creeps out. He warms to Lillian, beginning to appreciate her good spirits and her energy. An impulse turns into a kiss which turns into quite a bit more — as ever, Kleypas does excellent sex scenes, and this book is no exception. Things heat up between Marcus and Lillian even as they’re denying they want anything to do with each other. And Marcus starts questioning whether it’s really all that important to have a respectable, proper, English rose of a wife — maybe a high-spirited, impetuous American who can knock him down a peg might be just the thing. We also see Marcus getting possessive — and as I’ve noted before, I rather like that in a hero — when his old school friend St. Vincent, who’s turned into an utter reprobate as an adult, starts wooing Lillian in all apparent seriousness. I love that Lillian actually gets presented with a choice — and she reacts to it spectacularly and in a way I totally related to. It can be alarming, to all of a sudden find yourself the focus of incredibly sensuous attention from a known charmer, and Lillian responds to that in a very real way.

One of the things I like best about this book is that the climactic action genuinely surprised me. I didn’t at all see it coming — and considering that this genre is a fairly formulaic one, that really counts for something. So, here’s the spoiler-heavy part of the review: Westcliff’s mother, who most emphatically does not approve of the potential match, lures Lillian into a trap, and she ends up abducted by none other than Westcliff’s old school friend, St. Vincent — impoverished, badly in need of a wealthy wife, and moved to desperate straits. Put in a pin in all of that; we’ll be back for it in Devil in Winter. He intends to take Lillian to Gretna Greene and coerce her into a marriage that will solve his financial problems, though he knows it comes at the expense of his friendship with Westcliff (and possibly at the danger of having his wife murder him fairly soon after the wedding). This is a romance novel, however, and so of course Marcus catches up to them, only to find Lillian midway through rescuing herself already; Marcus beats St. Vincent to a pulp; he and Lillian move on to happy-ever-after.

This book is great fun because of the colourful characters, and as ever, Kleypas takes great care to round out her world with a magnificent supporting cast. Lillian and Marcus both have friends and rivals to bounce off of, which always serves to make characters seem more fully realised. The pacing is good, moving between points of action and quieter moments, and there are a few scenes where Kleypas gets to show off a talent for description that is, I think, often underappreciated in the genre. I knock a bit off the assessment because of a weird subplot involving Lillian’s preternatural sense of smell and a supposedly magic perfume; the book didn’t need it, it’s entirely extraneous, and a pretty pointless distraction. Ultimately, though, this book is an exciting, joyous romp with thoroughly entertaining characters. Highly recommended.

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