Alternate Title: To Catch a Thief
The Chick: Lady Isabel "Tibby" Chalsey. When a thief breaks into her house and steals a kiss, she retaliates by lifting his mask - and catching a glimpse of his face, soon discovers that the infamous Mayfair Marauder is none other than Sullivan Waring, a well-respected horse breeder. She decides a little blackmail might be just the thing to spice up her everyday life, and having a devilishly handsome horse breeder at her beck and call has its advantages.
The Rub: She's deathly afraid of horses. Also, Sullivan's not one who responds well to coercion.
Dream Casting: A younger Sarah Michelle Gellar, circa Buffy, second season.
The Dude: Sullivan Waring. The bastard son of the Marquis of Dunston, Sullivan came back from the war to discover the father who never acknowledged him stole and distributed the paintings his mother made that were rightfully his. Donning a black mask, he vows to recover his rightful property by fair means or foul - until he gets caught by a willful chit used to getting her own way.
The Rub: The same willful chit ends up stealing his heart faster than he stole his mother's painting from her wall - but he knows that as a bastard commoner, he has no chance with her.
Dream Casting: Guy Pearce.
Sullivan: For my first trick, I'm going to make this painting disappear!
Sullivan: CRAP. Um, what do you want to keep quiet?
Isabel: What don't I want?
Sullivan: Oh, double crap.
Isabel: If you don't do exactly as I say, I'll tattle on you!
Sullivan: But if I'm taken to jail, who'll be there to make out with you?
Isabel: Hmmm, we seem to be at an impass.
Sullivan and Isabel: *smoochies*
Polite Society: !
Sullivan: I can't be responsible for ruining your position in Society. I have to leave.
Sullivan's Father: Oh, fine, I acknowledge you!
Sullivan: Scratch that, then, Isabel. Marry me?
Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Bored Society Darling
1 Bastard Who is Still a Nice Gentleman
1 Gentleman Who is Kind of a Bastard
1 Very Bad Father
A Dozen Stolen Paintings
1 Interclass Romance
1 Fear of Horses
The Word: After the Kiss was an interesting novel to read, particularly right after Jo Beverley's Hazard, because even though the protagonists of both novels appear similar on the surface, and even though this novel's Isabel acts in a way I professed to hate in my last review, I found this novel a much better read. Allow me to elaborate.
In After the Kiss, our hero Sullivan Waring meets Lady Isabel Chalsey while he's stealing a painting from her house. He successfully distracts her with a kiss before he makes his getaway, but discovers she removed his mask and got a good look at his face first. When she meets him the next day at a horse dealership and puts two and two together, she decides to blackmail him into dancing attendance on her in return for keeping his secret (so long as he refrains from robbing other houses).
Now, in Jo Beverley's Hazard, I expressed a distaste for Anne, the heroine, because she frequently sets out to control and manipulate other people's lives, and how the novel tries to playfully explain this away by reminding us that she's a sheltered and pampered aristocrat. So, how come I hated Anne but actually enjoyed reading about Isabel? Well, there are several reasons.
The first reason is that Isabel is aware of her spoiled nature and is quite honest about herself and what she is doing. She's not one of Society's outsiders by any means, nor is she one of those anachronistic female characters who run about in breeches. She loves dresses and shopping and balls and parties, and her pampered upbringing removes her just enough from reality so that she thinks blackmailing a handsome thief will provide her with a month or two of excitement with the added karmic bonus of keeping a robber off the streets.
However, as she needs a reason to keep Sullivan at her beck and call, she hastily buys an unbroken horse from him and hires him to train it for riding, overlooking the insignificant detail that she's terrified of horses and has been since she was eight. This fear adds a realistic layer to her character as well as an interesting aspect to her relationship with Sullivan.
Sullivan arrives on Isabel's doorstep with her new horse and every intention of convincing/threatening her to keep her silence, but her autocratic and commanding behaviour is undermined by her very real and obvious fear of the animal. As irritated as Sullivan is to be under the thumb of some spoiled brat with a bad boy complex, he instinctively wants to help her with her phobia and teach her to to love horses as much as he does.
I really just loved Isabel because she's an incredibly open and honest character, with herself and with others. Yes, she loves spending money, yes, she loves excitement and drama, yes, she thinks thieves are dashing rogues - who wouldn't? She's perfectly happy with who she is and has no qualms against saying what she likes, doing as she pleases, and going after what she wants. At the same time, she cannot hide her feelings or intentions very well - which is why the unsettling presence of her new horse, Zephyr, prevents her from achieving the perfect upper hand with Sullivan whenever they meet.
Another reason I enjoyed this interclass romance more than Hazard is because the hero of this novel actually has a part to play - a big difference from Hazard's Race, who spends more time as the object of affection than a participating character.
Sullivan's thievery is actually a clever sort of revenge against the aristocracy who shunned and cheated him. His aristocratic father, the Marquis of Dunston, is a pompous hypocrite who never acknowledged his bastard son because it would jeopardize his public image as a bastion of propriety. Sullivan took it all in stride until the day he returned from the war to find out his mother's paintings has been pilfered by Dunston and distributed to his friends and supporters.
Sullivan knew that any legal proceedings he attempted to push through a system biased towards the peerage would come to naught, so he decided to steal the paintings back one by one, knowing Dunston could never come forward and identify Sullivan as the thief without revealing their unsavoury connection and losing the respect of society.
Because Sullivan's character receives an equal amount of "screen time" ("page time"?), the development of the romance in After the Kiss is more equally balanced than that in Hazard, in which Race, having about half the number of scenes that Anne does (if that), has to scramble to keep up with Anne's emotional development in a way that appeared, dare I say it, hapHazard.
With After the Kiss, both characters have established traits and personalities that lend depth and significance to the development of their love. An excellent aspect of their budding romance is the realistic difficulties involved - it isn't all rainbows and puppies. Rather, it's a double-edged sword for both of them - their relationship forces some painful situations and realizations on both of them, and it's up to them to decide whether the dazzling highs of their romance are worth the surprising lows.
Isabel is truly a Society miss - she's grown up with that life and knows nothing outside of it, nor wants to. She's satisfied and entertained by balls and gossip and gowns. But her association with Sullivan, a commoner, ostracizes her from the only world she's ever known. Formerly her Society's cosseted, glittering star, in her descent from favour she discovers the darker, restricting, and pompous underbelly of her particular ninth cloud and can't decide whether she'd rather come down from the clouds entirely or work her way back up to where things are bright and sparkly again. As a society creature, what kind of person can she be without a society to support her?
With Sullivan, the pain is even more internal. He's also taught himself to be completely satisfied with his life - he has a thriving business he enjoys doing, with lots of opportunities to thumb his nose at the upper crust by exercising his owner's right to sell only to those whom he deems worthy. His experience with his Marquis father instilled a deep-seated hatred and disdain of aristocrats that permits only a few exceptions. However, his growing love for Isabel in turn undermines his self-confidence in his lifestyle. He's taught himself not to hate that aspect about himself which he can't change (his bastardy), but as he recognizes Isabel as a Society creature his contempt turns inward upon himself for his inability to provide her with the life to which she is accustomed. The novel's plot doesn't just shrug off the problem of Sullivan's status, something I appreciated. Both characters have to come to grips with what they have to give up, and whether it's worth it.
If there were a few flaws, it would be that the way things turn out for Isabel and Sullivan seemed a shade on the easy side. Goodness knows, I like a satisfying HEA as much as the next romance girl, but I prefer it when the ending feels earned, with the characters scraping out their own happiness. By the end, it seemed like a great deal of good luck happened to everyone at once. Isabel's reputation mends with magical painlessness, I thought - the same with Sullivan's career. As well, Sullivan's half-brother, the legitimate Viscount Oliver Sullivan, seemed like a jackass just for the sake of being a jackass, when his side of the story is (relatively) sympathetic from a certain standpoint. As well, Isabel can be a bit too dominating in the relationship - there were a few too many "things have to go my way, because I want it" moments where Sullivan should have had an equal say.
Other than that, though, the novel was a true pleasure to read, with some genuinely funny scenes and dialogue. Suzanne Enoch provides a cunning parallel for the romance in the training of Zephyr, Isabel's horse. Isabel only buys the animal to give herself an excuse to have Sullivan under her control, and never plans to ride it. So, initially, the training is slow - Sullivan simply walks the horse and speaks to it as Isabel watches. But as she comes to enjoy Sullivan's company, the only way she can justify his continued presence in her life is if she faces her terror, and gradually comes to be more comfortable around horses. While she did perfectly well without riding horses in her life, once she finally gets up in the saddle she discovers the world from a new perspective that makes her previous life pale in comparison.
The same occurs in the romance - both characters are (or believe they are, at any rate) perfectly happy living their regular lives, never knowing what they're missing. Only by slowly growing accustomed to each other and facing their personal fears do they have a chance to achieve a world they never new existed.