Alternate Title: The Constant Gardner
The Chick: Emmalyn "Emma" Hathaway. While on an errand for her cousin, she was abducted and cruelly beaten, barely managing to escape. While her uncle and cousin Marisol are convinced this was a random attack, Emma fears someone may have mistaken her for popular Marisol and might strike again, so she goes to Restell Gardner, Regency Problem Solver, to help investigate the motive behind her abduction.
The Rub: Emma herself remembers little about the attack, and still suffers the psychological repercussions, such as blackouts and panic attacks triggered by seemingly harmless gestures.
Dream Casting: A younger Kate Beckinsale.
The Dude: Restell Gardner. The younger stepbrother of the Earl of Ferrin, Restell is happy to live in his brother's pocket while he conducts his own private investigations for clients. When Emma comes to him for help, he knows this is a case he can't walk away from.
The Rub: While Emma remains convinced her attacker was really aiming for Marisol, Restell fears something bigger might be afoot - and that Emma might very well have been the intended target after all.
Dream Casting: True Blood's Ryan Kwanten.
Emma: I need protection!
Restell: For yourself?
Emma: No - for my cousin.
Emma: I wasn't the target. *is almost drowned*
Restell: Uh huh.
Emma: No really.
Restell: Just like you aren't a secret artist who's maintaining your uncle's reputation?
Emma: I have no idea what you're talking about. I'm not important enough to do away with.
Crazy Crazy Killer: Die, Emma, die! *falls off building*
Restell: Do you ever get tired of being wrong?
Restell: *smug grin* It's a good thing you're in love with me.
Emma: Oh, alright.
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Crazy Spoiled Cousin
1 Negligent Uncle
1 Lacklustre Romantic Rival
2 Attempted Muuuuuuurders
1 Actual Muuuuuurder
2 Forged Paintings
1 Secret Artist
1 Fake Mistress
1 Fake Poor Relation
1 Dead Thug
2 Live Thugs
The Word: This is my second Jo Goodman novel (my first being The Price of Desire), and, as usually happens to me when I read the second books by authors I love at first read, I always find a lot to compare between the first book I've read and the second. If His Kiss Is Wicked, like PoD, is a subtle, slow-burning story with a deep and complicated mystery that unravels deliciously slowly. It has a heroine who, after enduring unspeakable trauma, carries deep-seated and unconscious fears that, if triggered, can cause her to seriously injure others, usually the hero. Also, both novels are slapped with misleadingly bland romance titles and terrible covers. Seriously - the cover to IHKIW is just plain fugly.
But the story? Wonderful. Orphaned Emma Hathaway lives with her uncle (a famous painter), who dotes on her pampered and self-indulgent cousin Marisol. Although Marisol is engaged, she continues to flirt and conduct assignations almost directly underneath her fiance's nose. When Marisol asks Emma to break off one of these relationships in Marisol's place, Emma agrees.
When next we see Emma, she's in the office of Restell Gardner, a gentleman who offers private investigations and protection services in return for favours. Her face is covered with bruises, and she's only barely started the road to recovery (both physically and mentally). As it turns out, on her way to break off Marisol's fling, she was abducted and viciously beaten by strange men. While she managed to escape, she never discovered the identities of her attackers, and her uncle and cousin want to cover everything up to prevent scandal from attaching itself to the family.
Emma, however, has reason to believe her attackers might have been aiming at Marisol instead, and fears that her cousin might still be in danger, so she privately enlists Restell's help. Restell, conceiving an almost immediate soft spot for this battered, but not broken woman, agrees to help, although he's doubtful Marisol was the intended target. During his investigations, he discovers a conspiracy of art forgers, imposters, secret trusts, gambling debts, and murder.
Restell and Emma also end up discovering love, despite their very different personalities. Restell is almost 100% angst-free. He lives a comfortable existance on his generous brother's handouts, and uses his free time to help people, refreshingly lacking the larger-than-life Alpha Male pride that would have made this situation unpalatable to any number of traditional romance heroes. He's cheeky, humorous and mischievous - taking things seriously when necessary, but rarely otherwise.
Emma, however, is his polar opposite. She has a definite can-do attitude, and while her frequent capitulations to her family's oft-selfish whims do shift her close to doormat territory on occasion, she never comes off as a martyr. She always wants to do something, anything, that will give herself a purpose that will finally get her out of the house. While Restell is romantic, clever and dependent - Emma is practical, determined, and proud. And while she has her own sense of pride that is often the only thing that keeps her upright when her subconscious terrors are triggered, she's not above accepting help and admitting when someone else might be right.
Despite the seriousness of Emma's problems, Jo Goodman ably demonstrates why a sly jokester like Restell is the better match for her than someone more serious. Emma already takes things too seriously, oftentimes giving things a greater import than they deserve that can hinder her recovery. The best example for this would be her psychological terrors. Certain triggers, like the sound of something hard tapping against leather or the sight of a Barcelona handkerchief, cause her to react instinctively and violently to defend herself, whether she's in real danger or not. Certain triggers also cause her to have blackouts, leaving her with stretches of time in which she can't remember doing anything. These reactions terrify her into believing she's slowly going mad. She remembers how her uncle had her grandmother institionalized and fears the same might happen to her.
Restell and his lightness help Emma to overcome this. While he's not disrespectful about her fears, his ability to take nearly everything in stride lessens Emma's concerns about her sanity. At one point, Emma starts clawing at her throat when Restell shows her a handkerchief left at the crime scene, and when he tries to stop her, she bites him. Restell calmly pries her teeth out of his hand, and after she calms down, remarks how her reaction - instead of being proof of insanity or weakness of mind - is rather a clue to what happened during her attack. While consciously she remembers nothing of what happened, her subconscious mind clearly does. Ultimately, Emma's mind can only be healed by Emma herself - but Restell's humour, sympathy, trust in her judgement, and treatment of her as an equal are what allow her to cease fixating on her terrors and overcome them.
What's less clear is what Emma offers Restell in return. There are definitely reasons for why Restell falls for Emma - she's brave, witty, determined. But the novel never really provides a reason for why Restell needs Emma, at least the same way Emma needs Restell. It was similar in The Price of Desire, where Olivia had way more problems than Griffin. Both Griffin and Restell are surprisingly well-adjusted heroes - although Griffin did have some personal problems of his own. This wasn't necessarily a problem in If His Kiss Is Wicked. I just find I have a preference for romances where the hero and heroine both bring at least some baggage to the table.
Otherwise, this novel was solid and enjoyable. I was prepared this time for the extreme amounts of dialogue that seem to be a staple of a Jo Goodman novel, and knew to pay attention because a lot of the mystery hinges on the smallest of details and I found that more than once I missed a few things and had to skim back to adjust myself. Despite a few plot holes, the mystery itself was just as engaging as the romance and the ending was truly surprising.
Once again, Jo Goodman impresses, which makes me feel a lot better because I have another 3 of her books on my TBR pile. Her characters are smart and capable, her language is lovely, the dialogue is witty (and plentiful!), and the mystery totally absorbing.
Now if her publisher could only give her better covers and titles.