Danger's Kiss

Sarah McKerrigan
2008, Medieval Romance (1250s England)
Forever, $6.99, 384 pages, Amazon ASIN 044661887X

Grade: B-
Sensuality: Warm

I really liked Danger's Kiss, most of it. The interesting leads - complete opposites - have a nice, slow courtship, each becoming a bit like the other, and there's a gleeful, larger-than-life villainess. And then it all fell apart in the last four chapters and went from a bordering on DIK territory book to one I can just barely recommend. Very frustrating.

Nicholas Grimshaw is a nice guy in a mean job. He is a shire-reeve and his job is to collect taxes, question prisoners, and administer punishments, whether it is placing someone in the stocks or overseeing a hanging. He is feared throughout Kent as a man of no conscience or mercy. He is also a bit of a fraud. Nicholas has carefully nurtured his violent reputation so well that he rarely needs to use physical punishment to extract confessions. All he need do is lovingly lay out his instruments of torture and describe their uses and his prisoners tell all. It's a great gambit, and provides some undercurrents of humor, but it is also a very lonely existence - no one wants anything to do with the most feared and despised man in the country.

Desirée is a thief, sold by her poor parents to, and taught the trade by, Hubert when she was a child. Now Hubert has been sentenced to hang for murder. Desirée arrives in Canterbury from the wild goose chase Hubert has sent her on, just in time to see his hanging, presided over by Nicholas. She causes such a scene that Nicholas must subdue her, eventually trussing her up and taking her home when he learns her identity.

Hubert didn't deny the murder charges, though he was innocent, but was glad for the chance to die quickly rather than from the wasting disease he had contracted. He extracts a promise from Nicholas to look after his "granddaughter" and Nicholas agrees, thinking Desirée would be a child in need of a family to adopt her, not a beautiful woman with light fingers and a foul mouth. After much wrangling, fits and starts (and bruises for Nicholas), Desirée winds up taking a position as maidservant in Nicholas's home, cleaning and cooking for him.

Desirée doesn't take easily to domesticity and making an honest living - lifting purses is so much easier than scrubbing. But having a roof over her head and food in her stomach on a regular basis is nothing to sneeze at. When she returns something she stole, she is surprised with herself but a bit proud as well. She is fascinated by the disconnect between Nicholas's fearsome reputation and his kindness to her and eventually worms out all his secrets. Desirée is tough but vulnerable, and every bit as lonely as Nicholas.

For his part, a bit of Desirée's dishonesty is rubbing off on Nicholas. He has always been a by-the-book, letter-of-the-law type, but is learning that a bit of deception and fudging may be necessary in order to see true justice done. Desirée and Nicholas spar and bicker and advance and retreat and become friends while passion simmers just below the surface.

There is also a great villain in Lady Philomena who is slowly poisoning her father-in-law, while she smacks around servants thinking things like, "Why did everything have to be so complicated? Was it too much to ask that people die when they're supposed to? Must she do everything herself?" She's a Cruella DeVil-type caricature and a lot of fun.

But then it all fell apart in the last four chapters, which I can't fully explain because of spoilers. But the nice, leisurely-paced character study I'd been enjoying turned into an action-packed debacle. It's like McKerrigan realized it was time to turn in the book and so had to finish it quickly, for in these four chapters there are numerous murders, imprisonments, trials, escapes and general mayhem - from a completely different book than the preceding 26 chapters. There were moments that had me reading with my mouth agape thinking, "WTF?" And not in a good way. But in a completely ludicrous way that had me wishing I could rip out those last four chapters and make McKerrigan rewrite them.

But, until then, I really liked Danger's Kiss, its characters, and its humor. I can still recommend the book on that basis, though I urge you to stop when you reach Chapter 27 and make up your own ending.

-- Cheryl Sneed

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