Lady Lavinia Cashin and her father, an impoverished earl, leave their crumbling castle on the Isle of Man. To ensure her family’s survival, Lavinia must swiftly find a wealthy husband in London. When her father is arrested for debt and lands in the King’s Bench Prison, she must persevere. Necessity forces her to accept help from unexpected and possibly untrustworthy sources.
Shunned by society, the infamous and reckless gamester Lord Garrick Armitage is attracted to the mysterious Manx beauty from the moment he sees her. In London’s ballrooms, during a Christmas house party, on the hunting field, and at a Newmarket race meeting, he is ever more convinced that Lavinia is the girl for him—even if she doesn’t realize it. Though lacking the fortune she requires in a suitor, neither can he stand aside and watch her make a marriage of convenience devoid of the love and passion they share.
Lavinia must take drastic measures to save her family—and risks losing Garrick forever. And neither of them knows whether her desperate return to the Isle of Man will turn out to be a journey towards happiness or heartbreak.
August’s prompt for the TBR Challenge was to read a book that was an impulse buy – The book you bought because of the cover or The book you bought on impulse or The book you cannot remember why you bought in the first place!
I decided the easiest way to find one of these would be to look through the freebies and cheapies on my Kindle, (I don’t tend to buy expensive books on impulse!) and the first one I came across that sounded promising was Margaret Evans Porter’s Kissing a Stranger, a book originally published in 1998 and the first in a series of books in which the protagonists come from the Isle of Man – which isn’t a setting or background often used in historicals (or any genre, come to think of it!)
The Earl of Ballacrane and his family live in a tumbledown castle on the island in a style not too much different from the local farmers and crofters. The earl hopes that as soon as he receives the revenues due to him from the export of the wool from the mill he owns, he will be able to get the family out of their current straits, but even so, their financial situation is not robust. So he pins his hopes on his youngest daughter, the strikingly beautiful Lavinia, making a profitable marriage.
Lavinia is well aware of the need to marry well so that her brother can go to university and her sister, who is delicate, can travel to a warmer climate for the sake of her health. The earl takes Lavinia to London where, while out shopping one day, she almost literally stumbles into the arms of a handsome, fair-haired stranger who flirts outrageously with her. She is shocked and beats a hasty retreat, with no idea who he is or any expectation of seeing him again.
Lord Garrick Armitage has lived most of his life in Italy and returns to England only sporadically. His unconventional upbringing means that he is not looked upon kindly by the ton, but crying off from a betrothal was the last straw and now he is persona non grata. Although his brother is the Duke of Halford, Garrick has to support himself which he does principally by gambling. This is because he is actually only the duke’s half-brother, a fact known only to Garrick, his brother and his natural father. The old duke acknowledged and therefore legitimized Garrick, but refused to provide for him.
Lavinia and her father have been in London only a few days when the earl is imprisoned for debt. Now, more than ever, Lavinia feels the burden of having to marry well; she must find the money to secure her father’s release and to help the rest of her family. When Garrick Armitage introduces her to his sister, Lady Frances, it seems that Lavinia may just be able to fulfil her purpose in coming to London after all. Though he was instantly smitten with her upon their first meeting, Garrick can’t but be disappointed by Lavinia’s avowed intent to catch a rich husband, showing her to be as mercenary as any other ton beauty.
Frances has the perfect candidate in mind – the wealthy Lord Newbold – and invites him to her house-party in hopes of promoting the match. Garrick is also present, and the attraction that has been gently bubbling between him and Lavinia grows stronger and deeper as they spend time together getting to know each other. Garrick asks Lavinia to marry him and she agrees to run away to Gretna with him – but not before she asks him for money to pay the taxes on the earl’s wool imports. Even though she loves Garrick dearly, Lavinia can’t bring herself to tell him the real reason she needs the money – to secure her father’s release from the King’s Bench Prison. The couple gets as far as a local inn and spends the night together before the terrible weather makes it impossible for them to continue their journey. They are forced to return home, and when back in London, Garrick finds out the truth behind Lavinia’s request for money. Naturally, he is furious and hurt, initially believing her to have agreed to marry him only for the money, leaving Lavinia heartbroken and now – thanks to the underhand machinations of her father’s unscrupulous solicitor – with no option but to accept Lord Newbold’s offer.
I found the book to be a reasonably engaging read, although there are a number of things about it that bothered me and ultimately prevent me from rating it more highly. Lavinia’s failure to tell Garrick the truth about her family situation goes on for too long, and their separation in the last part of the book is frustrating. I didn’t understand why Garrick was so determined to be acknowledged by his natural father when it would have opened one helluva can of worms for him and his family, and the revelations about the solicitor’s parentage are pointless as they are not necessary to the overall storyline. These last two subplots had real potential, but are severely underdeveloped, so it seems as though the author threw them in just for the hell of it and then forgot about them.
The characterisation is also a little wobbly, especially when it comes to Lavinia. One minute, she’s a country-bred innocent, completely without guile, and the next is a young woman who lies to the man she loves and who agrees to a deception which will enable her to obtain some valuable jewellery she then plans to sell. Oh, her motives are good, but her dishonesty seems completely out of character.
On a more positive note however, the story is rich in historical background detail and the author has clearly done her research into the politics and government of the Isle of Man at this period. She has also incorporated a lot of interesting information – about different card games, horse racing and wagering, and about the penal system for debtors. The writing flows well (although I noticed a number of errors and typos in the digital edition) and the story is well told. Kissing a Stranger is certainly not a bad read, but could have been a much better one had there been a little weeding out of extraneous plot elements – or a further development of those subplots I mentioned – and had the misunderstanding between the protagonists not been allowed to go on for so long.