Seven years ago, Helena de Stansion shared a passionate kiss with a stranger in the moonlit gardens of the French convent where she was staying. She never forgot that encounter and now the man is standing just across a London ballroom from her. The old attraction sparks within her, but Helena is a woman with a plan that doesn't include him. Weary of being used as a pawn in her guardian's schemes, she has secured his permission to marry a man of her choosing - or so she thinks - as long as he meets certain requirements. Helena is determined never to marry any man who is even remotely as powerful as her guardian, but instead is looking for someone who will indulge her whims and give her free reign. Only then does she believe she'll truly be free.
Sebastian Cynster never thought he wanted to marry, but circumstances in his life have changed his mind on the subject. After living a carefree bachelor life for many years, he has finally decided to take a wife, but the only woman who ever intrigued him enough to spend his life with her was the girl he kissed in the convent gardens. When he spots her across the ballroom, he's determined to have her and no other, but the prickly lady wants nothing to do with him. So instead, Sebastian offers his services to assist Helena in finding the type of husband she's looking for, while staging his own elaborate seduction. But just as he thinks he's finally making progress, she pulls away from him.
Helena didn't intend to fall for Sebastian, but she can't seem to help succumbing to his charms. Even though she fears that he might exert his power over her, she's beginning to warm up to the idea of marrying him, until a letter arrives from her guardian. He demands that she - and she alone - must steal back a dagger that Sebastian stole from him years ago, and he threatens her sister if she doesn't bring it to him by Christmas Eve. Helena hates that she'll have to betray the man she's come to love, but can she trust him if she tells him the truth?
I had previously read only one novella by Stephanie Laurens quite a while ago, but I absolutely loved it. Consequently, I've been looking forward to trying one of her full-length novels for a long time. Unfortunately, The Promise in a Kiss left me feeling somewhat disappointed. Even though it's been a while since I read it, I seem to recall that novella being vibrant, sensual, and engaging, but this book was slow, sometimes confusing, and didn't really hold my attention well. IMHO, both the characters and the plot were underdeveloped, leaving me with little to grab hold of for true enjoyment, yet I'll admit that I didn't entirely dislike it. It was an OK read that didn't completely frustrate me like some books have, but not one that I would eagerly recommend or likely read again.
Helena is a wealthy woman in her own right, but over the years has been subject to the whims of her guardian. She longs to be free of him and all powerful men. Therefore, after securing what she believes is her guardian's permission to marry a man of her choosing as long as he meets certain requirements, she goes to London intending to find a man she can wrap around her little finger, so that she can be the one calling the shots. She just didn't count on meeting up with the one man who kissed her in a convent garden seven years ago and whom she has never been able to forget. It seems that Helena's guardian, Fabian, used her for many years by dangling her and her fortune in front of prospective suitors but had never seen fit to allow a marriage. This part of the story was underdeveloped in two ways. First, I didn't really grasp exactly what Fabian was getting out of this game. It seemed to be some sort of political machinations, but the details were never entirely clear to me. The other thing is that Helena was sufficiently off-put by his shenanigans that she wanted nothing to do with any man who was even the slightest bit like him. I wanted to feel sympathy for her, but I never got a good sense of exactly how Fabian's actions had affected her. Without that, it was difficult to understand her coldness and determination to marry a compliant husband. Initially, I had a hard time warming up to Helena, because she could come off as rather manipulative in her actions, during her husband search. I can't say I disagreed with Sebastian when he accused her of being as manipulative as Fabian, just in a slightly different way. Once she finally warms up to the idea of marrying Sebastian, she became easier for me to like.
I had a slightly easier time feeling out Sebastian, but his characterization too, was somewhat lacking. At first, he comes off as nothing more than a ruthlessly charming rogue. Word about town is that he's vowed never to marry, which means his brother will someday succeed him as Duke. What Helena doesn't know though, is that Sebastian's sister-in-law covets the title of Duchess, and Sebastian can't abide the idea of the woman who tricked his brother into marriage and her son succeeding him. Therefore, he has determined to marry and produce his own heir after all, but there is only one woman who has ever intrigued him enough to spend his life with and that's the girl he kissed in the garden. When he spots Helena at a ball, he instantly knows they're meant to be and pulls out all the stops to pursue her. He allows her to believe he's simply helping her find the kind of husband she wants, while engineering his own seduction of her. To be honest, I don't know why Helena resisted him for so long, because Sebastian never seemed to be lording his power over her or truly manipulating her. He honestly cares for her and as far as I could tell, all his actions were meant to gently persuade her into giving him a chance. The author brings Helena into contact with some ladies early on, who tell her of Sebastian's soft spot for damsels in distress and how he has used his influence as a duke to help many a lady out of difficult circumstances. I absolutely loved knowing this about him, but then it didn't really go anywhere. He does eventually help Helena, but I would have like to see more of this side of him. When Helena begins acting distant, Sebastian was very smart and intuitive to discern that something was troubling her and to even have an idea of when and perhaps how it started. I also love that when it came to persuading her to marry him, he gives her space and patiently waits for her to come to him and trust him with her heart. That's why I could never understand why Helena took so long and even late in the story endearingly calls him a "loving tyrant." Sebastian never seemed tyrannical to me at all. Sure he had some alpha tendencies, but I've read plenty of other romance heroes who I'd much more readily call tyrants than him.
I had mixed feelings about Sebastian and Helena's relationship. The story begins with them sharing a passionate kiss in the garden of the convent where she's staying. Obviously the kiss was special to both of them, as neither of them supposedly forgot it, but the way it was written, I just didn't feel it at the time. Fast-forward seven years and they meet again at a ball, and Sebastian begins his dogged pursuit of Helena. For the first half or so of the book, I honestly couldn't quite fathom what either of them saw in the other, because they're still pretty ill-defined. All I felt between them was a shared physical chemistry, but no particularly deep connection. When they retire to Sebastian's country estate for the Christmas holidays, then I finally started feeling something more between them, maybe because there was a bit more at stake. Helena finds it increasingly difficult to distance herself from Sebastian, but at that point, she's again being manipulated by threats from her guardian, which may mean her having to betray Sebastian. Believing she'll probably never see him again after she does Fabian's bidding, she allows herself to enjoy his seduction. Their love scenes were intense and sensual, one of my favorite parts of the story, but there still seemed to be a lack of trust on Helena's part. I really felt like she should have confided in Sebastian what Fabian was demanding of her and trusted that he would help her, especially since she knew from her conversation with the other ladies that Sebastian was the type of guy who would offer his assistance. He ended up finding out anyway and graciously helping her, and although thankfully, it didn't cause a rift between them, I felt like their connection would have been stronger if she'd gone to him with her troubles first.
The Promise in a Kiss got off to a very slow start. The first half or so of the book was, quite frankly, rather boring to me. Until about halfway through chapter two, I didn't have much of a feel for who the characters were. Even as I started to get to know them a little better, the plot itself plodded along. For nearly the entire first half of the book, the characters don't really do anything except repetitively meet up at an endless string of balls and parties, with the occasional stroll along the Serpentine during the day thrown in for good measure. It was like a dull, tiresome exercise in the interactions of polite society, with little emotion to speak of until Helena gets upset with Sebastian over a bit of high-handedness on his part. IMO, the intrigue portion of the plot could have and should have been woven in sooner to provide a bit more action and a welcome break from the tedium of the balls and parties. The author just barely hints at something being afoot, but it was a little too subtle to be engaging until about a third of a way into the book. When that part of the plot started to pick up, it was better, but I still didn't feel like the "villain" had enough bite. I didn't really sense much menace from him, and in the end, it seems he wasn't truly out to hurt anyone. I also didn't really comprehend the game he and Sebastian had supposedly been playing for years. It almost seemed like little more than an amusement between two bored aristocrats, in which case, it wasn't very compelling. I couldn't help feeling like the stakes should have been higher, both with the suspense and the romantic relationship.
The last thing that bothered me about the book was the writing style. To begin, I detected a fair bit of passive narration, which is likely why I didn't feel as connected to the characters and their burgeoning romance as I would have liked. Also I found the prose to be very uneven. Sometimes, the narration could be too wordy, with a lot of unnecessary qualifying phrases being thrown in, when IMHO, being more straightforward and succinct would have made it easier to feel the emotion of the moment. Other times, it was too short and choppy with mere words or phrases serving as sentences, when again IMHO, they didn't need that extra emphasis. If the author had smoothed out the narration, I think I would have enjoyed the story quite a bit more. Ms. Laurens also engages in a fair bit of head-hopping, which was oftentimes confusing. I would be reading along and then suddenly the POV changed, and I would frequently end up a couple of paragraphs into it before realizing that I was reading a different character's perspective. As an aside many of the characters' surnames and titles were really strange and I'd hazard to guess, difficult for a lot of readers to pronounce. I'd never heard of most of them, and they were so odd, I wondered if the author either chose the most obscure names she could possibly find or perhaps simply made them up. Lastly, there was a huge overabundance of eyebrow arching. Not everyone can even do this, so having both the hero and heroine doing it every few pages or so became an annoyance. Many of these things are rookie mistakes that I wouldn't expect from a seasoned author like Ms. Laurens (they should have been caught by the editor too), which leaves me wondering if she might have written it earlier in her career but didn't get it published until later. I have no idea if my suspicions are correct, but since The Promise in a Kiss precedes the rest of the Cynster books chronologically but was published about seventh in line, it certainly seems plausible.
While I know I've had a lot of criticisms of The Promise in a Kiss, it wasn't a bad book. I liked Sebastian for as well as I got to know him, and although it took me longer to warm up to Helena and I still thought she wasn't a stand out heroine, I liked her well enough. Once they got away from the tedium of the London social whirl, there was some decent action and their connection became much more obvious. There were some good ingredients in this story, and if the author had smoothed out the narrative passages and fleshed out the characters and plot a little better, I could easily see this having keeper status potential, which is why I didn't rate it any lower than I did. So overall, even though several things could have been better, I found it to be a decent read. The Promise in a Kiss is chronologically the first book in Stephanie Lauren's prolific and popular Cynster series, and as I mentioned before, the first full-length novel by her I've read. I liked it well enough, so between that and my earlier positive reading experience with her novella, I'm sure I'll continue with the series at some point.
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