This week Morgan and Whitney are Dishing about author Anna Randol’s debut romance novel A Secret In Her Kiss. The story sweeps readers to exotic Turkey in 1815, where academic heroine Mari Sinclair finds herself living in the middle of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Working with her father’s people, the British, and her mother’s people, the Greeks, Mari does a delicate balancing act as she secretly helps fight for Greek Independence by acting as a spy for the British. Her skilled artwork hides plans about the Ottoman encampments, but someone knows Mari’s secret and will do whatever it takes to quiet her for good. Enter, Major Bennett Prestwood, a dedicated soldier who has been forced to take on one last mission before returning home to England: protect Mari whatever the cost.
Morgan: I think what got my attention most about A Secret In Her Kiss is the fact that the book gives readers a very traditional romance in a very different way.
Whitney: The story definitely has some recognizable Regency romance tropes: the battle-hardened hero and the innocent, yet plucky heroine. However, that’s pretty much where the “typical” aspects of the story end. Randol skillfully turns what could have been a run-of-the-mill courtship into something very, very different by setting the story in the Middle East.
Morgan: And while I have read romances set in exotic locales, I felt that Randol does something really special with how she writes about Constantinople and its people.
“The city resembled nothing so much as an aging courtesan’s dressing room table overflowing with rouge pots and cream jars and a few candlesticks interspersed throughout.”
What great writing!
Whitney: Randol really lets the setting infuse the plot and characters. And it’s clear from the very first scene in the town square that tensions in the area are running high.
Morgan: Mari has lived in the dangerous city for years. With her archaeologist father who pays little attention to her whereabouts, Mari has had the luxury of exploring Constantinople to her heart’s content. She’s incredibly interested in bugs and plants, which makes the foreign country the perfect place for both of the Sinclairs to study.
Whitney: Mari has many good friends, she speaks the language and has adapted to this very un-English lifestyle perfectly.
Morgan: But none of this means that she’s safe from danger when she starts getting involved in radical politics.
Whitney: It’s really England’s fault. Mari has been trying to help her mother’s people free themselves from the yoke of slavery. But now England’s War Office is basically blackmailing her into doing their work. They’ve set Mari to sketching the Turks’ military bases around the desert. It’s incredibly dangerous work and every spy before her has been caught and killed, but since Mari is a lady who can plausibly say that she’s been out studying the area’s flora and fauna, she has an in.
Morgan: However, that “in” is really an “into.” Mari’s work plunges her into so much danger that the War Department can’t leave her unprotected. They opt to send one of their very best soldiers to keep her safe, Major Bennett Prestwood.
Whitney: Poor Bennett, all he wants to do is to get back to England and be reunited with his parents and sisters.
Morgan: But instead, because he’s the cousin of the English ambassador to Constantinople, he gets tapped into safeguarding Mari.
Whitney: It’s certainly not a mission he takes willingly. The War Office has to threaten to endanger his fellow soldiers in order to win his compliance.
Morgan: With all of the underhanded tricks that are used to “persuade” Bennett and Mari to do this job, it really takes the allure out of the 007 work. Neither character is carrying out their mission for “king and country” (as the standard line goes). Both Mari and Bennett are trapped by their loyalties and the War Office comes out looking corrupt, ugly, and political.
Whitney: But in this dishonorable situation, Bennett is able to keep his honor. He’s a hero who readers will remember. Bennett is a true warrior, not just a hero who was casually been involved in war efforts. He is covered in scars from the battles he has seen during his last twelve years serving in the military; scars that are both physical and mental.
Morgan: And although in the past Bennett has had to carry out orders he doesn’t think are fair, he’s never been faced with a mission that he thinks is as abhorrent. He is told that he must protect Mari as she sketches the Turks’ last fortification, Vourth; but it is really a suicide mission, and everyone knows it.
Whitney: During one scene in the book, Mari comes straight out and asks Bennett if he’s willing to gamble her life for his orders to go to Vourth, and he says that he will. As a reader, this was really a shocking moment.
Morgan: But it was very clever of the author, because she really showed readers who Bennett is with this moment. So many times we read about a hero that is willing to break all of the rules for love, he’ll go against his supervisors and orders for the heroine’s safety.
Whitney: Not Bennett, he’s a man of his word.
Morgan: He understands that the strength of his nation depends on sacrifice. And he is used to putting himself in danger. But despite Bennett’s decision to carry out the orders, he’s not happy about putting Mari — or anyone else — in danger.
Whitney: Which really comes through in his poetry.
Morgan: Color me shocked, right?
Whitney: It is certainly unexpected to learn that this hardened warrior painstakingly writes down all of this thoughts and emotions into his journal. But it is in skill and care for the written word that readers see his heart. This is when I really connected with the character.
Morgan: And when Mari accidentally winds up in possession of his poetry notebook, she’s finally begins to understand why Bennett is willing to put her in danger. His writing illustrates how seriously Bennett takes his responsibility as a solider, that he believes his work is more important than any single person.
Whitney: As much as Mari wants Bennett to value her more than his orders, she starts to understand the burden that he’s carrying.
Morgan: Although that certainly doesn’t mean that she’s willing to blindly go along with his orders. Mari has her own mind and her own agenda.
Whitney: One that she’s going to follow no matter how dangerous the situation becomes. Her mother was a Greek slave who was given to her English father. After their marriage, they moved to England where she worked as a freedom fighter before her death. As a result, Mari is staunchly anti-slavery and anti-Ottoman rule. All of the political work she does, from attending meetings to coordinating with fellow spies, is all to help free Greece. Unfortunately, that means that she gets drawn into the British War Office’s games. But in Mari’s eyes, she has one very (non-English) goal.
Morgan: Which certainly doesn’t make her relationship with an English solider run smoothly.
Whitney: But it is interresting to watch! This is definitely a story that historical romance fans should check out.