I’m a purist when I comes to historical romances. I like my regencies very traditional. I’m a fool for Almack’s, a pushover for a rout or a foxhunt, and an absolute ninny for a seduction in the ducal library. I don’t generally like gypsies who turn out to the the heirs to Marquessates or beautiful heroines who pass as male pirate captains. In other words, I like the things I can see possibly happening. Don’t ask me to suspend my disbelief too long.
Which is why I loved Susan Gee Heino’s last novel, Mistress by Mistake. What a great story: an innocent heiress, a nobleman who is less rakish in reality than in reputation, and one bottle of Madeira too many in the moonlight. The story of Lord Dashford and his Evaline was straightforward regency romance, well-written and compelling. So I approached her latest, Damsel in Disguise, expecting a similar experience.
Oh, dear. The cover blurb made it clear that I would be reading not only about a peer who has proposed to an actress, but said actress would be gadding about the countryside in male garb, no doubt fooling everyone except said peer. This looked to be a struggle for me.
I have to say, however, that I was pleasantly surprised. Julia, our actress in breeches and cravat, was believable and well-developed (I’m talking about character development! Get your minds out of the gutter!) The hero, Lord Rastmoor, was all you want a hero to be – tall, dark, handsome, of course. But also a complicated character with just enough redeemable flaws. In fact, I could buy into this particular nobleman falling for a lowly actress; he was just the kind that would.
Briefly, Julia St. Clement and Lord Anthony Rastmoor were engaged three years ago, until his dastardly cousin Fitzgelder intervened. Now Julia, disguised as a male, is trying to warn Rastmoor about more treachery by the cousin. Rastmoor, who thinks Julia left him to marry said Fitzgelder, is not sure if he can trust her, even though he still wants her in his bed. The story of their engagement and the reason it fell through is quite convoluted, but Ms. Heino manages to weave the past into the present deftly, without one of the dreaded backstory “info dumps.”
Julia and Rastmoor form an uneasy alliance as they search for a missing locket, friends who may have betrayed them, and, of course, a Happy Ending.
I particularly enjoyed the author’s skill at showing us both leads reaction to events, as in the scene after the first love scene, where each is convinced it meant less emotionally to the other. He thinks she’s using him, she thinks he’s using her, and they are both just smitten with each other. I loved it!
There still are the scenes that stretch believability, such as the visit to Lord and Lady Dashford, where Julia is disguised as not just a male, but a mute Italian opera singer. But by the time Ms. Heino hit me with that complication, I was enjoying the story enough to just roll with it.
There were a few little language and legal issues I picked up on. I couldn’t find the etymology for the phrase “get her out of his hair,” but it doesn’t feel regency to me, and it pulled me out of the story when I hit it. And although there were several mentions that Fitzgelder was illegitimate and thus unable to inherit, his wife was referred to as “Lady Fitzgelder.” I had to run to one of my “understand the nobility” charts to see how that could happen. A few things like that.
But overall, for anyone wanting a nice, light tale that pulls you out of the everyday “Misses at Almack’s” regency fare, I recommend Damsel in Disguise. I’ve definitely got Ms. Heino on my “auto-buy” list from now on.
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