Of all her sisters, Princess Stefanie is by far the least amenable to law and order, which is why she’s appalled to find herself masquerading as an unbearably drab clerk for the most honorable barrister in England. But her dull disguise turns out to have its privileges: namely, the opportunity to consort unchaperoned with her employer’s exceedingly handsome nephew, James Lambert, the Marquess of Hatherfield.
Hatherfield quickly realizes that his uncle’s spirited new clerk is, in fact, a lovely young woman of daring habits. The outwardly impeccable marquis isn’t about to reveal her deception. After all, he’s hiding a dangerous secret of his own. But when one too many escapades with the madcap princess bring Hatherfield’s troubled past to light, it is only Stefanie’s sharp wits that stand between the marquis and utter disaster, and only Hatherfield’s daring that can save the princess from the shadowy agents bent on finding her.
This is the second book in Ms Gray’s Princess in Hiding series which features three royal sisters from a small Germanic principality who have been smuggled to England to evade threats to their lives. I have to say that “girls in breeches” is probably my least favourite trope of all, but having enjoyed the audiobook version of the first book (How to Tame Your Duke) and managed to largely get past my dislike of the premise, I thought I’d give the second novel a try.
I’m glad I did, because I think it’s a stronger book than the first one. It’s tightly written and plotted with the story being told in a mixture of current day and flashback scenes, which is a device I rather enjoy. I like getting snippets of the characters’ futures and wondering how they got there while also knowing that I’m not going to have to wait too long to find out!
The heroine of this book is the youngest of the sisters, Princess Stefanie. She’s headstrong and mischievous, clearly one for breaking the rules, playing practical jokes, and generally causing mayhem. So dressing her up as a man (complete with itchy, false moustache) and then making her act the part of a dry-as-dust law clerk is probably not the best fit for her. But someone is out to kill her and her sisters and she has no alternative but to follow the instructions given to her by her uncle, the powerful and enigmatic Duke of Olympia.
When, in her first meeting with her new employer, Stefanie gets a good look at his young friend, the stupendously gorgeous James Lambert, Marquis of Hatherfield… well, she decides that maybe living in disguise won’t be such a hardship after all.
I still find it difficult to get past the idea that a curvaceous woman could pass as a man and go undetected for a long period of time. What makes the concept a little more tolerable in this book is that Hatherfield sees through Stefanie’s disguise straight away and appoints himself in the role of protector until he can find out what on earth such a young woman is doing masquerading as a man. The problem, of course, is that I then started to wonder why Hatherfield could work it out and nobody else could.
But okay, I decided to let that one go and continued reading.
The story grabbed me early on, as in the very first scene of the prologue, we learn that Hatherfield is on trial for the murder of his step-mother. He and Stefanie are clearly already romantically involved, (she is still in disguise and working as the clerk for his solicitor) although we do not yet know how far their relationship has progressed and how it developed.
Immediately following the courtroom scene, the first flashback details the couple’s first meeting, and from then on, we skip back and forth along the timeline, alternating between the trial and the months leading up to it.
Hatherfield is a terrific hero – and a little out of the common mold. He’s a wealthy aristocrat and heir to a dukedom, but unlike so many other rich, titled heroes, he’s not a womaniser or gambler – in fact, he doesn’t appear to have much to do with women at all, other than having to tread over them carefully when they’ve swooned at his feet! In fact, he acts like a responsible adult, having invested most of his independent fortune in a project that will provide decent housing for the middle classes. He goes to bed early and gets up at the crack of dawn every day to row – the hour or so he spends on the river each day being the one time he can truly be himself and escape the mask of duty and affability he wears in public.
But he wouldn’t be a true romantic hero without a dark secret in his past, and Hatherfield’s is a nasty one. He may now be a model of sexual restraint, but it wasn’t always that way, and he’s not proud of the fact that he shagged practically anything in a skirt in his younger days. Even though those days are over, he still regards himself as tainted because of the events which led to such promiscuity (I was immediately reminded of the hero of Alyssa Everett’s Lord of Secrets, whose past experiences engendered a similar reaction). I do think that Hatherfield was able to overcome both his issues and his scruples rather quickly, and that once he’d done so, he seemed to have made a complete recovery. This is a problem often encountered when a character in a novel is given a past which involves some kind of trauma and that trauma is used to inform their actions and as a method of creating tension and angst in the story. Because the author can’t spend chapters detailing months of therapy (and in historical romance, can’t even do that because it didn’t exist as such), there’s always the danger that the addicted/abused hero or heroine will appear to be magically – and quickly – cured by lurve.
Stefanie is an engaging heroine and a good match for Hatherfield. She has rather a rude awakening as to how the other half lives on her first morning among the gainfully employed, and finds it difficult to curb her natural vivacity and impish tongue. But she’s courageous, insightful and unfailingly honest, and her sense of fun really shines through, especially in the good-natured to-and-fro between her and the marquis –
”You know, there’s this delightful invention called a staircase. Paired with a door, it’s a really remarkable way of gaining entrance to someone’s room.”
Or in the refreshingly pert way she addresses the guests at a dinner party:
”My fault, I’m afraid. I kept him up far too late last night. I won’t say what we were up to – “ a devilish wink as she stepped past several pairs of astonished eyes on her way to the drinks tray – “as the subject is not at all suitable for ladies.”
She poured her sherry to the brim and clinked her glass against Hatherfield’s with a happy, crystallinechink.
“Your health, sir.”
“By God,” said the Duke of Southam, stunned. “Who the devil’s that?”
There’s a fair amount of comedy in the book, which nicely balances the sombre aspect of the murder trial; the love scenes are romantic and sensual and there’s plenty of action along the way, too, as the would-be assassins turn up and are thwarted by Hatherfield, aided later by Ashland (hero of the first book) and Dingleby, the princess’ inscrutable former governess. There are also a couple of beautifully written real lump-in-throat moments towards the end when Hatherfield is forced to contemplate the worst.
The structure of the novel worked very well, serving to ramp up the tension from the get-go. Even though I knew all would end well (this is a romance, after all), there were still plenty of questions to be answered as to how it would be achieved and the direction the story would take.
I still think it’s implausible to believe that Stefanie was able to fool everyone apart from her marquis into believing she was a man – nobody else seemed to have the slightest suspicion. Yet Ms Gray has managed to avoid the deception becoming too obtrusive in the book by not referring to it too often. There’s a little running joke about Stefanie’s fake moustache and occasional mentions of masculine clothing, but much of the time, I was able to forget that I was reading about a woman masquerading as a man. I think that was in part because I was immediately gripped by the story and partly due to the fact that the novel was really about Hatherfield, with Stefanie’s story being more of a secondary plotline which had some impact on the main plot of the trial and events leading up to it.
It’s a tribute to Ms Gray’s skill as a writer that I enjoyed a story that features my least favourite trope in historical romance. How to Master Your Marquis is well-written and strongly characterised, and I especially enjoyed the way the novel was structured. I will certainly be reading the third book in the series to discover how everything turns out.