When Miss Jane Ballenger unexpectedly inherits her brother’s worldly goods—the furniture, paintings and bric-a-brac on which he frittered away their entire family fortune—the only thing to do is catalog the lot of it and sell it off piece by piece. How else will she continue to support Twillins Cottage, the one place she feels safe? Born with a peculiar hearing problem, Jane has long kept to her isolated home in the woods, content with the company of a few close friends, and far removed from those who would brand her an idiot and consign her to life in an asylum. So when the devilishly charming private investigator, Sir Gabriel Arkwright, turns up on her doorstep to claim her new belongings in the name of the crown, she’ll do whatever it takes to protect her refuge, her loved-ones, and her well-guarded secret. Even if it means employing a bit of deception.
There are few things in life Sir Gabriel Arkwright enjoys more than a good mystery, especially when it’s a woman. Ever ready to take on an interesting puzzle, he’s determined to learn why the enigmatic Miss Ballenger has hidden herself away from the world. Before he can hope to ferret out the truth, however, Jane unearths national secrets hidden amongst her brother’s possessions. Now Gabriel must decide what’s more important, keeping state secrets out of the hands of a double agent, or protecting the woman who is quickly becoming more to him than just another mystery to solve…
I am at a loss to understand why Alissa Johnson doesn’t seem to get the same kind of attention afforded to the ‘big-name’ authors of historical romance. Every book of hers I’ve read has been superbly written, featuring well-drawn, three-dimensional characters, a well-constructed plot, subtle humour and a beautifully developed romance – yet for some reason, she’s very underrated. This third book in her Thief Takers series is another intelligently crafted character-driven romance, this time featuring a devilishly charming private investigator and a most unusual heroine who are forced to go on the run in order to protect some sensitive government information.
A Dangerous Deceit begins when Miss Jane Ballenger opens her front door on the extremely attractive face and person of Sir Gabriel Arkwright, one of the famous Thief Takers, a trio of former police officers who became instant celebrities when they solved a high-profile case of theft and rescued a duchess some ten or eleven years earlier. The most senior officer – Owen Renderwell – received a viscountcy and his colleagues, Arkwright and Samuel Brass were knighted; and the three of them went into business together as private investigators. Renderwell’s and Sir Samuel’s stories are told in the two previous books (A Talent for Trickery and A Gift for Guile), but all three work perfectly well as standalones – although I’d definitely recommend reading them, as they’re every bit as well-written and enjoyable as this one.
Sir Gabriel explains that he has been engaged by the Foreign Office to come to Jane’s remote cottage in order to retrieve some important information that is hidden among the personal effects belonging to her late brother, Edgar. Edgar spent the past fifteen years living the high life in St. Petersburg, frittering away his sister’s fortune as well as his own, leaving Jane with next to nothing. Now she is faced with the prospect of selling off his possessions so that she can keep a roof over her head and continue to support herself and the Harmons, the couple who have lived with her and looked after her since she was ten years old.
Jane is flustered – her tiny cottage is crammed to the rafters with trunks and boxes and God knows what else – but isn’t about to let someone waltz off with what is likely her only source of funds without some sort of security and insists that Sir Gabriel sign a contract promising the return of the goods once he has found what he is looking for.
Gabriel is not pleased at the delay, knowing that the information he is seeking poses a great danger to Jane and her household. But he plays along and agrees to Jane’s terms, arranging for his team of handpicked men to make a start on the search as soon as they have finalised their agreement. When, however, a group of men headed by Foreign Office agent Oscar Kray arrives instead of the team he had requested, Gabriel realises something is wrong, and quickly and quietly gets Jane and the Harmons away from the cottage and into the village. It soon becomes clear that isn’t going to be far enough away and that Kray will stop at nothing to get hold of the paperwork he believes Gabriel has already found and appropriated.
From then on in, the story becomes a road-trip/adventure yarn whereby Gabriel and Jane have to evade the clutches of Kray and his team and get the sensitive paperwork sent back by Edgar into the right hands. The couple has to get out of some tight spots and there’s never a dull moment, but there’s time for romance and getting to know each other, too – and it’s here that Ms. Johnson’s gifts for storytelling and characterisation really come into their own. While Gabriel and Jane fall in love over a very short time – just a few days – they are so well-developed as characters, and their affinity for each other is so strong that it feels as though they – and we – have known each other for far longer, so there is never the sense that things between them are progressing too quickly.
Gabriel is gorgeous – handsome, charming and protective, he’s the perfect hero. Almost. Because he’s also devious and manipulative, and he lies to Jane repeatedly throughout the course of the story. The earlier books in the series have shown Gabriel to be incredibly good at reading people and thus working out exactly how to approach them to get the desired result. Jane, however presents more of a challenge than anyone he’s ever met; she’s rude, she doesn’t appear to have a sense of humour, she’s easily distracted, she’s fiercely independent … and it’s difficult to get a read on her, which makes Gabriel’s job that bit trickier. He hates lying to Jane and hates himself for doing it, but ultimately, everything he says and does is because he wants to keep her safe. He’s also extremely kind, sensitive and understanding, seeing what Jane terms her ‘affliction’ as a set of quirks, for the first time affording her the chance to find out what it might be like to have the one thing she has always believed to be beyond her reach – a normal life.
Ms. Johnson says in her author’s note that she set herself quite the challenge when she decided to write a heroine with CAPD (Central Auditory Processing Disorder). Of course, in the late Victorian era, when this book is set, the condition was unknown, and people who had it were dismissed as being, at best, hard of hearing, or at worst, imbecilic, deviant or even insane. Jane is none of those things of course – but the treatment she received at the hands of her family, and mistakes she has made as a result of misunderstandings have made her very wary of mixing with people and fearful of being mocked and shunned. One website I visited in an attempt to find out more said that people with this condition “can’t process what they hear in the same way other people do because their ears and brain don’t fully coordinate. Something interferes with the way the brain recognizes and interprets sounds, especially speech.” – and the author does an absolutely terrific job of showing how this affects Jane, right from the opening lines:
“Hit a miss dress a tome?”
Jane Ballenger carefully considered these six words and the gentleman on her doorstep who had just delivered them.
He didn’t look like a madman.
“Is she at home? She should be expecting me.”
At home… A tome
Miss dress. Mistress
Mistress at home.
Is your mistress at home?
The condition is not limited to these sorts of mix-ups; sometimes, for example, it affects Jane’s ability to remember information, or to pick out one person’s words from a noisy background. Ms. Johnson portrays the disorder subtly and sensitively, showing clearly that Jane is so much more than her ‘affliction’; that she’s an intelligent, insightful and compassionate human being with some ‘quirks’ (Gabriel’s term) that don’t define her and shouldn’t be allowed to limit her.
Gabriel’s unconditional acceptance of Jane is what turns him into the best type of romantic hero. His own backstory and the intrinsic self-loathing that accompanies his lies and manipulations add depth and colour to his personality, but his perceptiveness and understanding when it comes to Jane and his willingness to compromise for her sake are what make him that little bit special and elevate him from your run-of-the-mill dashing hero into one who is admirable and entirely loveable.
A Dangerous Deceit is a book to be savoured, even though I was unable to resist devouring it in a couple of sittings! The romance is sweet and tender – but not without its heated moments – and the adventure plot is solidly developed and skilfully incorporated into the romantic storyline without overshadowing it. Characters from the earlier books make cameo appearances, and I especially appreciated another glimpse of the strong and highly entertaining friendship that exists between Gabriel, Samuel and Renderwell. Fans of character-driven historical romance shouldn’t miss it, and I really hope to read more from Ms. Johnson in the not too distant future.