The plague has returned to England and the Regency has been destroyed -- first, by disease and then, by panic and riot.
In the midst of chaos, Grayson, Baron Harwich, strives to maintain order and security for the people who depend on him. On a scouting/recovery mission, he stumbles upon a lady -- lying in a room that is filled with death and decay. But the beautiful lady is dignified despite all that.
With scarce resources and too many mouths already depending on him, Grayson breaks his own rules and rescues her.
Lady Juliette did not want to be rescued. She had resigned herself to her fate -- but this man, who seemed so alive and so vital had wanted her to live and has taken her away to his barony. His dedication to her gives her to strength to live and his dedication to his people gives her a reason to hope.
For Juliette holds a very important key to the rebuilding of England -- but, first, she must determine who is worthy of her trust and her gift of power.
While reading, I was impressed with how organized K. presents the story. The action is clear, making it easy for the readers to follow the sequence of events.
This is how Grayson finds Juliette:
He didn't know what made him look, what sound captured his attention, but he suddenly knew he was not alone. Cursing his carelessness, he drew his sword and looked around. There, on the opposite side of the bed, pushed against the wall.
She lay on a settee, head resting on one arm, dark hair falling down the side of the sofa. He glanced to the bed, to the man there, and wondered who the dead pair were. She looked to have survived the plague; her face and neck were thin and smooth. Died of neglect, then. The last living being in the house and she couldn't summon the strength to feed herself.
His eyes locked on the rifle lying just under her reach. Sheathing his sword, it was then he noticed that powder marks blackened her hands and were smudged along her face and neck. He quickly scanned the area, a small bag of powder and a case of shot rested on a nearby chair.
- pp 8-9
There is a duality to the roles each character plays: the French are seen as savior by some and as scourge by others; Grayson is both benevolent and ruthless as a leader; Broadwood is seen as Grayson's ally but also his greatest threat -- and Lady Juliette must decide who to bestow her gift: a secret cache of weapons, enough for an army to control England.
Like an expert chess player, Reed positions all the players in her story in a game of politics and diplomacy:
Diana, Helen and Juliette, like the queen pieces, are able to maneuver quickly and adeptly -- ferreting out secrets and information that is critical to the power play between Harwich and Broadwood and, oftentimes, the women would discover the information before the men --
"I had a conversation with Grayson's guest," Diana began in a soft voice.
"Oh? And what have you gleaned from her?" Wesley continued to gesture as he asked this.
"Your opinion of Lady Juliette seems accurate, she conceded. "She's very intelligent and quite well aware of the circumstances in which she finds herself." Diana paused and said, "She's trying to fit in, find her place here. I don't sense she's manipulating Grayson in any way."
- pp. 80-81
* * *
Instead she'd focus on the weakest point -- Helen. To the first maid she saw, she instructed the girl to fetch Helen for a private tete a tete.
Unthinkingly turning for her rooms, Juliette paused on the landing before turning for Helen's rooms. She'd have her private conversation with Helen and would learn everything the other woman knew about Broadwood's plans.
She knew how to do this. Granted, it'd been a while and she was a bit rusty, but delicately extracting information, particularly from women, was a game Juliet knew well.
- pp 212-213
Throughout the story, we see the characters maneuver for position and loyalties are tested. I love Wesley and his sister, Diana. They are consistent and clear-minded about their objectives. Diana is especially discerning and observant:
Crossing to the desk, Diana leaned against it and tried to puzzle out Juliette. She as an odd woman, but these were strange circumstances they found themselves in.
- p. 201
The endgame (Chapters 34 - 43) is a skillfully staged set and the tension is intense! When all the pieces are in place, K. Reed keeps you hanging -- will it be a checkmate or a draw? (Picture a scene where one can hear a pin drop and where one can see sweat slowly bead down a man's face. -- not sure if that made sense.)
The one weak point in the story is the romance aspect -- I felt the courtship/romance between Grayson and Juliette was very sparse and needed more exposition. I did not really see them interact much (except to have sex).
Overall, this was a solid debut. It was refreshing to read about a very different kind of England and a very different kind of historical romance. It was interesting to see how each character responds to such an unthinkable situation: the opportunist, the ambitious, the defender, the idealist, the realist -- when rank no longer matters and survival is the only goal, I wonder which one I would be.
Disclosure: ARC provided by author. Yes, this is an honest and sincere review.