This is the fourth book in a series of which I have not (yet) read the other three. Usually when I pick up a book mid-series, I can say confidently that I don’t think it’s necessary to have read the others, but with this one, I felt at a slight disadvantage, and I’m not quite sure why that was. There’s a fairly large cast of recurring and supporting characters, all of whom are introduced in a helpful foreword by the author – but in the early stages, I had to keep referring back to the list to check who was who, which did interrupt the flow of reading. But after a chapter or so, I had it worked out and I got sucked into the story.
The story opens in 1847 in the office of Assistant Commissioner of Police, Royden Napier. A young woman, Elizabeth Colbourne, bursts into his office demanding the re-arrest and conviction for murder of Rance Welham, future Lord Lazonby (whose story is told in the previous book). She holds Welham responsible for the death of her father and her sister’s fiancé, for a life lived in penury in the charge of uncaring relatives, and for causing the death of her sister. She wants to see him hang for his crimes. Napier is struck by the depth of her hatred and her intensity, but can do nothing for her – Welham has been exonerated, due process has been followed, and that’s an end of it.
We then jump ahead two years, and to the scene of the murder of Sir Wilfred Leeton, an old crony of Rance Welham’s. Now Lord Lazonby, Welham has sent for Napier, knowing that he’s the only man who can clear Welham’s name of suspicion once and for all. In order to secure Napier’s cooperation, Welham tells him that before he was killed, the late Sir Wilfred had made accusations of corruption against his father, who had held the position of Assistant Commissioner before him.
At this point, I was expecting the rest of the story to concentrate on the search for the truth about Napier’s father and the quest to prove Lazonby’s innocence. But shortly after this, it took a swift turn into different territory, which I think was very much a turn for the better. Instead of being an adventure romp, the book is more by way of an Agatha Christie-type country house mystery which features a sizable cast of characters, all with grudges to bear and secrets to hide.
Napier is, in fact, the heir to the viscountcy of Duncaster. He never expected to be such; his late father was the third son, estranged from his father, and Napier has been more than content to make his own way in the world. But following the deaths of both his uncles, he is now Lord Saint-Bryce and his grandfather’s heir. At first, he wants none of it. He has had very little to do with his family and wants to keep it that way. He’s risen through the ranks on his own merits and followed in his father’s footsteps to become Assistant Commissioner, and he is committed to a life of service to the Crown. But at the request of his superior, Sir George Grey – an old friend of Viscount Duncaster – Napier travels to Wiltshire to meet with his grandfather and quietly investigate the circumstances surrounding the recent deaths in the family.
Sir George also warns Napier of the match-making schemes of his great aunt Cordelia, Lady Hepplewood, suggesting that it might be prudent for Napier to take along his ‘fiancée’ in order to keep her at bay. Napier realizes that while it not be an ideal situation, it will make his appearance seem more like a visit than an investigation –and he also realizes that if he takes the right woman with him, she could prove helpful.
His choices however, are limited. He ends up taking someone he wouldn’t have chosen in a million years: Elizabeth (Lisette) Colborne. She is a key witness (and more, Napier suspects) in the murder of Sir Wilfred, and is on the point of leaving the country, but Napier, certain that she knows more than she lets on, offers her a deal. If she accompanies him to Wiltshire for a couple of weeks, he will let her leave the country.
Napier’s visit is well-received by his grandfather, who is under the impression that he has come to his senses at last and is there to start to learn how to manage the estate. He quickly attempts to dispel that notion, adamant that once he has uncovered the truth about his uncles’ deaths, he will return to his job and his life in London. He and Lisette are plunged into a family enmeshed in petty squabbles and not-so-petty resentments, and despite his initial misgivings about taking her along, Napier is forced to admire the subtlety with which she stands up to his great-aunt, and the ease with which she gains the confidence of the other women of the house. It is Lisette who gives Napier something to think about when she points out that the skills he has honed over his years in government service have, in fact, well-equipped him for the task of running a large estate, and that in doing so, he would still be serving his country — albeit in a different way.
Lisette is an engaging and slightly unusual heroine. In her late 20s, she’s had far from an easy life, losing her parents at a young age and then being farmed out to relatives in America who both used and neglected her. She had to grow up very quickly and take responsibility for herself , her aunt, and sot of an uncle who she learned later had been paid to take both her and her sister (who has since died) away from England after the death of her parents.
She’s prickly, she’s tough, and she’s clever. Clever enough to admit to herself that spending most of her life hating and seeking revenge upon the man she holds responsible for her family’s tragedies has left her almost soulless and empty and to wonder if she’s capable of any finer feelings. And clever enough to realize that it’s time for her to start living her own life and put the past behind her before it’s too late.
Napier has a reputation for coldness, ruthlessness, and incorruptibility. He could have been a bit of a dry stick, but at the heart of his story is the way he comes to the realization that not every situation can be seen in black and white and to acknowledge that sometimes a bad thing can be the right thing in certain circumstances. He falls hard for Lisette, even as he is constantly questioning her part in Leeton’s murder, and it’s only when he admits to both himself and her that he no longer cares about her involvement that she can finally trust him enough to tell him the truth. With regard to the accusations against his father, Napier at last admits to himself that he had probably known for some time that all was not quite above board – but there is no proof. The man he was at the beginning of the book would likely have been completely broken by the discovery that the father he idolized had feet of clay; but the man he has become by the end of it is able to accept – albeit not to condone – his father’s duplicity.
The relationship between Napier and Lisette is antagonistic, tender and passionate. They are immediately and devastatingly attracted to each other even while recognizing that a relationship between them could be dangerous and stupid. They get under each other’s skins and into each other’s heads in a way neither has before experienced, which both entices and scares the hell out of them. The sexual tension between them is like a ticking time-bomb and fairly leaps off the page, and there is a great deal of humor in their frequent bickering.
The supporting cast is clearly delineated, from the gruff patriarch to the eccentric aunt, the downtrodden companion, the dictatorial aunt, and the youngest cousin Beatrice who is just twelve and worried for her future.
I found A Bride by Moonlight to be an entertaining page-turner that quickly caught my interest and – apart from a few things that confused me at the beginning –sustained it right until the end.
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