Fool Me Twice
Fool Me Twice is easily my favorite Duran book of the last few years. After having loved a few of hers in the past, I struggled with the last three as they had themes that didn’t really resonate with me. Happily, her newest effort really worked, and I finished the book a happy reader.
The book actually started with a premise that is not usually my favorite: A character bent on stealing something. The heroine, Olivia Holladay, enters the hero’s employ bent on stealing some correspondence so she can blackmail someone else – all to ensure her own safety. Olivia, who worked for the heroine of Duran’s previous book (Elizabeth from That Scandalous Summer) is a desperate woman. Though she was Elizabeth’s maid, she is educated and capable of much more. She seeks a housemaid job with Alastair de Grey, Duke of Marwick, because correspondence she stole from Elizabeth alludes to some letters in the duke’s possession – letters that will enable her to blackmail Bertram, a high-level cabinet official who threatens her safety. The whole idea of stealing troubles her conscience, and she is already wracked with guilt over stealing letters from Elizabeth. She reconciles her actions because Marwick is, by all accounts, a complete tyrant. Stealing is wrong, but if anyone deserves to be stolen from, it’s him.
When Olivia arrives at Marwick’s London home, she is actually hired as housekeeper. She is really too young for the position, but she’s clearly accomplished, and the last housekeeper left when the Duke threw a shoe at her. Olivia intends to use her position to find the damning correspondence, then get out, hopefully securing a the funds to live a quiet and unassuming life. She immediately encounters a few problems, however. The fact that she is immediately hired as a housekeeper indicates the complete chaos of her new environment. In fact, the Duke keeps entirely to his rooms with the curtains drawn, and has for months. While he stews in self-pity and self-loathing, the entire household runs amok.
Olivia finds that she can’t help but do the job for which she’s been hired, even if her aim is not really to be a housekeeper. The maids need to be whipped into shape and the male servants spend most of their time either flirting (and more than flirting) or drinking. The slipshod housekeeping is the least of the problems. Olivia needs to reinstate some sort of regularity if she wants to be able to mount a search for the letters she needs.
Olivia first braves the duke’s rooms because no one has introduced her to him – and has a bottle thrown at her for her efforts. Her later formal introduction is not much better. He sacks her (though she refuses to listen and gently suggests that dealing fairly with her is his better option). Olivia begins a campaign to get Marwick out of his rooms, partly, it’s because she suspects the letters she needs are in there. But she has also come to know something of Marwick’s personality through his other notes and correspondence housed in his library. She knows him to be a good man, despite his current behavior.
Marwick’s reason for keeping to his rooms is not a secret in the book. His recently deceased wife – a woman he chose for her beauty and skills as a political hostess – was an opium addict who not only cuckolded him, but slept with his political rivals and plotted against him. He has taken to him rooms to nurse his grievances, but also because he’s afraid to unleash his murderous rage on the world. Olivia develops a dangerous, complicated relationship with Marwick, almost because she can’t help herself. Their exchanges build upon each other, each leading to the next.
Of course, Olivia’s secret looms in the background, and inevitably Marwick is destined to find out about it. If that weren’t enough, this doesn’t really sound like a relationship that can go anywhere. An agoraphobic duke and an incognito housekeeper?
It does work, of course, and better than I would have imagined. Because Duran’s last few romances really didn’t resonate with me, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this one. Romances with a huge power differential can set my teeth on edge, I don’t love thieves, and I wasn’t sure a man who sulks in his room and throws stuff was really hero material. But over years of reviewing romance I’ve certainly learned that in skilled hands, a plot device that normally drives you crazy becomes much more than a plot device; it becomes a story. When you believe in the characters and understand their actions, you can buy in. Olivia is desperate and has good reason for her actions, but also has a conscience about them. And despite Marwick’s clear position of authority, Olivia often appears to have the upper hand. His tailspin into self-pity is perhaps over the top, but he realizes this himself, and importantly, he realizes it when he compares his circumstances and actions to Olivia’s. And as he comes to admire and fall in love with Olivia, he realizes the need to put his other relationships right.
Marwick does not start out likable, but he starts out interesting and becomes likable. Once he gets his own house in order (literally and metaphorically) he is able to help Olivia handle her problems.
Olivia is easier to like a sympathize with right off the bat. Her personal struggles are exacerbated by her appearance, which is hard to hide; she’s nearly six feet tall with brilliant red hair. And she’s a woman who needs to hide. She also can’t resist the urge to help – even though she comes in as a fake housekeeper who believes that her master is an immoral man.
This is Meredith Duran, so the writing is of course a cut above. Some of the exchanges between Olivia and Marwick are nearly poetry. Not a wasted word or a wasted movement. My personal favorite is when Olivia sees the state of the books in his room, and simply can’t rest the urge too speak out. That alone is almost worth the price of admission.
But it also occurred to me as I was reading that one never need worry that a Meredith Duran book will descend into the realm of the silly – or worse, the ridiculous. Hers are serious books, in all the best ways. I loved the characters and the romance in Fool Me Twice. It’s a wonderful read, and well worth your time.