Desert Isle Keeper
Last night I finished Gilded Cage, and moments ago, I finished reading the latest batch of responses to the ask@AAR: Does Historical Romance have a quality problem? Well, if you’re exclusively reading K.J. Charles, the answer is a resounding ‘no.’ This is an author absolutely getting historical romance right, and the quality of this story is top-notch. Gilded Cage works best if you read it as part of the Lilywhite Boys world, but it can stand on its own. The plot is suspenseful, the principal and secondary characters are fascinating and flawed, the settings are expertly rendered, a superbly nasty villain is gleefully evil, and there’s a wonderful, swoony second chance romance. Friends, it’s top quality from start to finish.
If you’re new to the series, a quick primer (warning: spoilers ahead). The Lilywhite Boys are a pair of successful jewelry thieves – Jerry Crozier (a former soldier), and Templeton Lane (actually James Vane, great-nephew of Lord Richard Vane, A Gentleman’s Position). In Any Old Diamonds, the pair was caught out while taking part in a complicated jewel heist, and came up against renowned detective, Susan Lazarus (An Unnatural Vice) with whom they are then forced to work in exchange for their freedom. Any Old Diamonds ended with Jerry deeply in love with Lord Alexander Pyne-ffoulkes, and the Lilywhite Boys on the run from the law.
Months later, fueled with resentment at his newly risk-averse partner, Templeton attempts a heist on his own. Mr. Joshua Montmorency, a local jewelry dealer, is rumored to have the famed Samsonoff opal necklace and Templeton, who has a particular penchant for opals, wants it.
“A matched set of black opals,” Jerry had said scathingly. “Really. Was there also an advertisement placed in the paper for the attention of Templeton Lane? For Christ’s sake, if the Met aren’t waiting for you, the Lazarus firm will be.”
The story opens with Templeton frozen in place, convinced he’s heard a noise in Montmorency’s otherwise silent house. He forces himself to relax, listen, and wait, before proceeding. Entering Montmorency’s pitch black bedroom, he knows something is wrong. Shining his lantern, he spots the bloody, prone body of Montmorency, and then the open door of the safe. Screams from the horrified housekeeper snap him out of his momentary shock, sending him running. But the chase in on before he even exits the house, and he quickly finds himself running for his life as shots ring out.
Wanted for a vicious double murder (Montmorency’s valet was also found with his throat slit), and persona non grata with Jerry and Stan (their regular fence), Templeton turns in despair to the one person who might be able to prove his innocence: Susan Lazarus.
Susan has had two great loves in her life: James Vane, who betrayed her when she was most vulnerable, and Lady Caroline Pyne-ffoulkes, Alec’s sister, who died tragically young from an infection in her lungs. Despite being unlucky in love, she’s been fortunate in life. After Justin Lazarus rescued her from the gutter as a young girl, he (and his partner, Nathaniel Roy) raised her as a daughter alongside close companion Emma. She’s a successful and talented enquiry agent at Lazarus and Braglewicz, and her work and found family keep her busy and distracted from feelings of loneliness. When wanted murderer/jewel thief Templeton Lane shows up in her apartment asking for help, Susan reluctantly agrees to hear him out and eventually, to help him.
From here, the story proceeds along two parallel plotlines; the investigation (which I’m not going to tell you very much about), and the second-chance relationship between Susan and Templeton. While the investigation is compelling, it’s a tad underdeveloped, and the best parts of it are those that showcase Susan’s quick, brilliant mind at work. Unfortunately, much of that work takes place off the page – while Templeton is hidden away for his own safety. When they’re working in tandem (posed as a married couple) – either probing Templeton’s memories of the night or eliminating possible suspects or boldly revisiting the scene of the crime – the dialogue and scenes are sharp, witty and smart. Susan and Templeton make a formidable investigative team; his brutal physical toughness is well matched by the ferocious strength of her mind. But while this is a clever whodunit, the second chance romance between Susan and Templeton/ James is the more compelling storyline.
Much as readers of the series guessed (and really, the blurb gives the game away), James and Susan were once deeply in love and it ended badly; and for the past seventeen years, they’ve treated each other as enemies because of a Big Misunderstanding. Once they’re forced to spend nearly all their time together – first in Susan’s small apartment, and later in a hotel room posing as a married couple – it takes very little time before the truth about their past is finally revealed, and regret and a sense of missed opportunity follow hard on its heels. As does lust. And wanting. And feelings. (Yay!) Susan and Templeton find themselves increasingly diverted from the investigation by their intense attraction to each other, and they don’t fight the desire. The physical connection is passionate and satisfying and intense and… it’s sexy and awesome, okay? But these two bring a lot of baggage to the relationship, too. Feelings of loneliness and unworthiness plague them both, and each is struggling to break free from the gilded cages their lives have become. Susan lives and works and exists in the shadow of her guvnors, and although she loves them to bits, she longs to set herself apart from them; James, who chose the name Templeton Lane when he reinvented himself as one half of the ruthless Lilywhite Boys, is filled with regret and a desire for more. More of what his friends have found. More from Susan. More from his life. They find opportunity in each other, except Susan doesn’t want Templeton – a thief on the run for a pair of murders he didn’t commit – and Templeton isn’t sure James still exists.
Every time I pick up a Charles novel, I’m convinced she can’t improve on her back catalog. And every time, including this one, I’m proven wrong. This second chance love story is chock full of brilliant cameos, sly references to earlier novels, and characters you can’t help but love – and root for. The mystery is clever and satisfying, and the romance… well, it’s lovely. I’m sad to say goodbye to the Lilywhite Boys, but hopeful this isn’t the last we see of this marvelous cast of characters.