Heiress for Hire
Madeline Hunter’s new series, A Duke’s Heiress, opens with Heiress for Hire, a nicely done combination of romance and cosy mystery in which a young widow is left a large sum of money by a man – a duke, no less – she never met. There’s also a mystery to be solved surrounding the duke’s death – was it due to natural causes or something more sinister? I didn’t realise, when I started the book, that that question would remain unanswered at the end – clearly we’re going to have to wait until the third book for that – but the central characters are likeable and their romance is engaging enough for that not to have been too much of a disappointment.
Having survived an abusive marriage and then narrowly avoided being accused of having had a hand in her husband’s death, Minerva Hepplewhite changed her name and removed to London with her faithful friend and housekeeper Beth and Beth’s son Jeremy. On the night the book opens, Minerva and Beth are hovering over the intruder Minerva has just konked on the head with a warming pan – who eventually manages to introduce himself as Chase Radnor, a gentleman who on occasion conducts discreet enquiries, and to explain that he had not planned on stealing from her, but had been searching for evidence that she is the same Minerva Hepplewhite who has just inherited a fortune from the recently deceased Duke of Hollingburgh. It’s Minerva’s turn to be stunned at that; she never met the duke or anyone connected with him, so to discover that he left her a large sum of money plus a stake in his business that’s worth even more is a complete surprise.
Minerva’s assertion that she has no connection whatsoever to the duke surprises Chase, too. The late duke – who was Chase’s uncle – was widely known as an eccentric who almost never did what was expected of him, but giving away his entire monetary fortune to three ladies nobody within the family has ever heard goes way beyond eccentricity, and Chase has been quietly working on locating the three beneficiaries. His task is complicated still further when, the morning following his… er … meeting with Minerva, he is asked by the Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, to conduct a discreet and unofficial enquiry into Hollingburgh’s death to ascertain if it was accidental or if he was murdered – and if so, by whom.
Of course, the most likely suspects should the duke have been murdered would be those who stood to gain most by his death – although suspicions that Minerva Hepplewhite may be the guilty party aren’t the only reasons she hasn’t been far from Chase’s mind since their inauspicious encounter the night before.
The news she is an heiress doesn’t exactly fill Minerva with giddy glee. Establishing her identity, as will be required before she can claim her inheritance, will almost certainly mean digging up aspects of her past she’d hoped to leave behind when she moved and changed her name. As Margaret Finley, she was suspected of the murder of her violent husband – and should that come out, she realises it will only increase speculation as to her involvement in the duke’s death. As she, Beth and Jeremy have already successfully completed a number of enquiries in the past, Minerva decides to tackle things head on and investigate the death herself – if she can identify the culprit, she will be exempt from suspicion. And now she has the means to do so, she decides to set up an enquiry agency of her own, one that will cater to women and other people who are unlikely to be able to access the services of men like Chase Radnor.
Chase and Minerva are likeable, intelligent and well-written, and their romance is based on a solid foundation of mutual respect as well as strong mutual attraction. They converse with good sense and humour, and once they agree to collaborate and share information about the investigation into the duke’s death, they do so without arguing for arguments’ sake or withholding information for the other’s ‘own good’, which I found refreshingly mature. I also appreciated that Minerva, while engaged in an unusual profession for a woman (not to mention the fact that her being engaged in any profession was unusual for the time) isn’t one of those ‘look at how unconventional and awesome I am!!’ heroines that are so prevalent in historical romance these days. She’s perceptive and intuitive, although she does make one rather large miscalculation about the nature of the job she’s doing, which was a bit naïve. But she’s also strong and resilient, and the way she has re-invented herself after the truly horrific abuse she suffered at her late husband’s hands – treatment that could easily have broken her – is admirable.
Chase is perhaps a little less well-rounded, although I liked that he isn’t your usual marriage shy, bored aristocrat, and how perceptive he is when it comes to Minerva. Realising there’s something holding her back from moving their relationship to the next level, he never pushes her and lets her lead the way.
There’s a great secondary cast, consisting mostly of Chase’s disgruntled relatives, all of whom have had their noses put out of joint by the duke’s will and which provides a great pool of possible suspects. On the downside, there’s a lot of set-up, which takes time away from the romance, I wasn’t completely convinced by Minerva’s investigative abilities, and the book doesn’t have a strong sense of period. Apart from the mention of Peel as Home Secretary, which puts events as taking place between 1822 and 1830, the story could have taken place at any point during the nineteenth century. I wasn’t too worried about the central mystery remaining unsolved, although perhaps the blurb should have indicated that – and it’s misleading in another way, because it indicates Minerva and Chase have met before, or at least knew of each other, but it’s pretty clear within the novel that neither of those things is true.
Heiress for Hire wasn’t one of those books that compelled me to pick it up at every opportunity, but it was an entertaining read, and one that is at least mercifully free of overdone mental lusting, feisty heroines and aristocratic gambling hell owners. If you’re looking for a well-written, sensual romance featuring engaging characters who behave like adults, it’s worth a look.