His Rags to Riches Contessa
His Rags to Riches Contessa is the third book in Marguerite Kaye’s Matches Made in Scandal series, and tells the story of an actress and card sharp who is hired to help a Venetian nobleman obtain revenge against the man who killed his father. The four novels in the set are linked by a mysterious woman known only as The Procurer; a woman whose clients come to her “with complex and unusual problems requiring unique solutions”, solutions she provides while at the same time helping young women to whom life has dealt a poor hand make themselves a better future. Becky Wickes is one such; abandoned by the man she loved – and whom she believed loved her – to face a future as a fugitive from the law and a possible death sentence should she be apprehended – Becky has gone to ground and holed up in a dingy room in the rookery of St. Giles. It’s here that the Procurer finds her and offers her the chance to change her life.
Becky travels to Venice, to the luxurious Palazzo Pietro, where she will meet the Procurer’s client – the Conte del Pietro – and receive all the details of her assignment. She is surprised to discover that the Conte – Luca – is half-English on his mother’s side and that he spent many years in the Royal Navy before his father’s death necessitated his return home, and even more so when she finally learns the reason for her journey. Luca explains that his father and his father’s best friend, Don Massimo Sarti, had together been respected government officials who had acted to preserve as many of the city’s treasures as they could before Venice surrendered to Napoléon some twenty years earlier. The plan was to hide as many items of value as possible – especially those pertaining to the city’s heritage – and to return them once the Republic of Venice was restored, but things didn’t quite work out that way. Venice was used as a pawn over the years and only now, after Napoléon’s defeat, is the situation stable enough to consider restoring all the artefacts that the men had spirited away. In his final communication to his son, Luca’s father explained that he had visited the hiding place in order to make an inventory only to discover the place was empty. It seems Don Massimo has stolen everything he and Luca’s father had vowed to preserve in order to fund his gambling habit – and when threatened with exposure had his former friend killed.
Luca wants revenge against Don Massimo, and believes he can obtain it with Becky’s help. Gambling is illegal in Venice at all times other than during Carnevale, which lasts from February to Lent, when the rules are relaxed and a number of ridotti (private gaming hells) open up for deep play. Becky is to play the part of Regina di Denari, the Queen of Coins, a mysterious, masked woman who is a force to be reckoned with at the card table, and Luca plans for her to win back everything Don Massimo stole from his father and the city, which will ruin him completely.
Against the backdrop of the hedonistic Carnevale – where everyone is masked and no-one is what they seem – Luca and Becky find themselves fighting the attraction that’s been growing between them since the day they met. They both know the other is a distraction they can’t afford – and besides, a girl from the London slums who grew up making her living as a street performer is a completely ineligible match for a wealthy man of Luca’s status, who is expected to make the sort of practical society marriage made by every Venetian nobleman. Even so, somehow these two are perfect for each other as Becky’s down-to-earth manner and attitude complement Luca’s similarly pragmatic outlook; yet it emerges that there may be more separating them than a question of class. When Becky holds up a mirror to Luca’s driving need for vengeance, he is forced to consider the nature of obsession… and faced with some impossible choices.
Marguerite Kaye’s descriptions of the sights and sounds of Venice, and its customs and traditions are extremely well done; so much so in fact, that I was surprised to learn from her author’s notes that she has never been there! She expertly conjures up mental images of the changing colours of the wintry sky and the waters of the Grand Canal, giving the reader an armchair tour of the palazzos and bustling marketplaces of the city in just such a way as to whet the appetite without interrupting the flow of the story.
The relationship between Becky and Luca builds over several weeks, although their attraction is instantaneous; they share an almost-kiss on something like Becky’s second day at the palazzo, which felt way too soon, especially after Becky’s determination that she’d had enough of men after the way her lying bastard ex (my words, not the authors!) treated her. After this, though, things slow down, and the author instead makes the most of their growing attraction and allows it to simmer through lingering looks, touches and forbidden kisses until neither Luca nor Becky can deny or resist its compulsion.
His Rags to Riches Contessa is a romantic and entertaining story featuring two strongly drawn and appealing principal characters. The revenge plot, while perfectly in keeping with the setting, was ultimately a little weak, though, as there was no real doubt about the outcome; far more interesting was the dilemma Luca faced when forced to confront the harsh reality of the consequences of his actions. Still, this is a strong addition to the Matches Made in Scandal series, and is an historical romance I’m happy to recommend.