Lord of Deceit
Lord of Deceit is the second book in Sara Ramsey’s Heiress Games series about the three “Briarley heiresses” who, because of a strange clause in their eccentric grandfather’s will, are forced to compete against each other in order to inherit their family estate of Maidenstone. I have to admit that the gap of eighteen months between this and the first book (Duke of Thorns) meant I had to go back and re-read my review to refresh my memory about some of the plot details and characters, but I think that had I not felt the need to do that for the sake of completeness, I could have read this as a standalone without too many problems.
Ladies Octavia, Lucasta and Callista Briarley are cousins whose stand to inherit a large estate and fortune, but their late grandfather’s will stipulates that the inheritance can only go to one of them, and that one will be the lady who makes the most prestigious marriage. At the beginning of the party, however, it seems as though only Lucy is in contention as Callista now lives in America and Octavia left Maidenstone in disgrace some years earlier. At one point in their lives, Lucy and Octavia were very close, but the rift between them caused when Octavia’s brother was killed in a duel defending her honour – a duel for which she blames Lucy – is wide, deep, and unlikely ever to heal.
And that’s the way Octavia likes it. Being the subject of a duel set the seal on her ruin, so when the opportunity came to get away from Maidenstone, from Lucy’s recriminations and from her fears about being trapped there forever, she took it, accepting an offer of carte blanche from Lord Sommerville. What the handsome young gentleman wanted however, was a hostess for his political salons rather than someone to warm his bed, something which became apparent to Lucy quite quickly. But still, he treats her well, and in the years she lives as his mistress, Octavia makes quite a name for herself as a hostess – among the demimondaine, of course, given her status as a fallen woman. When Lord Rafael Emmerson-Fairhurst, younger brother of the Duke of Thorrington, walks into one of these salons, Octavia is shaken by the strength of her attraction to a man for the first time in years.
Rafe has recently returned from service in Spain, where he was a Captain in the army and also a spy. During the past year, he has continued to employ his covert skills in England, cultivating the image of a pleasant, but almost permanently inebriated wastrel and putting to good use the information dropped from the tongues so often loosened in his presence. But now he wants to make a more personal use of his talents; Lord Sommerville publicly insulted Lady Serena, one of Rafe’s sisters, and he plans to use Octavia to get his revenge on the man who hurt his sister and who preaches so effectively in Parliament about the iniquities of vice while openly maintaining a mistress.
The instant spark of attraction between him and Octavia doesn’t quite cause Rafe to rethink his scheme, but he nonetheless feels regret at what he is planning to do. However, things don’t go according to plan when Octavia’s situation changes abruptly, causing her to leave London. Sommerville needs to take a wife if he is to make any further advancement in his career, and of course he can’t marry Octavia. She is furious at being so casually discarded, but isn’t willing to be passed along to another protector. The only place she can go is back to Maidenstone and Lucy – but on arrival, her cousin makes it more than clear that she is not welcome there. She is, however, welcome to stay at the old hunting lodge in the grounds, provided she never sets foot in the house.
Hurt, betrayed and still mad as hell, Octavia takes up residence in the lodge, making plans to get back at Lucy and ensuring she can’t inherit Maidenstone by ruining the house-party and driving away all the prospective suitors. When she hears that the Emmerson-Fairhurst family is going to be present, she remembers the rapport she’d felt with Rafe and seeks him out, recruiting him as her partner in crime.
I have to say that the revenge plot and Octavia’s half-baked idea to scare everyone away with ghost stories are the least convincing things about the book. Far more interesting are Octavia herself and her fractured relationship with Lucy, which shapes so much of her character and informs so many of her decisions. Although her life with Somerville was one of comfort and security (while it lasted) she has developed a strong self-reliance and invented a whole new persona for herself as Madame Octavia, the polished, flirtatious hostess of London’s most talked-about salons. And even when she is cast aside, she refuses to play the victim and just slink quietly away into the shadows. When she learns about the contest to win her grandfather’s estate, she is determined to stake her claim; after all, he was fond of her and she of him and she’s just as entitled to take part in the competition as her cousins. Octavia’s strength of character makes her an interesting heroine; she’s not feisty in a curl-tossing, foot-stamping way, but rather she is one of those women who knows she has to pick herself up after a reversal and shape her own life rather than waiting for others to take her into account.
Rafe and Octavia are similar in many ways. They know how to manipulate, they hide behind masks of their own creation and have suffered betrayal, but he’s less well-defined than she is, and his commitment issues – which also affect his brother in Duke of Thorns – are fairly stock-in-trade. Yet Rafe is an attractive, intelligent hero who obviously cares about Octavia, comes to understand her and genuinely wants her to be happy. Ms. Ramsey has the knack for writing snappy, humorous dialogue and there’s much to enjoy in their verbal sparring, which is often funny and poignant – sometimes at the same time – and I enjoyed the insights we were given into the Briarley family dynamic through the ages. They sound like a completely bonkers lot!
Lord of Deceit is not without its weaknesses, but the writing is excellent, the characterisation is strong and the romance is nicely developed. If you read and enjoyed Duke of Thorns and want to catch up with the Briarleys, then I definitely recommend it; and if you haven’t tried this author before, you could start here and not miss out.