Desert Isle Keeper
Secrets of a Scandalous Heiress
Theresa Romain’s Matchmaker trilogy has been one of the most consistently good series of books I can remember reading in recent months. All three have made it to my keeper shelf and the series has turned Ms. Romain – someone whose books I’ve always enjoyed – into an auto-buy author.
In Secrets of a Scandalous Heiress readers are reacquainted with Miss Augusta Meredith, the “soap factory” heiress who appeared briefly in the previous book in the series (To Charm a Naughty Countess, review here). Having decided that London is probably not the best place to carry out her current scheme, Augusta has retreated to Bath with her friend, Lady Tallant, who has recently miscarried a baby and has gone there to take the waters and restore her health. Augusta has rather audaciously elected to call herself Mrs. Flowers and act the part of a merry widow, someone who isn’t regularly targeted by fortune hunters and whose behaviour isn’t always viewed by hostile and critical eyes.
She enjoys the freedom that accompanies her supposed widowhood and feels a slight lifting of the weight that has dogged her ever since the sudden deaths of her parents and the desertion of the young man with whom she had believed herself in love. She’s tired of being herself and never knowing if she is sought for her money or for her person, and has decided it’s time to take a stand. She plans to take a lover so that in her mind, she can revenge herself upon men in general and upon the man who took what he wanted from her and then cruelly discarded her. She wants a man who will dance to her tune and whom she can then throw away without a moment’s disquiet.
Not long after Augusta has begun looking about her for likely candidates, she is dismayed to discover an acquaintance among the crowds present at an assembly. Bath is a small town, and the game will be up should Mr. Josiah Everett reveal her to be a wealthy spinster rather than a widow of reduced means.
Joss is in Bath in order to execute a commission for his cousin, Lord Sutcliffe, a man so drugged up most of the time that it’s a miracle he is able to find his own arse without Joss’ help. Sutcliffe, who is Joss’ cousin as well as his employer, is being blackmailed over the fact that he seduced and impregnated a housemaid, and, as the bulk of his fortune is actually his wife’s, he has no alternative but to find the money to pay off the villain by other means. He sends Joss to Bath to find a buyer for some land – a scheme to which Joss has agreed mostly because he has a stake in the outcome. Sutcliffe takes Joss for granted and treats him abysmally for the most part, and Joss has had enough of being at his beck and call, so he’s tapped Sutcliffe for a percentage of the proceeds of the sale which should give him enough money as to enable him to find employment somewhere else.
He’s as surprised to see Augusta in Bath as she is to see him – although he’s much more pleased. Until, that is, she lets him in on her secret and propositions him, telling him that all she really needs is a man and that he “would do.”
“I would do? …Because I am convenient? Or because I am entirely unworthy of marriage?”
His tone froze her fingers, and she withdrew her hand to her lap. “Because” – she raised her own chin – “You bathe regularly and are not bad looking. As I mentioned previously.”
“I may swoon.”
Augusta then proposes a bargain of another kind. If Joss will keep her true identity secret, she will help him to find someone to purchase Sutcliffe’s land. She has a good head for business (as shown by the fact that she has managed to convince the board of Meredith Beauty that her ideas are really theirs) and is quickly able to give Joss a list of names of potential purchasers, together with one of a man who “knows things”, who might be able to help to smoke out the blackmailer.
The romance between Joss and Augusta is deeply felt and beautifully developed – and their verbal sparring is an absolute delight. Clever, smart-mouthed heroes are my drug of choice, and Joss possesses a biting, dead-pan wit he exercises frequently. He’s also a very honourable and proud man who, while most definitely attracted to Augusta, refuses to be used, especially as he believes her to have found him unworthy of the possibility of there being anything more meaningful between them.
But what he’s really doing is projecting his own views onto her. He discerns early on that Augusta has a low sense of self-worth, but what he doesn’t see is that his own isn’t much better. His cousin treats him as though he’s nothing, but Joss has allowed it all these years because of his own self-esteem and identity issues. He’s the grandson of a lord – but his grandmother was Indian, and while his Anglo-Indian heritage isn’t something he’s taken great pains to hide, he doesn’t advertise it, either.
The issue of identity is one of the themes running through the book. Augusta assumes another identity because she wants to be someone else, only to discover that the best parts of her are those she had wanted to escape; Joss knows next to nothing about his heritage and identity as an Anglo-Indian and by the end of the book has decided to change that. Both characters have to come to a sense of their own self-worth in order for their relationship to work, and it’s through their friendship and support for each other that they are able to find it.
Secrets of a Scandalous Heiress is a terrific read – poignant, tender, funny and sexy by turns. Ms. Romain’s writing is intelligent and laced with wit and humour; and the book is peppered with some truly beautiful, yet understated prose.
I’m waiting not at all patiently to see what she’s going to come up with next!