Desert Isle Keeper
Unmask Me if You Can
Shana Galen’s Unmask Me if You Can reminded me of The Phantom of the Opera – minus the stalker-ish behavior of the hero, and plus a whole lot of tender romance and tropes I adore.
Jasper Grantham, third son of the Marques of Strathern, had once been the most handsome man in all of England, but the scars he accrued during the War of 1812 have left him with a horrifying facial disfigurement that causes him to wear a half-mask at all times. He works as a bounty hunter for hire in the shadows, and his latest client, the Duke of Withernsea, has sent him to the small English village of Penbury on the trail of an elusive woman who has been notoriously hard to track. While grabbing a drink from a stream on the pathway to what is assumed to be her cottage, he is held up by a robber and stabbed. He passes out by the stream, which is where Olivia’s son finds him.
Olivia Carlisle and her young son Richard happen to be the quarry Jasper is seeking, and they have been living hand-to-mouth on the small amount of money she stole while fleeing Withernsea’s house five years earlier. Fortunately for Jasper, Olivia is not the kind of woman to let him suffer or die alone, and takes him in to nurse him back to health.
Olivia and Jasper both recognize each other instantly as the enemy – and also as someone they danced with many years ago at society balls during the season. Jasper puts two and two together and realizes his mission was a faulty one; Withernsea is the kind of man who pays extra to beat prostitutes at the brothels he frequents, and Jasper quickly figures out that Richard is the product of rape. Olivia soon confesses she’s been running and hiding from an arranged marriage to Withernsea. During his convalescence, Jasper becomes dedicated to protecting Olivia and Richard, and on tales of dragons and glimpses of bared flesh, they begin to weave a family together. As things begin to heat up between them – and Withernsea hires a new man to stalk and capture Olivia – Olivia and Jasper must choose between hiding beneath the blanket of their scars or emerging into the world at large, facing down Withernsea and risking becoming something more.
This a great romance. Olivia has a spine made of steel, and even when it seems Withernsea has the upper hand, she refuses to surrender or submit, using her wits to keep herself and her son well and healthy.
And Jasper is every bit the hero she deserves; scarred and full of self-loathing, falling in love with Olivia and bonding with Richard gives him a purpose that allows the real hero in him to re-emerge. He and Olivia save one another, and that is beautiful to watch.
The supporting characters, aside from Richard, are a bit more pat. I have to give the author credit for Richard, though, because he definitely comes off as a curious five-year-old rather than a saccharine caricature. I loved Richard’s various brave friends and relatives who step up to help Olivia in her hour of need.
The romance itself is quite lovely. Two scarred people working their way back to some form of wholeness is a wonderful thing to read about, and the book delivers it in spades. It’s terribly romantic in a way I haven’t read in a long time and I appreciated it.
The novel’s treatment of rape is forthright and honest. I will say that a final scene in which the subject matter is confronted did feel a shade too over the top, but it was so thematically satisfying I didn’t mind.
Unmask Me if You Can is a lovely, heartwarming treat of a book. It lit up my afternoon, and I truly hope it finds a happy audience.