|Princess Isabella Di Cassilis is looking for a husband, and she needs one post haste. The death of her husband has not just left her penniless – the late Prince had racked up a crushing debt that could land her in debtors’ prison. Weighing her options, she has determined that the best course of action is to scurry over to the Fleet Prison and find some unfortunate so overburdened by debt that taking on hers through marriage would be the proverbial drop in the bucket. Her only requirements are that the man be a gentleman by birth and strong enough not to die soon and burden her with both their debts.
Isabella is counting on gaining an inheritance that, while not being settled quickly enough to satisfy the creditors, will eventually allow her to retire to the countryside and annul the marriage. A slightly harebrained scheme, as she is later forced to admit, and one that did not take into account two things – that if her “husband” did not agree to an annulment, it would be impossible to receive one, and that, through the marriage, she ceded control of the property and income she expected to inherit.
Another factor she should have given more consideration to: the man presented as the potential bridegroom, “John Ellis,” is in fact Marcus John Ellis, the Earl of Stockhaven; this is exceedingly unfortunate, as Isabelle left him literally standing at the altar twelve years prior when she wed the Prince. He has since inherited the title from a distant cousin and is far from being the young navy lieutenant to whom she had been engaged.
With revenge in mind, Marcus agrees to her proposal and they wed. What Isabella does not know is that Marcus is in prison not because he is in debt, but because he is investigating a shadowy criminal, Edward Warwick. Marcus can get out of the Fleet anytime he desires; once he has wed Isabella, he very much desires. Once out, he conveys to the stunned Isabella his list of demands as her husband. The regal Princess complies within the letter, but certainly not the spirit, of his conditions.
As Marcus and Isabella try to negotiate the particulars of how they will proceed while entangled with the smoldering intensity of their mutual desire, numerous secondary characters weave intriguing sub-plots of their own involving the search for the criminal Warwick, Isabella’s brother and sister and the messes they have created, and the mysteries surrounding Marcus’ deceased first wife, who happened to be Isabella’s cousin.
While that sounds like a lot of plot swirling around, it turns out to be just the right amount to support the splendid writing and vivid characters. The dialogue hits exactly the right note, which is a good thing, as there it quite a bit of it. It just sparkles. The use of language particular to the Regency period and a more formal syntax in both the dialogue and the narrative does far more to transport and engage the reader than the more common overuse of a few catch phrases and endless detailed descriptions of who wore what where. The author is British; possibly that has given her this sharp ear for better approximating the language of the time? Or maybe she’s just darn good with words, as in this description where Isabella contrasts her experience with Marcus to that of laying under the late Prince, which she likens to “being squashed by a wardrobe that still had the key in the door.”
The characters are substantive, even (or maybe especially) the secondary ones. They have depth and richness and, quite frankly, behave in a most mature way – when Isabella flees from Marcus in hurt and confusion, he tracks her down and actually asks her why. Imagine that. These two have had a difficult twelve years apart, and their discussion of the past is exceptionally emotionally honest, almost wrenchingly so.
It is such a delight to discover an author not previously known to you whose work makes you want to hunt up her backlist before even beginning the review; for me, Nicola Cornick is such an author. An admission here – sometimes I can’t review a book immediately upon completion and have to do a thorough amount of skimming when I get back to it. I didn’t skim Deceived – I re-read it, cover to cover.