|Unmasked is an exasperating book; interesting characters and an intriguing plotline are mixed with silly, contrived events and anachronistic dialogue that yanks the reader right out of the story. At least it did for me.
Major Nick Falconer, heir to the Marquis of Kinloss, attempts to meet his loathsome cousin Rashleigh at a seedy London pub. Rashleigh has been systematically fleecing young members of the nobility, and he's going to get himself killed if Nick can't warn him to stop. At the Hen and Vulture, Nick first meets a mysterious blonde woman who shares a kiss with him, and then later finds his cousin's body - a blonde wig next to it. Under the orders of the Home Secretary, who suspects that the murder is tied to a gang of highwaywomen known as the Glory Girls, Nick is soon on his way to the village of Peacock Oak to track down the murderer.
Mari Osbourne is a former Russian serf who became the property of Rashleigh's family when they inherited Russian lands. Rashleigh's father amused himself by giving her an education in the ways of the nobility, and Mari can pass for a gentlewoman. That ended when Rashleigh became the new Earl. Mari's life became one of debasement and cruelty at Rashleigh's hands, until she escaped into Yorkshire six years earlier. Posing as widowed Mrs. Osbourne, she has made a new life for herself.
Nick is now Rashleigh's heir, and technically "owns" Mari, should he discover her true identity. Mari knows quite a lot about the Glory Girls, too, and their mission of robbing abusive landowners and those who mistreat others. Since Rashleigh is dead and Nick doesn't know who she is, wouldn't it make sense for Mari to lay low? Instead, a clumsy scene is set whereby Mari strips naked and frolics in a fountain at her friend Laura's home, just before a ball is to start. Laura is a duchess and guests are arriving, but Mari just wants to be "the girl who had always had a streak of wildness in her." Of course, Nick arrives just in time to see her splashing around in the fountain and is overcome with lust, filling him with guilt at having forgotten his dead wife. Ten minutes later, Mari arrives for the ball, fully dressed, with every hair in place. She soon recognizes Nick as the man she "picked up" in the Hen and Vulture.
As Mari broods on the irony of the one man she hoped never to see again turning out to be the one man who sees her splashing naked in a fountain (and readers try to stop their eyes from rolling back in their heads), Nick recognizes her immediately as the water sprite, though not as the seductive harlot. He determines to get to know her, though, and the story basically involves Nick pursuing Mari and Mari terrified to trust him with her secrets. The Glory Girls play a role, and there are several secondary romances woven in.
Mari is an interesting character, and kudos to the author for using a storyline that is unique. Slavery was still legal in England during the time in which this story is set. The author takes the high road - there are no miraculous revelations that make Mari a secret countess or any sort of nonsense like that, and as a result, her fear is almost palpable. Once past the initial clunky scenes, Nick and Mari progress to a genuine friendship, though very tentative and guarded on Mari's side. Nick, for his part, is persistent without being overbearing, just right for his role.
A subplot involving Mari's friend Hester, a noblewoman who sleeps with stablehands and anyone she can find at the local pub, felt forced and unrealistic. Wouldn't she be shunned by any decent person? This aside, Unmasked is an enjoyable tale that takes some risks and mostly delivers.