During my first reading of The Purloined Papers, I kept thinking, “Who kidnapped Allison Lane, and where are they keeping her?” For this darker, somewhat disjointed story bears no resemblance to the lighter tone and style of some of her other releases. Upon reading it a second time, the characterizations felt more vivid and interesting. The question is, will readers be satisfied with a book where the romance takes a backseat to the many subplots?
Chloe Fields’ father gambled away her dowry in a series of bad investments, and with no prospects of marriage looming, Chloe has chosen to support herself. Her old friend and neighbor, William Seabrook, offered her the position of companion to his shrewish, cruel sister, Laura, in hopes that Chloe can keep her under control. Laura is sequestered in the country after being involved in a scandal that left her with a scarred cheek. Chloe has plans, however. Her expenses are few, and as soon as she can save enough money to buy a cottage of her own, she’ll leave Laura and hire out as a day governess. In the meantime, she puts up with Laura and grits her teeth.
Then news arrives that Sir Nigel Fields is dead, under suspicious circumstances, but he has managed to leave Chloe a few hundred pounds. Where did he get it? Chloe’s ne’er-do-well younger brother, Peter, is after the money. Andrew Seabrook, career Army man and Chloe’s old love, arrives home with a recently-healed leg. William plans to marry a pretty woman who is a cit, a fact that incenses Laura, and she is determined to break up the match by whatever underhanded means she needs to use. William commands Laura to attend his betrothal ball at Seabrook Manor and Andrew offers to fetch her, bringing him together with Chloe after a separation of eleven years. All these characters converge on Seabrook Manor, along with the other Seabrook siblings, who were leads in previous books.
With so much going on it’s hard to find the romance, and the action leaps from place to place somewhat willy-nilly. Andrew is a lovely hero and unusual in that he feels trapped in the Army. As a younger son, he has no prospects of inheriting land, and no skills other than soldiering. Oh, he dabbles in architectural design, and is actually more talented than he knows, but his sense of despair at being stuck in a hated position is palpable. Not to mention his deep regret at leaving Chloe behind all those years ago.
Chloe displays as much spirit as a woman in her position might be allowed to do, which is actually quite a bit. She can be blunt and sharp with Laura, as well as placating. Chloe and Andrew make a lovely couple, both struggling to find a way out of their present lives and into a life together. There isn’t much opportunity for them to share page space, however, with so much else going on. Then a murder subplot crops up, adding yet another ingredient to the mix. I wanted Andrew and Chloe to spend more time together, coming to terms with their painful parting of eleven years ago and rebuilding their romance. It's obvious they've both changed a great deal, but they didn't spend enough time together in this book for their relationship to feel cemented in the present. More of an "I loved you all those years ago, and I love you still" feeling.
The Purloined Papers (the title refers to some documents that Laura’s father was searching for when he died) offers interesting characters, a lot of plot, a satisfying comeuppance for a villainess, and an ending that ties up everything with a tidy bow. In fact, the Epilogue went a bit overboard in this area. If you enjoy plot-driven Regencies and don’t mind have a little less romance, this book will grab your interest. And if you read last year's wonderful The Rake and the Wallflower, this story finishes the trilogy nicely.