When I read the blurb for this book, I was a little uneasy: “Running for her life, exhausted and out of options, Olivia Holladay wants nothing more than the chance to make a home for herself. So when she realizes that the infamous Duke of Marwick might hold the key to her freedom, she boldly disguises herself as the newest and bravest in a long line of the duke’s notoriously temperamental housekeepers. Little does she know that the wickedly handsome Alastair de Grey has very different plans for her. ” I tried to figure out why I disliked this plotline and I think it’s not so much that I dislike it but that it makes me anxious. Deception-from-the-start storylines are tricky; on the one hand, I guess it’s good that I’m already invested enough to care about when the heroine will be found out and how much conflict this will cause with the hero. On the other hand, if I wanted reading material to make me queasy I’d read in the car more often.
So, Olivia and Alastair, the aforementioned duke, each appeared in the previous book in the series, That Scandalous Summer. She is (or was) the proper and buttoned-up secretary to that book’s flighty and scandalous heroine, whereas he is the older brother of the hero. IIRC, Alastair played a bigger part in That Scandalous Summer; he was devastated by his wife’s death and by certain revelations about her character, and took it out on Michael, the hero, by trying to control who he married. Olivia was just sort of in the background, though it was a discovery she made as Elizabeth’s secretary in that book that brings her to the duke’s doorstep in this one.
Alastair de Grey, the Duke of Marwick, is a mess. His wife died shockingly and suddenly in a hotel room, and shortly after Alastair discovered that she cuckolded him with any number of men. Worse still, with powerful men, to whom she passed on political secrets Alastair had shared with her. For Alastair isn’t just a duke; he’s a political mover-and-shaker with aspirations to be Prime Minister one day. Both the personal betrayal and the knowledge that he might be thrust into public ignominy (a position he’s avoided like the plague his whole like because his parents were both infamous wastrels) have brought Alastair to his knees; he hasn’t left his house in the better part of a year and in fact spends all of his time in his rooms brooding, drinking and imagining killing his wife’s lovers.
Olivia is on the run; since leaving home at 17 she’s feared her mother’s erstwhile lover, Bertram. Bertram tried to discourage Olivia from coming to London (to go to secretarial school) after her mother died. When Olivia defied him and did arrive in London, she was met at the train station by Bertram’s servant, who proceeded to take her to an isolated country road and strangle her. Left for dead in a ditch, Olivia has been looking over her shoulder ever since, and she’s afraid she’s been found. But for the first time in a long time Olivia has hope; she happened to stumble across evidence at her former employer’s that she believes she can use to blackmail Bertram into leaving her alone. The problem is, the evidence is now apparently locked up in the Duke of Marwick’s residence. So Olivia plots to gain entry by getting hired as a maid. It’s a sign of how badly the house has descended into chaos that she actually not only gets hired, but is asked to temporarily take on the role of head housekeeper (at the unlikely age of 25; her lack of years is made up for by the control she quickly exerts over the staff, who have been slacking hardcore since the master retreated to his rooms).
Once ensconced in Alastair’s home, Olivia begins discreetly searching for the missing evidence. She quickly concludes that they must be in the duke’s rooms. Her first attempt to draw him out of the rooms so she can search them is less than successful – Marwick throws a bottle at her head. But soon the two are sparring in typical and time-honored hero/heroine fashion, and Alastair is beginning to come reluctantly back to life. Olivia finds that she cares not just for finding the letters that will protect her, but about setting Alastair’s home to rights and, if she can, reminding him that he is a brilliant man whose country needs him. (She discovers his brilliance by reading his writings on all manner of subjects, while looking for her elusive evidence. Alastair is, of course, a reform-minded liberal who really cares about The Poor, even though he’s a duke. This part was a little too good to be true for me, much like his brother Michael’s role as doctor to the downtrodden/rake extraordinaire was in the previous book.)
So, this is where it starts to get crunchy. Olivia has mixed motives, and the reader knows that Alastair is going to discover her secrets sooner or later. It’s that much worse because Alastair has already been devastated by a very personal betrayal by a woman he trusted and loved. When it came time to pay the piper I was uncomfortable with Alastair’s vengefulness (especially given the power differential between him and Olivia), but at the same time I couldn’t say that his anger was unexpected or unreasonable, given the circumstances. Dude has good reason to be angry.
There’s nothing about Fool Me Twice that is groundbreaking or even particularly original, at least in terms of plot and characterization. The starchy heroine with a backbone of steel is familiar, as is the imperious aristocrat brought low (though I do in particular like the latter type of character). There was a plot twist in the middle of the story that was telegraphed pretty clearly ahead of time, and another later that ended up surprising me. I also did like Alastair’s solution to the problem of the letters in the end; it was courageous and showed that he’d grown as a person.
I also liked Alastair’s attempts to make amends with his brother Michael. His behavior towards Michael in That Scandalous Summer was truly unconscionable and hurt innocent people (when Michael didn’t bend to Alastair’s will, Alastair shut down the hospital for the poor that he’d been funding). Once Alastair has recovered from his breakdown, he is truly ashamed and repentant and the tentative quality of their reconciliation was touching (and felt more true to life than those times where one character forgives the other instantly no matter how heinous the behavior involved).
Where this story really comes together is in the fact that it does each of its parts well: prose, plot, characterization. I expect nothing less from this author, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate a good historical romance, done well. My grade for Fool Me Twice is a high B+.