In her second novel of the Lady Jane Grey series, author Deanna Raybourne has much to live up to. That she so successfully meets the challenge is a testament to the character and wit of her independent widow at odds with an enquiry agent, Nicholas Brisbane, who gets under Julia's skin at every turn, indicative not only of a professional sense of competition, but also a romantic tension that fails to materialize as the two lock horns and intellects, murder at the heart of each contretemps. Returning from five months in Italy with her two brothers, a new sister-in-law and a charming young gentleman with a crush on the widow, Lady Julia arrives in Sussex at her father's home, Belmont Abbey, for a protracted Christmas family gathering. Unexpectedly, among the earl of March's guests is none other than the enigmatic and profoundly stubborn Brisbane, who blandly introduces Julia to his fiancé. Not to be outdone, Julia proffers her handsome gentleman in turn.
Critiquing Brisbane's intended, Julia finds the woman lacking. Pretty enough, to be sure, but not of the intellectual caliber one would expect from Brisbane. Her suspicions piqued, Julia believes something is amiss and vows to keep her eye on the couple, at the same time attending to her temperamental new sister-in-law, as well as a visiting clergyman, and two poor-relation cousins, one of whom has brought her wealthy, elderly fiancé with plans to be married in the Abbey chapel that weekend. Beginning their usual fractious repartee, Julia and Brisbane have once more begun to circle one another when a scream rings out; a man is found dead in the chapel, the about-to-be-wed cousin standing near the lifeless body clutching the blood-stained murder weapon. With everything in chaos, the cousin claims the right of sanctuary, unwilling or unable to answer further questions. Later that night, when she and her devoted sister suffer the consequences of someone's ill-intent, it is clear that this family holiday is not going as planned.
With the aura of a baroque late 19th century drawing room melodrama, the setting is gothic and mysterious, four centuries of ghosts in good company with a killer who mixes among the other guests. Terrified that the culprit might be one of her kin, Julia must consider every possibility, no matter how distasteful, following Brisbane's lead, but forging a singular path as her own stubborn nature prevails. Accidentally thwarting Brisbane's investigation, Julia is adequately remorseful, but as is her wont, her mistakes come at Brisbane's personal cost, all because she refuses to be dominated by another man since widowhood, independence part of this protagonist's charm. Stories within stories, wheels within wheels, nothing is predictable in this novel, not the murderer, nor the eclectic assortment of guests, including a jewel thief and a deeply bitter man who craves society's approbation, nor the two combatants, Julia and Brisbane, who fuel yet another romp through the dark halls of murder and a relationship yet to be acknowledged. A charming, irresistible novel. Luan Gaines/ 2008.