Nicola Cornick
July 2008, European Historical Romance (Early 1800s [Georgian] England)
HQN, $6.99, 384 pages, Amazon ASIN 037377303X

Grade: B-
Sensuality: Warm

Unmasked is a solid read which puts a personal face on the concept of freedom in the form of our heroine, who was born into serfdom and slavery in Russia. There are bumps in the narrative along the way, but for the most part, it is an interesting and enjoyable read.

Marina Valstoya became the property of Robert, the Earl of Rashleigh, when he inherited ancestral lands in Russian. Where his father was amused by educating Mari and molding her into the perfect English lady, Robert had more nefarious purposes in mind for the beautiful girl: making her his mistress and dragging her to England. (Unmasked takes place before slavery was abolished in England.) Mari's life was one of slavery and debasement until she managed to escape and make a life for herself in far off Yorkshire. Six years later, she and Robert meet again shortly before he is found murdered in a London alley, making her the prime suspect.

Nick Falconer is cousin to the loathsome Rashleigh and there was no love lost between them. There was much rejoicing in many quarters at Rashleigh's death, but Nick has been ordered by the Home Secretary to solve the murder, which seems to be connected to a gang of highwaymen - make that highwaywomen - going by the name of The Glory Girls, who are the talk of the country. They are a group of female Robin Hoods who selectively target land and mine owners who abuse their workers and have become national folk heroes.

Nick arrives in Yorkshire and finds the widow Mari Osbourne, whose meek and demure manner is in stark contrast to the provocatively dressed masked woman he met in London and watched leave a tavern with his cousin shortly before his murder. Nick is determined to learn all Mari's secrets and solve the mysteries which surround her. The attraction he felt in London only becomes stronger as he tries to reconcile Mari's seemingly opposing characters. He soon enough realizes that she is no murderer or robber, but she is also obviously frightened, and Nick is frustrated that she won't trust him.

Mari is rightly terrified of her true identity being discovered and returning to slavery. As Nick is Rashleigh's heir, she now technically belongs to him, and while Nick would be a much kinder owner than Rashleigh and she is attracted to him, she has tasted freedom and will do anything to keep from losing it. And, while she doesn't ride with The Glory Girls, those she loves does, so Mari has ample reason to not trust Nick. She cannot take a chance of losing her freedom or betraying her friends. Mari's struggles with her past demons, her efforts to overcome Rashleigh's abuse, her love for her friends, her terror of returning to slavery, are all very affectingly written and she is a very appealing and sympathetic character.

I had some problems with a secondary character who slept with every stableman and farm worker in the county and yet somehow was accepted in local society and still pursued by a nice guy who has loved her forever. But the bigger problem was in an ending that dragged. Secrets were revealed, steps taken toward happy endings, I felt a distinct "wrapping up" vibe to the story - but there were still 100 pages left in the book. The extra page space didn't add a whole lot to the story and most of it just seemed unnecessary.

But, Unmasked is still a book I can recommend, one with a unique premise and whose heroine and her journey are the star of the show.

-- Cheryl Sneed

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