It’s hardly surprising that Tasha Alexander’s next step for Lady Emily and Colin, her dashing husband, brings the reader up to 1897. We land outside the borders of Kensington and Chelsea, into Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and the opportunity to attend a grand party in the grounds of Devonshire House. The Counterfeit Heiress begins with an excited Lady Emily, dressed as the goddess Artemis. Together with their best friends, Cecile Du Lac and Jeremy Sheffield, Duke of Bainbridge, Colin and Emily revel in their salubrious surroundings in a house crammed full with exotic guests. No one who is considered the “beau monde” wants to miss the opportunity to attend the masquerade ball of Louisa, the Duchess of Devonshire.
But when a gentleman steps forward dressed in a theatrical mask and an ancient Greek costume from the time of Pericles, the event becomes a harbinger for all that is to come. Someone is posing as Miss Estella Lamar, one of Cecile’s dearest friends. Since they were girls, Estella and Cecile firmly cemented their friendship, although wealthy, reclusive Estella never quite managed to admit to Cecile that marriage wasn’t the only thing she wanted to avoid. Colin is flummoxed that Estella seems to have turned up at the ball in an “ironic costume.” Colin knows this eccentric heiress would never have the slightest interest in attending. A busy world explorer, Estella is supposed to be living in Siam (her travels abroad have been well-documented in the press).
Thus begins the essential mystery as Alexander paints a portrait of poor, put-upon Estella, taken for granted, wrestling with her demons and also embarking on a clandestine journey of loneliness and detachment. Like building blocks, the past interjects with the present. Soon Lady Emily is using her considerable sleuthing skills to stitch together the connection between the death of Mary Darby, a woman who defied convention, this “not very successful actress,” who was masquerading as Estella.
Suddenly Emily, Colin, Cecile, and Jeremy are hot on the trail to discover Estella’s whereabouts. That trail takes them to Paris and to Estella’s grand home, which remains fully staffed and ready at all times for her imminent arrival. The servants have been keeping the place spotless until Estelle’s rumored return. But is Estella Lamar really a disturbed eccentric on the run? Estella’s accountant, Monsieur Pinard, has never been able to offer an explanation. And there’s no evidence that Estella is actually missing. She’s a grown woman in possession of a large fortune and has the unfettered right to spend it however she sees fit.
Alexander heavily anchors her story with tell-tale mystery elements, writing in a fashion similar to Charles Finch and presenting her material in such a way that we experience something entirely new. I see this series as a companion-piece to Finch’s Charles Lenox series. Like Lenox, Lady Emily is strong and independent and free of cliché, far from many of the standard cardboard characters we see too often in historical fiction.
There are many twists and turns, the adventure taking Emily, Colin, loyal Cecile, and doltish Jeremy deep into the Paris catacombs, a place inhabited by myth, mystery, and death, though the last person to see Estella has left scarce clues of her troubled life. There are madmen, sinister events, furtive activities in Paris’s tombs, and Pinard’s disturbing diffidence when Emily challenges him. She is positive that he’s lying about Estella’s whereabouts.
While the mystery itself isn't that surprising (Estella’s voice unfolds in alternating chapters), the tension of the story centers on Emily racing to gather clues tying Estella’s whereabouts to the identity of an auburn-haired man. Alexander makes us live and breathe the voice of her heroine. Colin is as dark, handsome and courageous as always, no doubt inspired by gothic heroes such as Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester, which makes him even more appealing.