A Gift for Guile
By Alissa Johnson
Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca
Release Date: July 5, 2016
Sir Samuel Brass disagrees. Esther’s disguise is not enough to conceal her identity from him. Brass is one of the three famous thief-takers of Scotland Yard who nine years ago, in the case that claimed William Walker’s life, saved a kidnapped duchess and earned themselves titles in the process. The trio left Scotland Yard to set up as private investigators. Samuel, who has known Esther since she was little more than a child sees the good in her but is also aware of an untamed quality. He tracks her from Derbyshire to London and appears at Paddington Station just in time to interfere with Esther’s appointment with an unusual blackmailer.
Esther is determined to complete the search that brought her to London. Samuel is determined to protect her. They compromise and thus begins a shared adventure that includes some wonderfully funny moments, ample sexual tension, and real danger plus an ongoing battle of wills between the fiercely independent Esther and the stubborn Samuel. The growing intimacy between the two and painfully acquired self-knowledge on both their parts make for a rewarding and believable HEA.
The mystery element in this second book in Johnson’s Thief Taker series takes second place to a richly developed relationship story that explores the difficult pasts of both hero and heroine. The verbal battles between Esther and Samuel are a delight even though Samuel, whose characteristic clumsiness of speech is magnified by his confusion over the feelings Esther evokes in him, is consistently outgunned by the witty and facile Esther. From tense to tender, their moments together are memorable. And their badminton game just may be the best game in historical romance since the Bridgertons played croquet.
Johnson avoids the trap of misunderstanding and has her protagonists talk to one another when conflict threatens the relationship—you know, like adults are supposed to do. Esther and Samuel are sympathetic, likeable characters individually; together they are irresistible. Readers who prefer the focus to remain on the lead couple should be particularly happy with this novel. Even Gabriel Arkwright, the third thief taker and clearly the hero of an upcoming book, is not allowed to distract from the central story.
My first Alissa Johnson novel was Practically Wicked in 2012, and I fell in love with her wit, her flawed and fascinating characters. I started on her backlist immediately after finishing that first book. A Gift for Guile is just one more reason Johnson is on my auto-buy list. A preference for character-driven romance is a refrain in discussions of the genre. If you are part of that chorus but also like a touch of adventure in the mix, I think you will enjoy Esther and Samuel’s story as much as I did. I highly recommend it. And if you love historical romance and have never read Alissa Johnson, A Gift for Guile is a good place to begin. Then you can start on the backlist.
Fun Fact about the Victorian Age
“Tight-lacing,” or the practice of cinching one’s corset to produce a ridiculously small waist, was not commonly practiced in the Victorian era. Most women needed some freedom of movement (not to mention the ability to breathe) in order to take care of their daily responsibilities. Extreme binding and squishing, or the really crazy stuff like removing ribs, just weren’t practical for the average girl. In fact, as fashionable as the tiny waist was, it didn’t stop ladies from buying tea gowns. Donned for informal entertainment at home, these loose fitting dresses were often designed to be worn without corset.
Excerpt from A Gift for Guile
Samuel grabbed Esther and shoved her behind him just as the gig raced by, launching a great wall of ditch water over the curb and onto him.
It soaked him through to the skin, and there was nothing he could do but drag a hand down his face and flick the excess moisture from his fingers.
Esther snickered. Actually, she coughed, but it was a hide-the-snicker sort of cough. It didn’t fool anyone.
He glowered at her.
She snickered again.
“Get in the carriage, Esther.”
For once, she complied without argument. She clambered inside, one hand covering her mouth. The moment the door was closed, her laughter filled the carriage.
“Oh. Oh, Lord.” She flipped up her veil. “I’m sorry. I’m terribly sorry. But the state of you. Good heavens.” She calmed herself a bit and reached over to pat his knee. “My hero.”
Then she laughed some more.
He ought to be offended, really. Annoyed at the very least. But he couldn’t seem to move beyond amazed.
He’d never heard her laugh before. Not like this. Not with her head tipped back and the sound just flowing from her.
Samuel wracked his brain for a single memory of Esther laughing, really laughing, and came up blank. Years ago, when she’d been little more than a girl, she had giggled. Once or twice, she may have chuckled. Certainly, he’d heard her snicker. But he hadn’t heard her laugh. Not as a child, and not since he’d known her as an adult.
The woman simply didn’t laugh in front of him.
It seemed an odd thing not to have noticed before now. Stranger still that he should find an ordinary sound so extraordinarily appealing. There was a sweet, clear tone to it that made him think of wind chimes. Not the tinny sort Mrs. Lanchor had hung in the garden two years ago (and the beast had mauled into oblivion three days ago) but the solid sort that put one to mind of woodwinds.
Her laugh reminded him of wind chimes that reminded him of woodwinds. By God, he was England’s finest poet.
“You’ve changed,” he murmured. There used to be a brittleness about her, a deep unhappiness she kept hidden away along with her kindness and honesty, all buried beneath a layer of cool indifference. He couldn’t see that brittleness anymore.
“Beg your pardon?” Her laugh tapered off slowly, and she looked at him uncertainly. “I didn’t mean to cause offense.” A spark of mischievousness lit in her blue eyes. “Well, maybe a little offense, but—”
“I’m not offended… Maybe a little offended,” he corrected with humor. “But I wasn’t implying that you’ve changed for the worse. It’s for the better.”
“Oh.” Her lips curved in a small, hesitant smile. “Thank you.”
“You’re happier, aren’t you?”
“I am,” she agreed, and so readily that he could only assume she’d given the matter some thought recently. “I am starting to be.”
“It is nice to see.” It was more than nice. It was something else, something more.
Here, he thought, was the woman he’d caught glimpses of before. The remarkable one who amazed and fascinated him. Only it wasn’t just a glimpse. He remembered her insistence that he wasn’t a hard man and her defense of the little boy. And he wondered now if the traits he admired in her had never been quite as buried or transient as he imagined. Anything could seem like a glimpse, he realized, if one looked away too quickly.
She's a liar.
She's a con.
She's a thief.
And God help him, but he'll do anything to keep her safe.
Beautiful and conniving, maddening and brilliant, Esther is everything private detective Samuel Brass shouldn't want. Esther knows she's put herself in terrible danger, but nothing will stop her from making amends—not her family's enemies, not old fears, and certainly not the domineering, interfering, and undeniably handsome former officer of the Scotland Yard. Yet whenever he's near, Samuel makes her long for a life that can never be hers…and wish she were worthy of being saved.