One Step Behind by Brianna Labuskes

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London, 1812. When the unconventional Gemma Lancaster embarked on a mission to infiltrate high society and avenge her beloved cousin’s murder she never would have guessed she’d end up in the arms of a thief. At least, that’s what she assumes when she discovers Lucas Stone breaking into a private safe.

Lucas Stone, the Earl of Winchester, has a reputation for arrogance and a soft-spot for his sister, which is how he ends up in the predicament of hiding behind a curtain at midnight with the dreadfully dull Miss Gemma Lancaster. But he soon discovers appearances can be deceiving when the country mouse turns into a spitfire in front of his eyes and she makes it clear she wants nothing to do with him.

Though one is chasing a blackmailer and the other a murderer, they quickly realize they are on the hunt for the same villain. Now they must work together, which would be fine, if they could decide if they’d rather fall in love or kill one another.

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Publisher and Release Date: Entangled, September 2016

Time and Setting: London, 1812
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars

Review by Sara

I’m going to put Brianna Labuskes in the rare category of a romance author who gets most of it right in her début work. One Step Behind is a great example of a complete romance from strangers, to friends, to lovers and making it believable. Mixed in with all the relationship hurdles is a mystery that kept me guessing right up to the end. Together it makes for a book that I highly recommend.

Gemma Lancaster is banking on the fact that the ton spares no notice for an unassuming wallflower. Behind a quiet demeanor and a fake pair of spectacles she has managed to stay hidden while in plain sight when attending several of the high-profile gatherings of the season with her aunt. Gemma’s self-appointed mission during these events is to track down her cousin’s murderer. Using the guest list from the house party where he was killed, Gemma has narrowed down her suspects to a few prominent members of society. All she needs is evidence in the form of his antique pocket watch that was stolen from the crime scene, but so far she’s found nothing. While searching the study of her latest suspect, Gemma is interrupted when another person sneaks into the room. She instantly recognizes the Earl of Winchester but is confused by his covert behavior. Caught alone and without a ready excuse for her actions, Gemma takes a risk and tells the earl exactly what she’s looking for.

Lucas Stone knew there was something different about Miss Lancaster after spotting her trying to keep to the shadows around her more vivacious family member. He didn’t expect to run into the woman while he was trying to sneak into their host’s study. Lucas has been the victim of a blackmailer’s plot to ruin his sister and rather than keep paying the scoundrel, he wants to catch the man and expose him. Once Lucas learns that Gemma is on a similar crusade – to uncover a criminal among the elite – he makes a decision that may assist both of their investigations. Arriving the next day at Gemma’s home Lucas proposes a partnership that will be hidden under the guise of a betrothal. Attending the same functions and sharing whatever evidence they can uncover could lead them to their blackmailer or murderer much faster than working alone. Lucas calms Gemma’s fears about the partnership with the stipulation that the betrothal can be called off at the end of the season.

As they begin their search for clues it becomes clear that Gemma and Lucas have been looking for the same person who is out to ruin very specific members of the peerage. Gemma’s cousin was in the wrong place at the wrong time; however his death may have forced the villain to accelerate his timetable, making mistakes along the way that are easier to track. Each foray into a forbidden area or conversation about what they’re looking for solidifies the bond of trust and companionship growing between them but both Gemma and Lucas are unprepared when their hearts get involved as well.

I mentioned above that Ms. Labuskes gets a lot right in One Step Behind and it shows best in how Gemma and Lucas’s relationship feels realistic, even given the unusual circumstances that bring them together. The story includes the usual Historical Romance devices of a young woman who doesn’t want to get married or the eligible earl who won’t settle down, but those feelings come from relatable fears or insecurities rather than just outright stubbornness. The way that Lucas and Gemma speak to each other shows their mutual respect but it’s also a great way to showcase how much they actually like each other. I could easily believe that even if their paths hadn’t crossed because of the investigation, they still would have been perfectly matched together. Scenes between them can switch easily from flirting to serious, and there isn’t a misstep in the conversation. They understand how important the case is personally so they are a team from the beginning right up until it is all resolved.

The blackmailing/murder case is well thought out and plays an important part in moving the plot as well as advancing the relationship. One Step Behind doesn’t suffer a lull in the middle of the story where the mystery is forgotten to make room for character expositions or needless drama. Any tension for Gemma and Lucas comes straight from the revelations they uncover while seeking her cousin’s murderer or from learning why the blackmailer had chosen his victims so carefully. Each interview or clue that’s uncovered pushes them even harder to solve the case to find justice for one and to save the reputation of another. I was surprised by the reveal of the villain but that added to my enjoyment as I was piecing things together right along with the characters.

One Step Behind is a standalone story for now but I hope that the author will expand out into a series to revisit these characters and introduce new ones. I’d be eager to read it and see if she can capture the same magic as this wonderful début.

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