Review by Hollis Jade
Written on Your Skin might only be my second read by this author but it was a book that I was hugely anticipating after my first experience with her work, some general hype, and a relentless ‘do not put this book off’ recommendation by a buddy; so my expectations were rather off the charts. And for the most part the experience completely lived up to them.
As in Duke of Shadows, we have an historical romance story opening up in a setting that is not England. This time we’re in Hong Kong and our heroine, Mina Masters, happens to be American and something of a featherbrained flirt – or so it appears. We find out her silly behaviour is mostly a front and that she’d been focusing her flirtation on a certain man in hopes of securing a way out of an arranged situation that her stepfather would be most pleased to finalize on her behalf. However, she plays her role so well that she manages to convince Phin Monroe, mapmaker and government agent and target of said flirtation, that she really is nothing more than a beautiful idiot.
When his role in the investigation of Mina’s stepfather is compromised and he’s poisoned by another agent playing both sides, it’s Mina who saves Phin’s life, at great risk to herself, and helps him to escape. All she asks in return is a promise that one day he’ll repay his debt to her.
Four years later, both of their circumstances have changed. Free from her stepfather’s influence after his arrest, Mina and her mother have made a good life for themselves in London. At least, that is, until her stepfather’s escape from the authorities and her mother’s subsequent abduction. Now Mina is forced to rely on a government man she doesn’t trust, and who doesn’t trust her, and every day brings more worry, and more fear that she’ll never see her mother again.
Phin’s prospects, however, have changed dramatically – for the better, or so it seems on the surface. He’s inherited a title in the wake of his uncle’s death, he’s left government service and his role as reluctant spy, and every day is a challenge to fit this new role and leave the darkness of his past deeds behind. He’s done his best to forget Mina over the years but when she calls in her favour, he can’t turn away, and they are once again thrown together. He finds it hard to believe that her intentions aren’t more than what meets the eye, and she isn’t willing to gamble her one trump card on someone who refuses to trust her. Both are at the inconvenient mercy of their mutual attraction, and naturally they are perfect for one another.
“You tell yourself there must be some explanation other than the real one. You think I’m working for someone who’s clever. You can’t even consider that I might be clever, because that would mean – well, that between the two of us, you’re the one who’s the idiot.”
Where this story excels is in the characterization, especially that of Mina. A beauty, completely aware of her charms, she’s painfully clever and intelligent, and it’s that awareness that forces her to act the harmless innocent in order to not only survive in the world of men, but also thrive in it. She’s got a successful business, investors, and manages to outwit anyone in her path no matter the situation. But Phin challenges her. He pushes her and manages to see to the truth of her – even after he doubts himself and his instincts. Phin carries so much self-doubt (most of it the result of family circumstances) in himself, in his abilities, in not feeling comfortable in his new position; all of which are compounded by the losses he’s faced in his role as an agent. Mina struggles to prove to Phin that he’s worth her faith in him, but the bigger challenge to overcome is convincing him to have faith in himself.
“One of us is going to have to yield.”
“Then we are both doomed to disappointment, for I don’t think either of us is the yielding sort.”
Every interaction between these two is so great, not to mention a wee bit angsty, because they take each other apart piece by piece, not cruelly, nor for sport, but rather to highlight the best of what they are individually and how they fit together so well.
The mystery of the double agent, the missing mother, even Phin’s recruiter, it’s all diverting and interesting, but in my mind was totally eclipsed by the couple and their relationship. The push and pull of their chemistry, trying to outwit one another, the emotional reveals that happen along the way, their intimate interactions, and Mina’s adamant refusal to be locked away, to be protected without given means to be given a choice… it’s breathtaking. Frustrating. Sexy as all hell.
Strangely, though, the end of the book leaves us on something of a lighthearted and almost silly note. The resolution to the abduction plotline was something I wish I had seen coming and as much as the shift was a little jarring, in hindsight I’m totally amused by it all. As for the romance, I loved the final chapter between Phin and Mina. It’s so perfectly suited to their relationship.
Though I didn’t love the whole story as much as I loved Duke of Shadows, it did nothing to diminish my respect and love for this author. Meredith Duran has created some of the most intelligent, layered characters in historical romance, which are only reinforced by her brilliant writing, and every book of hers I read makes me question why it’s taken me so long to discover her. In spite of my small reservation, Written on Your Skin is highly recommended.
Publisher and Release Date: Pocket Books, 2009
Time and Setting: Hong Kong and England, 1860s
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance
The society beauty who saved his life…
Beauty, charm, wealthy admirers: Mina Masters enjoys every luxury but freedom. To save herself from an unwanted marriage, she turns her wiles on a darkly handsome stranger. But Mina’s wouldbe hero is playing his own deceptive game. A British spy, Phin Granville has no interest in emotional entanglements…until the night Mina saves his life by gambling her own.
The jaded spy who vowed to forget her…
Four years later, Phin inherits a title that frees him from the bloody game of espionage. But memories of the woman who saved him won’t let Phin go. When he learns that Mina needs his aid, honor forces him back into the world of his nightmares.
In lives built on lies, love is the darkest secret of all…
Deception has ruled Mina’s life just as it has Phin’s. But as the beauty and the spy match wits in a dangerous dance, their practiced masks begin to slip, revealing a perilous attraction. And the greatest threat they face may not be traitors or murderous conspiracies, but their own dark desires…