My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts as I went with the book...
TBH, I requested for Once Upon a Masquerade for its gorgeous cover as I had no idea what to expect. The blurb sounded quite interesting. Debut author Tamara Hughes’s efforts are seen throughout the story but the plot seemed bit too scattered for my liking. I’ll try my best to elaborate in my review.
The story is set in mid 1880’s New York. Apart from the gorgeous cover, what caught me in the blurb was that the heroine masquerading as an heiress when she’s anything but. Rebecca is one of the maids of the Endicott houseold and has been for the last 5 years. But she hasn’t been a maid all her life. Rebecca is actually from a once prosperous family where she had the love of her parents who doted on her. Sadly, ever since her mother’s death, her father sort of gave up on ‘life’ and living, starting to depend more and more on incessant gambling and heavy drinking to bury the pain of losing his wife. Things went downhill from there. As an only daughter, it fell on Rebecca to take care of her ailing father. She has been doing whatever she could so far, hiding away her own hopes and dreams in the plight of her daily life.
Lately, things have become real bad and her father has had death threats from men to whom he owns huge amount of money lost in gambling. Rebecca has tried talking to her father but it seems all in vain; he doesn’t seem to listen, or even care. Right now, she’s desperate for this money she needs and probably would do anything for it. There comes the plan, an utterly ridiculous one, hatched by Mary, the lady’s maid of Ms. Endicott, the spoiled daughter of the master of the house where she works. Mary convinces Rebecca that she needs to attend this masquerade ball hosted by some high-society family and ‘trap’ some wealthy peer..... what I couldn’t understand was what Mary wanted her to do. She didn’t exactly ask Rebecca to prostitute herself, though she hinted at it, she being the more ‘adventurous’ type or so to speak. Rebecca knew she can’t really sell her body, she’s the marrying-type. Yet marrying a wealthy man is also out of question because, when her real identity is out, no man with fortune will give a sh!t about her. So I kept thinking, on what basis did she agree to Mary’s plan when there was nothing practical or even remotely logical in it? The only answer I could come upon that Rebecca was way too desperate to even think exactly what she’s jumping into. Her near blunders throughout the story proved this to some extent.
Christopher is the heir to the Black Shipping legacy and has come into a big fortune lately. He’s the one who mans his father’s ship, has been working with him since he was a teenager. He’s even toured around the world and loves his sailor’s pants. Lately, he’s been itching to return to the sea again, but his plans have been thwarted by the very sudden and unexpected murder of his close friend, Nathan. Christopher is not only mourning his death but also, helping the police in the case to identify the killer. It’s been a year though, and his efforts have almost been zero, except for the fact that the police are sure the killer was a woman because of a comb found near Nathan’s body. Christopher also hasn’t been able to identify the woman Nathan asked him to ‘save’ before taking his last breath. Christopher is sure that ‘woman’ was Nathan’s love. He’s growing frustrated not knowing what to do. Nathan was a kind, generous man in life so he has no idea who might’ve done this to his friend and for what purpose. Christopher also feels guilty that he didn’t accede to Nathan’s request for borrowing some money before his murder. But, guilt or not, Christopher is resolved to find this woman and whoever killed him and bring that person to justice ASAP. Or he’ll die trying.
Rebecca and Christopher’s first meeting turns out to be something less than spectacular. Christopher, at that time, was paying a very reluctant call on Ms. Endicott. It was plain awkward as Rebecca spills tea on him because she was feeling jittery after learning of her father’s latest mess. Christopher doesn’t see her face as she’s required to keep her head down, thanks to Ms. Endicott and her owl-eyed stare. But both notice each-other on a different level, as in, a sense of each-other’s presence. Christopher, though, shakes it off, blaming it on the burn she gave him (he’s not as mean as his hostess) but Rebecca can’t seem to forget him. And when she dresses herself as a ‘maid’ for the masquerade, thanks to Mary’s help(?), to attend that ball, Rebecca instantly zooms in on Christopher cause she couldn’t take her eyes off of him.
But before that, she manages to pull off a façade of an heiress from Boston, very new to the society of New York. She also meets a few other interesting characters. One would be the dashing Phillip Westerly, a rakishly handsome man who shows an amount of interest in her that gets her both exhilarated and confused. Another man was Christopher’s best friend, Spencer, a jolly young man who loves all sorts of exaggeration and hyperbole; who is constantly sprouting Shakespeare and acting as Hamlet or whatever comes to his mind. I instantly loved Spencer cause he made me laugh on many occasions. But, rest assured, he’s not nearly as idiotic and air-headed as the impression he likes to give. Spencer is as witty and sharp as they come.
Though Christopher notices Rebecca, he can’t identify the déjà vu, that he saw her somewhere but can’t remember where. Rebecca tries her best to act as a noble lady. It was, at times, impossible to believe that she somewhat convinced other people that she’s an heiress. Rebecca tries to avoid Christopher, afraid that he’d recognize her and blow her cover. She shifts her interest towards Westerly instead. Christopher is attracted to her no doubt. But his interest piques when he finds Westerly attached to her. He always harbored a dislike for the man, and knowing what kinda rake he is, Christopher decides to warn Rebecca away from him. In doing this, he also begins his own pursuit of her.
Now, this far, I was enjoying the story much. But when Christopher identifies the comb Rebecca was wearing in the masquerade ball as the twin of the one found in Nathan’s murder scene, instantly he decides two things: one, this is THE woman who murdered Nathan and two, probably, also THE woman of Nathan’s life.
After that, Christopher’s attitude towards Rebecca changes too. He doesn’t want to get close, but can’t stay away either. He wants to find out if his hunches are correct or not. When he finds that Rebecca has been living in the Endicott house, his suspicion grows tenfold, because on his last days, Nathan seemingly had an obsession with that place. The only other person Christopher thought might be involved was Ms. Endicott. But after meeting her that suspicion had been laid to rest cause the woman is not nearly smart enough to pull it through. So Rebecca must be involved in it somehow!
Rebecca was, of course, feeling guilty of lying to Christopher. She knew nothing about him being suspicious of her or whatever it is going inside his head. She tries her best and keeps avoiding him in social gatherings tough it proves to be difficult because he won’t let her. Yet another thing I found unbelievable, as Rebecca goes through several social gatherings, that none recognized her, not even Ms. Endicott when they’re ‘introduced’ by Spence at his house party. But it was becoming obvious that her plan of ensnaring a peer is not working and time is running out. Her outings with Westerly don’t come to bear any fruit. Instead, after Christopher saves her from some thugs while she was on her way after meeting her inebriated father in his hidey-hole, Rebecca decides she has fallen in love with him. He takes her on his ship that was anchored nearby to spend the night... and, they end up having sex. I wasn’t expecting sex because there was basically nothing between them but subtle attraction. I would say that their relationship was still awkward at best, and in the lights that both were hiding things from each-other, the sex felt entirely wrong to me.
Then, the next day, another misunderstanding. To Christopher, it was wrong to have sex with the woman Nathan had loved and asked him to take care of. But he doesn’t explain the whys of it but only that what they did was wrong...... Way to go buddy, to tell a girl on the morning after that the sex was wrong! As you can guess, Rebecca is hurt and tries to leave........ Christopher comes after her, offers his protection from those thugs who, it was revealed, were paid to kill her and not her father and Rebecca is a puddle of longing once again. She becomes super jealous when she meets Christopher’s ex-fiancée, Nathan’s sister Adele at a gathering. I’d not even go into the details of what she does next because she was feeling hurt and jealous. Then we find Christopher fighting with Westerly when he tries to talk to Rebecca alone, because he was feeling the ‘all-protective-alpha-jerk’ in him. *sigh*
Well, this went on for way too long. Rebecca would put herself in the danger’s way, Christopher would save her. She’d want him, sometimes throwing herself at him and he’d push her away because it didn’t seem ‘right’ and he’d be a colossal jerk to her to ignore what he really feels for her. He also kept validating his actions by trying to convince himself that there’s no future for them. But buddy, did you even try? To me, for a long time, you didn’t! Christopher kept on telling Rebecca that he can’t marry her, which I assumed, was because of her social status. Yet he wouldn’t be able to stand anyone coming near her. So yah, I thought he was a jerk to her... yet, when Rebecca would do something exasperating (i.e. doing something she shouldn’t), I’d end up thinking maybe he has reasons to be a jerk. But, at the least, Rebecca was honest about her feelings and more than once, tried to show Christopher that. Either way, for me, it got old after a while because story-wise nothing much was happening but this cycle of frustration.
Honestly, I couldn’t see exactly why Christopher was so sure it was Rebecca or she was involved in some way in Nathan’s murder. And for the majority of the story they let this ‘misunderstanding’ between them fester; both hurting, creating more misunderstanding. It was just too obvious a plot scheme, one that I’m not fond of. The more I read, the more I felt if they only had taken a few mins and talked seriously, things would be so much easier for them. Soon enough, Christopher even figures out that Rebecca is not an heiress, then that she’s THE maid that spilled tea on him that day at the Endicott’s. He already had his suspicions because of her faltering social etiquettes, yet he never confronted her. His first excuse was that he wanted to be sure about her involvement. But when he became sure she wasn’t, I don’t have any idea why he still didn’t confront her, until the very end of the story. As I said, it got old...
And the entire time, I didn’t even feel the ‘love’ between them but some lukewarm attraction. Apart from this, the scattered plotline, the drama and those misunderstandings just took away the fun of the story for me.
Now, onto the good things. The interactions between Rebecca and her father and her yearning for those happy days when her mother was alive and everything seemed perfect. It very much tugged at my heart-strings, so much so that I ended up shedding tears. I was so happy that her father finally saw that he had done wrong to ‘his Becca’ by leaving her to fend for herself for so long and how he was squandering away his precious time that he can enjoy spending with her. And, I think Spence was my most favorite character in the book. I’m willing to read his story if the author decides to give him his own book.
I also have to give it to the author that she kept me going to find out exactly who Nathan’s murderer was and why that person did it. I wasn’t surprised but the revelation sure was unexpected! The last few chapters were the most engaging (and the best IMO) with all the action (though, yet once again, Rebecca jumped into a situation and made herself an easy target *sigh*), so I ended up wishing that the rest was this good.
When every puzzle was put into place, and solved, I liked that both Rebecca and Christopher came to see their fallacies and acknowledged those in earnest, rather than playing the blame-game any longer. 3.75 stars.
This ARC was provided to me by Entangled Scandalous via netgalley which didn’t influence my review and rating in any way.