Jobless and down to her last dime, Ellie Moore hears about a position with the Pinkerton Detective Agency and believes it's the perfect change to put her acting skills and costumes to use. Reluctantly, the agency agrees to give her one assignment, one chance to prove herself. Disguised as Lavinia Stewart, a middle-aged widow, Ellie travels to Arizona to begin her investigation. When the need arises, she also transforms into the dazzling Jessie Monroe, whose vivacious personality encourages people to talk.
Mine owner Steven Pierce is going to lose his business if he can't figure out who's stealing his silver shipments. In his wildest dreams, he never expected to receive help from a gray-haired widow...or to fall in love with her beautiful niece.
Then the thieves come after Lavinia and Jessie. Ellie isn't safe no matter which character she plays! Should she give up and reveal her true identity? What will Steven do when he realizes the woman he's falling in love with doesn't really exist?
Set in 1880s Arizona, Love in Disguise blends romance, humor, and mystery for a can't-put-down read.
As the personal assistant of a famous actress bound for England, Ellie Moore dreams of making a name for herself on the stage. Orphaned and raised by theater folk, Ellie is sure that all she needs is a chance to prove her worth, and her "plain Jane" exterior will finally be outshone by her talent and drive. But her dreams of treading the boards come crashing down when she's dismissed and unemployed and friendless in the harsh Chicago winter. A chance encounter with Pinkerton agents in desperate need of a female operative to send West seems like the answer to her unspoken prayers. She's naive and utterly unprepared for the rigors of undercover work, but her determination and bravado (and skill with theatrical make-up) win her the tryout of a lifetime, the chance to prove her mettle to the Pinkerton Agency. Sent to Arizona with only the directive to conceal her true purpose while uncovering the identity of silver thieves, Ellie arrives suspicious of all and unprepared for the way in which certain townspeople went their way into her heart. When her early queries produce no results, she crafts a second character in the hopes of increasing her investigative scope. With danger lurking at every turn, Ellie grapples with questions of her own idenity -- can love win when it is birthed from a necessary deception?
I don't read many western-set novels, simply because many prairie romances are not to my tastes. Cox's first novel with Bethany House is a refreshing spin on the tropes of a traditional western romance. I love a spy-themed story, and coupled with the behind-the-scenes flavor of Ellie's theatrical background, Cox delivers an engaging girl-has-a-wild-west-adventure tale that breathes fresh life into one of romance's genre mainstays. I was reminded of two of my favorite films as a child -- Calamity Jane and The Harvey Girls. The former is particularly appropriate since a major polot point involves a former actress's assistant traveling west under an assumed identity -- and both films concern women finding adventure and romance in the limitless possibility emblematic of the western frontier. That sense of old-fashioned adventure saturates the pages of Ellie's story -- in that sense Love in Disguise is a throwback novel, but its familiarity is enlivened by Ellie's adventures in detection.
Ellie's theatrical background proves the perfect backdrop against which Cox explores questions of identity and self-worth. As Ellie investigates the silver thefts, she utilizes two of her own character creations to ensure anonymity -- resulting in three versions of herself in play, unsure of whom she can trust. Faced with the decision of who she wants to be and if she can accept unconditional grace, the masks Ellie employs while in Pickford essentially serve as the impetus for her return to faith. There is a bit too much time spent dwelling on Ellie's insecurities, particularly how that impacts her amateur investigation (instead of the case). Also, I would've loved a bit more romantic tension and stronger point-of-view scenes from Steven, the handsome mine owner, would've added some welcome spice to the romantic storyline. That said, I adored the final scene between Ellie and Steven, a heart-stoppingly lovely scene of the wonder of being truly seen and loved for one's self.
Those minor issues aside, Love in Disguise is a thoroughly enjoyable offering. Ellie's spunky misadventures in her quest to prove herself as Pinkerton-worthy unfolds with a lively energy old-fashioned charm. Cox has hit on a winning formula, infusing fresh life in the western romance genure -- more well-plotted adventures of this ilk would be most welcome.