Miss Charlotte Highwood, youngest sister of Minerva and Diana, is not really interested in marriage. She just wants to tour Europe with her best friend Delia Parkhurst, but after earning the moniker "The Desperate Debutante" after her mother literally flung her into the path of an eligible young nobleman (causing him to fall off his horse and three carriages to collide), convincing the ton that she's not a scheming fortune huntress is going to be more difficult. She knows full well that her extremely marriage-minded mama will do her utmost to force her together with Piers Brandon, Marquess of Granville, as much as possible, as he is the highest ranked peer at the house party they're at, hosted by the Parkhursts.
With the intention of assuring Lord Brandon that she has no designs on his title, Charlotte seeks out Piers in the library. She wants to make sure they arrange their schedules for the next two weeks to meet as little as possible, thereby saving Piers from having to deal with Mrs. Highwood's painful matchmaking. Being discovered alone with an eligible man would defeat the purpose of Charlotte's plan, however, so when another couple enters the library, Charlotte and Piers are forced to hide behind the heavy curtains, trying very hard to ignore the sounds of the unknown couple trysting on a desk nearby.
All their plans to protect Charlotte's reputation come to naught when the young son of the house (convinced that Piers was trying to murder Charlotte) starts recreating the sounds he overheard. Piers does the only honourable thing and promises to marry her, but Charlotte is having none of it. Both her sisters married for love (one to a viscount and the other to a blacksmith), and she wants the same thing. Even at the risk of her reputation, she's determined to refuse Piers' suit. Still, she needs to clear her name of scandal to convince the Parkhursts that she'll be a suitable travelling companion for her daughter, and sees no other solution but to track down the mystery lovers and make them confess to their amorous encounter, proving to everyone, leaving Piers and Charlotte in the clear.
Piers, a highly placed agent for the Crown, is at the house party to investigate Sir Vernon Parkhurst (Delia's father), who is up for a cushy diplomatic position and has some discrepancies in his finances. Piers has to prove whether Parkhurst is trustworthy, and was trying to snoop through paperwork when he was surprised by Charlotte in the library. He's certainly not looking for a wife and does not need distractions from his primary mission. Young, adventurous and impetuous Charlotte Highwood and her enquiring mind keeps muddling up his plans and he soon discovers that the initially unremarkable debutante is far more perceptive than most people suspect.
While Charlotte knew Piers Brandon was handsome from the moment they first met, she always believed him to be icily proper, a perfect gentleman. She's surprised to find that he has a lot of hidden depths. He can pick locks, has a wicked sense of humour and his kisses make her likely to forget her own name. The more time she spends in his company, the more convinced she becomes that he might actually make her a fine husband, if only love could enter the equation.
Charlotte is never going to settle for anything but a romantic match, no matter how lofty a title, how many stately homes, how influential a status and how much pin money she'd receive. She never came to the Parkhursts' house party to find a husband (no matter what her mother wanted), but to convince the parents of her dear friend Delia that she's a decent and proper companion for their daughter, enabling them to go off on adventures. While Diana is known as the really beautiful Highwood sister, and Minerva is the very clever one, Charlotte has more modest accomplishments, at least on a first look. Piers discovers that she's well-read, funny, loyal and inquisitive. She may be young (only 20), but she's not frivolous or silly.
Piers is older (I'm going to assume he's in his thirties, I don't think it's ever specified in the book) and has an excellent reputation as a diplomat. Only a very few know that he's in fact a spy and has been for most of his career. He's done some pretty dark things and therefore seems to believe himself unworthy of love and affection. His former fiancee got bored with waiting for him to actually marry her and ended up with his brother instead, and Piers knows that she's much better off that way.
While he had no plans of marrying before he arrived at the Parkhursts, Piers quickly determines that he would be mad to let Charlotte go. Despite her insistence on a love match (which true to about half of all broody romance heroes, he is convinced he can't offer her), he starts pursuing her in earnest and when charm, his wealth and seductive encounters don't seem to work, he is not afraid to play dirty to secure the match.
This book features references to Stephen King's The Gunslinger, Pride and Prejudice, the absolutely wonderful Hamilton, and quite understandably, James Bond. There is an absolutely hilarious scene involving Charlotte, her mother, a peach and an aubergine. It's witty and light-hearted, but while it was a perfectly entertaining read, it's not Tessa Dare at her very best. While Charlotte is delightful throughout, Piers' insistence that he's unworthy of her love because of his past is rather boring (as I pretty much always think it is). There is also Ms Dare's strange tendency to set love scenes outside, where anyone could chance upon the lovers at any point. Considering that they are at a house party, with a large amount of guests and probably scores of servants, Charlotte and Piers find themselves alone and unchaperoned a LOT.
This book fits into both Ms Dare's Spindle Cove AND Castles Ever After series, but you don't need to have read any of the previous books to enjoy it. It's not one of her best, nor is it one of her more forgettable ones either. I don't regret pre-ordering it, but hope Ms. Dare has something great up her sleeve for her next romance.
Judging a book by its cover: Based on the hair colour of the female cover model and the colour of her dress, I'm assuming this is supposed to be Charlotte and Piers, who clearly got a bit more undressed in the library than the scene in the book suggests. Considering how often the appearance of the cover models and the clothes they wear bear absolutely no resemblance to anything in the actual story, the fact that the lady is blond and wearing a colour described in the book is a plus. I could do without quite so much naked man-chest on my covers, but I've seen worse.