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.
This novella follows four full novels and a novella, which while they're not strictly necessary to get the full impact of the story, are well worth reading. Start with A Week to Be Wicked, it's amazing!
Miss Elinora "Nora" Browning grew up next to and was taught lessons along with George Travers, Lord Dashwood. She was in love with him for years, until he humiliated her during her season and went off to explore the world without a word of farewell. Utterly dejected and heart-broken, Nora comforted herself with sherry and wrote down all her feelings in the missive Lord Ashwood Missed Out - note the clever way of disguising the identity of the cad who disappointed her, there. Speaking on behalf of all overlooked young women, encouraging them to love themselves instead and not rely on any men, her letter became published as a pamphlet and became a huge bestseller. In the little coastal town of Spindle Cove, a safe haven and retreat for all manner of unorthodox ladies and spinsters, Miss Browning is a sought-after speaker and she's on her way there when a gathering snow storm delays her. The only carriage available to her contains none other than her old neighbour, Lord Dashwood.
Having traveled the world on several expeditions, now a renowned cartographer, George is back to settle down and get married. He discovers that in his absence, Miss Browning's pamphlet has pretty much maligned his good name, and Lord Dashwood would very much like to have a word with her about that. When their carriage is overturned in the storm, and the two are stuck alone in a tiny cabin, he challenges her to show him exactly it was she claims he missed out on. Hijinks, and activities of an unclothed variety ensue, despite the no doubt freezing temperatures.
Meanwhile, in Spindle Cove, the ladies waiting for Miss Browning are worried because she hasn't shown up, and all the heroes of Ms Dare's previous Spindle Cove novels ride off to find the authoress (after making sure they leave their wives more than satisfied).
I was very much looking forward to Tessa Dare's return to Spindle Cove, and she's written at least one absolutely delightful novella in the past, so I had high hopes for this book. Sadly, in a story that isn't all that long, far too much focus is placed on the inhabitants of Spindle Cove loyal readers already know, like Bramwell and Susanna from A Night to Surrender; Colin and Minerva from A Week to Be Wicked; Thorne and Kate from A Lady at Midnight and Griff and his duchess, Pauline, from Any Duchess Will Do. It's Pauline's lending library that Nora is scheduled to visit and there is added complication because Griff, the Duke of Halford was supposed to bring sherry to the signing, and has completely forgotten to procure any. So when he has a chance to get back into his lady's good graces and possibly locate some sherry at the same time, he drags his male friends along with him to locate the missing Miss Browning. It's not that I didn't like seeing glimpses of the happy lives these characters have made for themselves, but since this novella clearly, in part, was to set up youngest Highwood sister Charlotte's future romance, we could have had a bit more focus on her, and less on past characters.
Because the action cuts between the snowbound adventures of Nora and Dash, as he's known to his friends and the Spindle Cove gang, the central romance kept getting interrupted just as it started getting interesting. I would have liked a bit more back story and motivation for both Nora and George and I live in a (normally, if not yet this year) icy and snowy country. There is just no way that icy winds and blizzard-like snow storms doesn't kill ardour right quick. Having an extended kissing and embrace sequence, while locked half-naked out of doors in icy wind - nope. Then getting all amorous in what is most likely a drafty old shepard's hut?
I can suspend my disbelief pretty far for you, Ms. Dare, see the Regency cos-players, but that's a step too far. You broke all the disbelief I have. You made me bring in Godzilla to help me make my point.
I did like both Nora and Dash as characters and can understand the motivations of both in as much as they were explained within the story. I thought the proposal scene was adorable and the grand gesture in question made me rather mushy (I blame hormones), but because I liked the main couple of this story so much, I wanted more time with them, and less with the previously established couples. I would say 4 stars for the bits with Nora and Dash, 3 stars for the bits with the old Spindle Cove characters, making it a 3.5 in total. I hope that Charlotte's book, when that finally arrives some time early in 2016 is more satisfying overall.