Devourer of books with a preference for fiction. Quite good at competitive reading. Happily hoards books of all kinds. Gets stabby going too long without reading.
This is the fourth book in the series, and as such, not the best place to start reading. This review will also contain some spoilers for book 3, The Deception of the Emerald Ring, so skip this review if you're not up to date.
Despite being one of the acclaimed beauties of the ton, Miss Mary Alsworthy is facing her third season. The only actual marriage proposals she's received were from unsuitable candidates, and her attempt to secure a rich husband failed spectacularly when her intended accidentally compromised her younger sister instead and had to marry her. So now her former suitor is her brother-in-law and disgustingly happy with her little sister. Mary refuses to show them how much their domestic felicity bothers her, and she's certainly not happy with the idea that her next season will have to be sponsored by her new brother-in-law.
So when the cynical and wealthy Lord Sebastian Vaughn approaches her with an alternative, she doesn't hesitate for long. Lord Vaughn is working with the Pink Carnation (although Mary doesn't know that part) and trying to locate the elusive French spy, the Black Tulip. As the spy seems to only recruit tall, pale-skinned, dark-haired beauties as his agents, Lord Vaughn suggests that Mary help him tempt the Black Tulip out of hiding. Yup, Mary is described with raven locks and ivory skin, so I have NO idea who the lady on the cover of this book is. I keep wondering if the marketing department have any idea what's actually in the books when they design the covers? The woman on this cover doesn't fit the description of anyone in the book. Sigh. Anyway, back to the plot. In return for Mary basically acting as bait, Lord Vaughn will fund her new season and she won't have to take charity from her former admirer. As the two start working closely together, they are surprised to discover that they may have found a perfect match in each other. But there are a number of obstacles in their way, including the deadly Black Tulip.
In the present, Eloise is finally going on a date with Colin Selwick and can barely contain her happiness. When researching the Vaughn archives, she also makes the acquaintance of another history buff who seems very interested in the identity of the Pink Carnation. Possibly because she's not quite so whiny in this book, the cuts back to Eloise's story line felt a lot less intrusive than in the previous two books and I didn't actually mind reading about her all that much.
Looking at various review sites, Goodreads in particular, it's clear that not all the fans of the series were too fond of this book because both the protagonists are much more unpleasant than the heroes and heroines in the previous three instalments. Mary's thoughts about the characters in previous books are none too pleasant, she's cynical, ambitious and all her plans came to nothing when her elopement plot failed. Now she's an object of either spiteful gossip or pity, and she doesn't like it. So of course, a lot of her thoughts are filled with bitterness and spite. Frankly, the couples in the previous three books were all such good, worthy and noble people. They do risk their lives to save England from the French, after all. Having a heroine who's bitter, cynical, quite mean on occasion and maybe a bit too conceited because she's been told about her great beauty and her good prospects all her life was actually rather refreshing.
Besides, the hero of the novel is Lord Vaughn, who in the previous two books stole pretty much every scene he was in. He's tall, dark, extremely wealthy, has an impeccable dress sense and doesn't suffer fools, even a little bit. There are all manner of rumours surrounding him, with suspicions that he may have murdered his wife. Some suspect he may be a French agent, and Mary certainly wonders if he himself might be the Black Tulip when he enlists her aid in finding the spy. Vaughn has experienced most things there are to experience, and he's frankly bored and jaded. He's entirely unconcerned about his reputation and the rumours that exist about him. He's not really swayed by Mary's beauty, but cannot help but be impressed with her ruthless ambition, her candidness and her determination to secure the best possible future for herself. He understands her bitterness and her cynicism and finds a kindred spirit in her.
I think the reason I like Vaughn so much is because he reminds me of one of my favourite romance heroes, the Duke of Falconbridge from Julie Anne Long's What I Did for a Duke. As this book came out several years before Julie Anne Long's romance, I would be very surprised if Falconbridge wasn't at a little bit inspired by Lord Vaughn. And he's a Sebastian! So many awesome romance heroes out there share that name, but I laughed out loud when his first name was revealed in this book.
Because the main couple were a lot more ruthless and cynical than those in the previous three books, which I found amusing, and the Eloise bits were actually rather sweet, instead of making me want to reach into the pages of the book and slap her silly, this is by far my favourite of the Pink Carnation books. Noble heroes are all well and good, but I understand why Mary and Vaughn might find them a bit exasperating too. The fact that Mary and Vaughn continue to be cynical and scathing, even after they succumb to their mutual attraction and admit their feelings for one another is one of the things I appreciate. It would have been awful if they suddenly went all gooey and sweet.
The reason I can't rate this a full five stars or even 4.5 is because of the way the story develops in the last half. Issues and individuals from Vaughn's dark past come back and complicate the plot in a way that had me rolling my eyes, and the true identity of the Black Tulip and resolution of that plot was frankly preposterous. I can only suspend my disbelief so much. I do hope Willig will allow me the occasional jaded rake as a hero in future books too, because this was such a fun book.