Invitation to Scandal

It seemed as if every single person in the village of Deal and the surrounding County of Kent was participating in one scandal or another in Bronwen Evans’ latest historical romance, Invitation to Scandal. But that was what made this tale of smugging and spying so damnably much fun!

Heroes have been “over a barrel” before, usually financially, but this may be the first time a heroine has been trapped behind one before. At least when the trap is not initially a sexual one!

Rufus Knight finds Rheda Kerrich wedged between a barrel of brandy and a tree. Rheda can’t budge the barrel. Which is very clearly contraband, since it has no excise stamp.

Smuggling is a time-honored method of making a little extra money on the English coast when times are hard. The only problem with hard times is that they often occur during war. In this case, the Napoleonic Wars.

Rufus is an agent of the Crown. He is in Kent, in the neighborhood of Deal specifically, because a French spy has been using the local smuggling ring lead by “Dark Shadow” to get information to the French. Rufus thinks that the pretty wench behind the barrel can help him get to this smuggler, since he has her, well, over a barrel.

Rheda wants Rufus’ horse. Temporarily. And to get away from Rufus before he figures out who she really is. Although she may be running around the countryside dressed like a gypsy, Rheda is the older sister of the Baron de Winter. She’s gentry. Which means that Rufus’ attempt to seduce the information about Dark Shadow out of her could have permanent consequences of the marital variety, once he realizes that he nearly compromised a lady of the “quality”, albeit one with a tarnished reputation.

About that horse. Rheda owns two Arabian mares, who are conveniently in season at the moment. Her dream is to breed cavalry horses for the Army, and use the sales to keep her brother’s estate afloat… something she’s been managing for the last several years while he grew up. Managing through slightly dubious means. She’s also been keeping the village from starving by those same means, with their help and connivance. The horse stud would have the virtue of being completely legal. But for the horse stud, she needs, well, a horse to provide the initial stud. And Rufus’ stallion has the perfect bloodlines.

Speaking of stallions, Rufus himself isn’t half-bad either. Not that Rheda has any actual experience, but she’s 25 years old, and she isn’t blind or stupid. Or dead. A woman would have to be dead not to notice the man’s appeal. Something Rufus is well-used to using to get information out of susceptible women.

But Rheda isn’t quite that gullible. She has too many secrets to keep. So she tries turning Rufus’ obvious desire for her back on him. Except she doesn’t have enough experience at the game to make that completely work, either.

Instead, they play a lot of very enjoyable cat and mouse games. Although it’s downright difficult to tell who is the cat and who is the mouse. That they are actually falling for each other is the biggest secret that they keep during their mutual pursuit. They both have very valid reasons for not trusting the other, or any emotions that might arise during their “game”.

Rufus is still in Kent to catch a French spy. Not just because he wants to stop the leakage of  vital intelligence, but because 12 years ago, his father was accused of being that spy. Rufus firmly believes that if he can find the real traitor, he can clear his father’s name. He needs that closure to end the cloud of scandal that his family has been living under since his father’s death.

Rheda is also living under a scandal. A couple of years ago, an Arabian Prince visited Kent. He gave her two Arabian mares in return for saving his sister’s life. But Society assumes that the horses were a gift for much different services rendered. Also, Rheda is a smuggler. If she is caught, the punishment will be severe.

Rufus needs to marry a lady of impeccable social standing to erase the stains on his family honor. The last thing he needs is to become fascinated with someone like Rheda. Especially since he has no idea whether or not she might lead him to the traitor.

And there is definitely a French spy out there. But it is a person that absolutely no one suspects. Someone who must be caught before everyone in Kent is ruined. Again.

Escape Rating B: The whole smuggling and spycatching storyline made this historical romance mostly fun. But there were definitely some serious aspects to it too.

Both Rufus and Rheda have serious trust issues to overcome, and for good reason. They’ve both been betrayed in the past by people they loved. Rheda doesn’t trust men, because of her father’s behavior. Rufus was involved with a woman when he was on a mission in Belgium, and she turned out to be an enemy agent who killed his friend and then stabbed him.

It’s a lot to overcome. But I might have enjoyed the story a bit more if they’d belabored this point maybe one round less. YMMV. It was still good.

About that spy. The identity of the spy was very well concealed until close to the end. Which was excellently done. The reasons for becoming a spy, etc. made perfect sense once you knew the identify. (Spoiler Alert) But the torture scene felt a bit over the top to this reader.

For more of my thoughts on Invitation to Scandal, take a look at Book Lovers Inc.