|Celeste Bradley offers up a delicious first entry in a new spin-off series, “The Royal Four,” with To Wed a Scandalous Spy. While it will undoubtedly help readers to have read at least one or two of the previous book in “The Liars Club” series, those willing to pay close attention should be able to appreciate this romance without getting hopelessly lost.
Willa Trent is an orphan from a highborn family. Left with no one to care for her after her parents died, she was “adopted” by a village and raised by her mother’s former maid, now married to a tavernkeeper. At twenty-four, Willa has hopes of marrying, but every man who shows a serious interest in her seems to meet with some misfortune. The villagers believe she’s jinxed, and only being “wedded and bedded” will put an end to it.
Willa, whose parents were amateur naturalists, feels an affinity with nature’s creatures. One day when she is trying to disarm a poacher’s trap with a borrowed slingshot, she instead knocks a hornet’s nest off a branch, causing the bees to frighten a passing horse. The rider is thrown and hits his head on a rock. Willa discovers a handsome man lying unconscious in the road and decides to wait with him until dusk when the angry hornets settle down, then go for help. Unfortunately, she falls asleep.
Nathaniel Stonewell, Lord Reardon, awakens with a headache and the realization that he’s spent the night sleeping on the side of a road with a strange young woman. The villagers expect him to do the decent thing. Nathaniel offers marriage, and Willa, who is rather charmed by this handsome gentleman, accepts. After all, she’s not likely to get another offer, and he’s obviously of decent birth. A simple – and quick – wedding later, they are off to London.
Nathaniel feels guilty at what he’s done. He is The Cobra, one of four select men in the service of the king who carry out covert missions. Nathaniel was on the trail of a traitor, a man who is the last survivor of a French conspiracy named The Knights of the Lily. What Willa doesn’t know, and Nathaniel can’t bring himself to tell her, is that all of Society believes Nathaniel was also part of the plot. He’s been branded “Lord Traitor” and is no longer received, barely tolerated by his own family. Nathaniel knows that Willa’s life will be one of ostracism and outright insults. And he can’t clear his name, because the cloak of “traitor” allows him to carry out his work. His rising desire for Willa must be kept firmly in check.
Willa, however, is having none of it. Nathaniel is stunned when she declares he couldn’t possibly be a spy. How ridiculous – he’s a man of honor and courage. Her fierce support begins to thaw his reserve, and soon the two are lovers. And Willa’s natural passion draws him like a moth to a flame. Their romance is white-hot.
The plot is complicated, with many references to (and appearances by) characters from Ms. Bradley’s previous books. The many code names of the characters may confuse those not familiar with the backstory. Overall, the author does a good job of explaining their role in this story, but the one caveat to this review is that it takes some concentration. Readers will find it’s worth the effort, though, because this is a supremely satisfying romance. Willa, after some initial silly chatterbox behavior, settles down and becomes a lively character focused on making her marriage into a love match. She finds an ally in Myrtle, a crusty great-aunt of Nathaniel’s who also champions him against the disdain of his family. Their scenes together are delightful – two unlikely peas in a pod.
Nathaniel is a wonderful hero, tormented by the loss of his family’s regard yet unwilling to compromise the trust placed in him by the Crown. He turns to Willa, first in lust, then for solace, and finally because he can no longer live without her. Watching this proud, complex man fall in love with a woman who is his match in every way is a fabulous romantic journey.
The author introduces a side character that simply cries out for his own story, and I hope she writes it. He’s Ren Porter, a Liars Club member who has been badly wounded (and scarred) in the line of duty and now ends up in Nathaniel’s home, recuperating from pneumonia. He’s convinced no woman can bear to look at him, a notion that Willa gently tries to disabuse, and Ren falls a little in love with Willa himself.
To Wed a Scandalous Spy is a great start to what promises to be an engrossing new series. Celeste Bradley shines when it comes to matching loner heroes with just the right woman, and this complex, romantic, and eminently satisfying tale really displays her talents.