After her late husband leaves her in debt to some dangerous people, Lady Gabrielle McCullough is forced to become a thief. In the intervening years, her skills have not gone unnoticed. After being recruited by the Scarlet Pimpernel, the mysterious do-gooder spiriting aristocrats out of revolutionary France, Gabrielle crosses the Channel for the most daring mission of her life. Accompanying her is the Earl of Sedgwick, a thief in his own right and an enticingly masculine presence. The man is not to be trusted—nor is Gabrielle’s body when he’s near.
Ramsey Barnes would not say he is an honorable man. His whole life has been based on a lie; why change now? Although it pains him to deceive the tantalizing Gabrielle, he’s working toward an altogether different objective: unmasking the Scarlet Pimpernel. If Ramsey fails, his blackmailer will ruin him. But when Ramsey’s confronted with the carnage of the Reign of Terror, he seeks refuge in Gabrielle’s heated embrace. Now he faces a terrible choice: betray the woman who’s stolen his heart—or risk losing everything.
Traitor in Her Arms, the first book in Shana Galen’s new Scarlet Chronicles series, takes place in Revolutionary France and features two individuals who are sent to Paris to undertake two very different and dangerous missions in order to fulfil debts owed to a pair of less than scrupulous characters back in England. A novel set in France at a momentous time in history featuring spies, feats of derring-do, a central couple who are keeping secrets and the Scarlet Pimpernel himself sounded right up my street; but while I enjoyed it for the most part, there were a few things about it that didn’t quite gel and prevented me from rating it any more highly.
The widowed Lady Gabrielle McCullough was left destitute when her husband died, and worse, is being hounded by a ruthless man who will not hesitate to hurt her if she fails to pay her late husband’s gambling debts. Having no way of raising such a large sum, Gabrielle has resorted to thievery; with the help of her housekeeper, who taught her to pick locks, and her staunch friend, Lady Diana, the daughter of the Duke of Exeter, Gabrielle has been stealing jewellery from various ladies of the ton in order to pay off the debt. She doesn’t steal from anyone who can’t afford it, but still, stealing is stealing; she doesn’t like it, but it’s that or end up working off the debt on her back in a brothel.
But at last, the end is in sight. If she can filch the lapis-lazuli necklace believed to have been owned by Cleopatra, the money she will make from it will be enough to set her free. She attends the ball given by the necklace’s owner and makes short work of breaking into the room in which the necklace is kept, only to discover that she has been beaten to it by Ramsey Barnes, the Earl of Sedgwick. Gabrielle has no idea what he could possibly want with the jewellery and tries to relieve him of it, but the charged atmosphere between them is impossible to ignore and she succumbs to a kiss – which she later realises he used to distract her and to regain possession of the necklace.
Gabrielle has no idea that Ramsey is in a not too dissimilar position to herself, although unlike her, his situation is largely of his own making. He is being blackmailed by someone who has discovered his deepest, darkest secret, something which could lead to his being condemned to death if it is ever exposed, and intends to use the necklace to buy her off once and for all. But she refuses to trade and ups the stakes, telllng Ramsey that she will only hand over the incriminating documents if he agrees to discover the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel.
London is rife with stories of the man who is rescuing aristocrats from under the nose of Madame la Guillotine, but many believe him to be merely a myth. Gabrielle is among their number – until the evening she is approached by him in secret, and asked to perform a service which will mean great personal danger, but which, if successful, will mean freedom for a young woman and her daughter and a new life in England. The prison commander at La Force prison in Paris has agreed to smuggle out the Comtesse de Tonnerre and her infant daughter in exchange for Le Saphir Blanc, a bracelet containing an incredibly rare white sapphire that was commissioned by Louis XIV but which went missing in one of the raids on Versailles. For this job, the Pimpernel needs a skilled thief, and from what he has heard, Gabrielle fits the bill.
Gabrielle is a mess of different emotions. Flattered to have been asked, scared at the thought of the danger she might face in a Paris gone mad… but mostly relieved that here is an opportunity to get out of England and out from under the threat of her late husband’s creditors. She takes the mission and makes arrangements to leave for Paris as soon as possible.
Of course, Gabrielle and Ramsey end up taking the same ship for France, both of them being cagey about their reasons for going at such a time. Each begins by viewing their mission as either an impersonal but necessary task (Ramsey) or a noble quest to save innocent lives (Gabrielle), but their outlooks change quickly once they have entered a Paris in which the streets really do run with rivers of blood. Ms. Galen’s depiction of the horrors of the revolution and of the mood of fear and disquiet that pervades the city and its inhabitants is very evocative, and she doesn’t sugar-coat the fanatical devotion of the new republicans or the violence and destruction that continue to plague the city. The relationship between the couple plays out against this backdrop; they have known each other for a number of years and although Gabrielle was married to Ramsey’s best friend, there has always been a strong undercurrent of attraction between them. This pre-existing situation makes it easier for the reader to believe in that attraction and in their subsequent romance, although to tell the truth, there isn’t a great deal of romantic development in the story – which is not surprising given that Ramsey and Gabrielle are forever looking over their shoulders in fear of discovery. (Mind you, that doesn’t stop them from having sex on the floor of the catacombs!) It’s also rather a big stretch of credulity to believe that the Pimpernel would send someone like Gabrielle on such a mission. She’s supposed to be a super-expert thief, but we never really see that, and it’s quickly obvious that she’s completely out of her depth and just isn’t capable of the kinds of machinations and level of deception that she needs in order to pull off her task successfully. On the one hand, her fears and doubts about what she is setting out to do feel realistic and I applaud the author for showing those to the reader; characters need a little vulnerability otherwise there’s a danger they could become unlikeable. The problem is that Gabrielle almost always needs Ramsey or one of the other characters to help her out of a tight spot, and is following rather than leading. Plus, we know that Ramsey is using Gabrielle to get to the Pimpernel, which doesn’t exactly make for the ideal romantic hero; although it’s very obvious that his principal concern is to keep Gabrielle safe for her own sake and in spite of his ulterior motive.
Ultimately, Gabrielle is fairly bland but Ramsey made more of an impression on me. Stories in which the hero lies to the heroine are difficult to pull off, but Ms. Galen just about manages it here, especially when the reader is made privy to the secret that has come back to bite him in the arse and the reasons behind it. He made… let’s call it an unwise decision for altruistic reasons when he was a much younger man and exposure will risk more than his own neck.
The weaknesses in Gabrielle’s characterisation and Ramsey’s not-always-palatable motivations are the main reasons for my not rating the book more highly, although a couple of smaller things bugged me, too, such as the overly-chummy housekeeper and the fact that I couldn’t help wondering why, when so many historicals feature men landed in debt thanks to their profligate predecessors, Gabrielle’s late husband’s debts hadn’t been ‘inherited’ by his heir? When push comes to shove however, I did enjoy the story and will look out for the next one as the adventure portion of Traitor in Her Arms is very well done. I’d like a bit more actual romance next time, though.