A Gilded Lady is the absolutely fantastic second book in the Hope and Glory series set in the dazzling world of Washington D.C.’s Gilded Age. Fans of the first story - The Spice King - will recognize the heroine as a secondary character in that volume but you don’t need to have read that novel to enjoy this one.
Caroline Delacroix loves her job as secretary to First Lady Ida McKinley. Mrs. McKinley can be irritable, demanding, and rude, but Caroline has become adept at smoothing over situations when her boss is ill-mannered, and in keeping the first lady happy enough that such events don’t often occur in public. A glamorous, beguiling heiress, Caroline has always been a darling of the haut monde and she loves that she is using her societal acumen to serve her country. That’s not her primary reason for putting in long hours at a thankless task, however. Her twin brother Luke has been accused of treason - has even confessed to the crime - and is currently sitting in prison awaiting trial. Luke’s only hope for evading the hangman’s noose is a presidential pardon and Caroline is determined to do whatever it takes to obtain one for him.
Secret Service Agent Nathaniel Trask is not a bodyguard. He has put his artistic skills and desire to serve justice to good use by working as a counterfeiting expert. Having just wrapped a highly successful - and highly public – case, he’s been offered a promotion, although he’s unsure what that could be given he already holds the top position in his division. When his supervisor tells Nathaniel they are moving him to the White House to serve as the newly appointed head of the president's Secret Service security team he resists. He has no desire to work in such a high stakes capacity, but a recent uptick in assassinations of heads of state has the country on high alert. It’s believed that Nathaniel’s eye for detail will help him teach the Capital’s guards how to spot a potential killer.
When he is introduced to the presidential staff, he is immediately attracted to Caroline’s breathtaking beauty, quick wit and undeniable charm. Throughout the following weeks she impresses him even more with her strong work ethic, calm demeanor, and her self-deprecating sense of humor. Nathaniel is nothing if not meticulous however, and he quickly learns that Caroline has a traitor for a brother. Determined to do his job whatever the personal cost, he tries to have her fired. The President and First lady refuse. At first, Nathaniel is deeply irritated with them for taking this needless risk - surely there are other women without traitorous brothers who could plan teas, garden parties, and balls - but as he gets to know Caroline he realizes just why everyone considers her irreplaceable.
Nathaniel and Caroline’s early courtship was a complete delight to read. Nathaniel is very straight-laced and likes to do things by the book. He takes his duty very seriously and can be quite abrupt when trying to get people to cooperate with the new security rules he instigates at the White House. His interest in Caroline blindsides him and he struggles to figure out how to respond to his feelings while also doing his job to the utmost of his ability. I loved the moment when he discovered the two were compatible:
This feeling of being stretched beyond his limits was becoming more common, and oddly, Caroline Delacroix was the best remedy. The moment she came into view, he felt grounded and energized by a spark of electricity that jolted him back to earth.
Caroline takes her position very seriously as well, but she has an innate gracious charm, fun loving nature and ability to soothe the feathers of awkward people that serve her well in her job - and with Nathaniel. It would have been easy for them to be combative since Mrs. McKinley dislikes the precautions Nathaniel insists upon and since he considers the situation with Caroline’s brother a huge security risk, but that doesn’t happen because of her lively, clever and delightful character. Most times, she can turn their arguments into witty banter with ease and when she can’t, she excels both at holding her own in their verbal sparring and at keeping it civil. I really dislike when a hero and heroine go for the jugular in arguments, but here they both say their piece without tearing the heart out of the other.
Caroline is more than just a sweet, soothing presence in a world of chaos, she’s also an extremely competent individual. The Mckinley White House demands impossible things from its employees and she rises to the challenge:
Find a way had been the refrain for weeks. Whether it was how Caroline could serve a four- course luncheon in half an hour, find lodging for six hundred visiting diplomats, or stable two thousand horses, the answer was always the same. Find a way. She had.
I thoroughly enjoyed the romance. There’s humor, sweetness, camaraderie and joy in it that tugged at my heart throughout. I just loved both characters apart and together.
Caroline’s brothers Gray and Luke are significant secondary characters in the tale. Gray and Caroline work together to try to free Luke from prison and even visit him in Cuba in order to achieve that end. Gray was the hero of book one (The Spice King) and he is the same wonderful, caring, honorable man in this novel that he was in that one. We get to know a bit more about the daring, dashing Luke here, and I was very pleased with how the author handles his portion of the storyline.
Ms. Camden is an expert at weaving absolutely fascinating history into her stories, and here she invites her readers into a rarely discussed time and place. Learning of Mrs. McKinley’s cantankerous personality and the epilepsy from which it stemmed was deeply interesting and I loved how it provided an opportunity to explore the role, rights and obligations of the First lady.
I also loved reading the details about evolving Presidential security, how the White House staff lived and what the campaigns were like before being revolutionized by radio and TV. We also encounter various historical figures and learn a bit about Cuba and the important role it played in the politics of the time.
Ms. Camden typically sticks to light references to God and benign theology in her novels and that is an absolutely wonderful way to weave faith into a tale without losing the focus on the romance. The story’s inspirational factor is simple, sincere and fits with the time. It doesn’t overwhelm the reader or become preachy.
A Gilded Lady is filled with mystery, romance, richly drawn characters and fascinating American history. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a heartfelt, sweet and emotionally gripping tale.
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