Do You Want to Start a Scandal?
It feels like I’m committing the ultimate Romancelandia faux-pas when I say that Tessa Dare’s last couple of books haven’t really worked for me. So much so, in fact, that I couldn’t rate When a Scot Ties the Knot above a C+; the characterisation was inconsistent, the humour felt forced and it seemed to me that Ms Dare had crossed the line into self-parody with her frequent, knowing winks to the audience.
So I’m over the moon to be able to say that with Do You Want to Start a Scandal?, she is back at the top of her game. Yes, the plot is a bit silly, but this book reminded me of what I’ve so enjoyed about her work in the past and is up there with A Week to Be Wicked and Three Nights With a Scoundrel as my favourite Tessa Dare reads.
The hero, Piers Brandon, is the Marquess who wasn’t said “yes” to in book two of the Castles Ever After series (Say Yes to the Marquess). He’s handsome, wealthy, rather reserved and very proper; and, being rich and titled is firmly in the sights of marriage-minded mamas and débutantes throughout the land. Well, of most of them. Charlotte Highwood – sister of Minerva (from the Spindle Cove series’ A Week to Be Wicked) has her sights set on making a European tour with her best friend, Delia Parkhurst, and has no intention of getting married in spite of the fact that her mother is practically throwing her at every eligible bachelor she can find. In fact, her mother’s desperation to get her youngest daughter married off has made Charlotte a laughing stock, but fortunately, she isn’t the type to be crushed by such a thing, no matter how irritating she finds it.
Charlotte and Mrs. Highwood are guests at a house-party hosted Delia’s parents, Sir Vernon and Lady Parkhurst. Being the charitable type, Charlotte decides it’s only fair to warn the Marquess of Granville that she has no wish to marry him, no matter that her mother is going to be throwing her at him over the next couple of weeks. The Marquess’ reaction to this is not at all what Charlotte expects – wryly humorous, gently teasing and completely unconcerned, he assures her that if, in his work as a diplomat, he can survive the vagaries of international politics he can undoubtedly survive the machinations of her mother. Charlotte is sceptical, but before she can issue another warning, their conversation is interrupted when an amorous couple bursts into the library, fortunately too engrossed in each other to notice Piers whisking Charlotte to the window seat behind the curtain.
After several uncomfortable minutes listening to the mystery couple getting it on, most of which Charlotte spends with her head pressed against Piers’ manly chest in order to control a fit of the giggles, the couple departs, leaving the coast clear. Only it isn’t – the moment Piers and Charlotte emerge from the window seat, they are confronted by their hosts’ eight year-old-son who promptly yells “murder!” at the top of his voice, having, of course, misconstrued the noises he’d heard emanating from the room. Not only does he misconstrue them, he does a good job of imitating them to the growing audience of guests, leaving Piers no alternative but to rescue Charlotte from ruin by immediately asking for her hand, much to the delight of her mother.
But marrying a marquess, no matter how handsome and ironically charming he is, does not fit in with Charlotte’s plans, and, she is sure, with his, either. She decides that the only way to avoid matrimony is to discover the identities of the mystery lovemakers (or mystery tuppers, as Piers would have it) and then explain the situation so that everyone will realise it wasn’t the two of them rogering each other stupid on the desk. This is what I meant about the plot being silly – it’s such an obvious device to bring the two protagonists together that normally, I’d be rolling my eyes. And I suppose I did, but Ms. Dare quickly makes the reader forgive her for the contrivance because the protagonists are so engaging, their banter is genuinely funny and they are quite obviously perfect for each other.
Charlotte is a thoroughly likeable heroine. She’s quite young –just twenty – but she’s witty, good-natured and able to laugh at herself, which is probably just as well, given the embarrassment to which her mother subjects her. She tells Piers straight away that while she is well aware of all the advantages marrying him would bring, she hopes to make a love match and politely refuses his offer. Piers believes his life is too complicated to admit of any emotional entanglements, so he is not particularly surprised by her reaction; but he is surprised by his own, which is that she genuinely interests and attracts him and he soon finds himself pursuing her in earnest. Their interactions are warm and funny, and, on Charlotte’s part very honest. Piers is a different matter, however; he’s haunted by a long-kept secret from his past and his work as an agent for the British government means that he has had to make questionable decisions and perform some dark deeds over the years. This is one of the few parts of the story that doesn’t really work; Piers isn’t tortured or damaged, he just thinks he is, and not very convincingly at that. He is, however, manipulative, and doesn’t even blink when it comes to engineering a situation to force Charlotte’s hand and convince her that he really isn’t a Nice Man who is looking for love but just doesn’t realise it.
Apart from that misstep though, Piers is a sexy hero. His aura of confidence and competence is extremely attractive, his dead-pan wit and sense of humour are a nice contrast to his aloof exterior, and most importantly, he appreciates and is attracted to Charlotte’s keen intelligence and sense of humour. The romantic and sexual tension between them leaps off the page and they share a strong connection; there’s a real sense that here are two people who are as attuned to each other mentally as they are compatible physically.
For all the fun and froth, though, there are some very well-realised moments of deeper emotion in the story. I particularly enjoyed the scene when Charlotte comes to a fuller appreciation of what her mother’s life has been, which is poignant and nicely understated.
Although the book fits into two different series (Castles Ever After and Spindle Cove), it’s not absolutely necessary to have read either of those in order to enjoy it as it works perfectly well as a standalone. Charming, sexy, and often laugh-out-loud funny – seriously, I’ll never think of perfume or look at an aubergine in quite the same way again! – Do You Want to Start a Scandal? is just the ticket if you’re looking for a well-written, feel-good read.