Desert Isle Keeper
The Spice King
There is no sweeter joy than finding an author who consistently publishes great romance, and for me, one such author is Elizabeth Camden. I love the way I never know what to expect from her books – mystery, adventure, heartwarming family stories, or journeys of self-discovery – and yet I know exactly what to expect from her books – excellent prose, rich history, and sweet, intellectual romance. The Spice King entirely lives up to those expectations.
Annabelle Larkin has a brand new job as a junior botanist for the Smithsonian but she has been advised that the position is very temporary. Her six month employment will end unless she is able to perform the so far impossible task of gaining access to the notoriously private Delacroix plant collection. Others have tried and failed but Annabelle is determined to succeed since a great deal depends on her keeping her position. Her sister Elaine recently lost her sight and is currently serving as a volunteer for the Library of Congress’ reading room for the blind. It is one of the few tasks that Elaine is able to perform that makes her feel productive and fulfilled, giving her the sense of self-worth she lost along with her vision. She requires Annabelle’s salary and physical help navigating life’s daily routines in order to stay in the city, and Annabelle is resolved to give her both. Having written to Gray Delacroix repeatedly requesting access to his collection – and consistently receiving no as a response – she arrives at his home in person bearing a unique gift and oozing sunshiny charm. The ploy works and she manages to finally meet the mysterious man whose help she desperately needs.
Gray Delacroix and his father went from living in a mansion to having to live in a shack for three years as they slowly reversed the financial devastation wrought upon their assets by the Civil War. As a result, Gray has dedicated his entire life to building the family’s spice business, traveling the globe to obtain rare and unique tastes to enliven and embolden the palates of the elite. There have been great rewards in the form of renewed wealth and the gloriously exclusive specimens he has in his greenhouse collection, but there have also been great costs. He suffers frequent bouts of malaria since the disease, once contracted, can only be managed, not cured. His young half-siblings have, in his mind, been overindulged in his absence and are spoiled dilettantes as a result. And he has had no social or romantic life of his own, something he plans to fix once he meets Annabelle. Realizing that he will never find a better match for himself than this cheery, hard-working, plant loving beauty, he determines to court her, and begins by giving her a tour of his greenhouses and a specimen of the rare plant her boss is so anxious to obtain. And he starts to meet her for lunch everyday, that hour becoming the highlight of his life.
Annabelle is cautiously delighted by their relationship. She knows she’s not Gray’s social equal but his good looks, love of botany and dedication to family delight her and quickly have her giving him her heart. There is a fly in the ointment, however. Gray has made no secret of his disdain for the U.S. Government, especially in relation to how it affects his trade in Cuba. When the U.S. Military offers to secure funding for a permanent job for Annabelle in exchange for her spying on Gray, she must weigh the love she has for Elaine, and her desperate need for employment against her growing fascination with a man who may well be a traitor to his country.
Gray and Annabelle’s early courtship was a complete delight to read. Gray is awkward, having spent most of his life scouring unique places for rare plants and being more used to talking to employees than young ladies. His sincerity, kindness, and genuine love for Annabelle all shine through though, and Annabelle, a Kansas farm girl, is more impressed with his earnestness than she would have been with eloquent manners or speech. Their shared excitement over all things that grow, from herbs to orchids, entranced me even though I can barely tell a dandelion from a daffodil. I simply loved that they shared a strong mutual interest as well as being very similar in their core values of family devotion, personal integrity and a strong work ethic.
Ms. Camden is an expert at weaving absolutely fascinating history into her stories, and here she takes readers on a thorough exploration of the early years of processed foods and the battle for honest labeling. From formaldehyde in applesauce to indigo dye, lead chromate and coal tar in coffee, we learn exactly why the FDA plays an important role in our everyday lives. Laws and testing facilities now protect us from practices which injured or killed innocent citizens in Gray and Annabelle’s time. Watching them get caught up in the fight for clean, wholesome food was so exciting and enlightening.
I also loved learning all about vanilla extract. Reading about Gray waxing lyrically over the difference between imitation vanilla and the real thing made me look at this plain and ordinary flavor in a whole new way. In fact, his love of spices made me appreciate all the items in my kitchen cabinets that I typically take for granted.
Ms. Camden writes inspirational romance, but the books are very, very sparse in their mention of God or faith. Prayers are occasionally said in moments of need but given the time period, I think that would have been typical even of people who didn’t really believe in God. Most will be able to read this story without being made uncomfortable by the level of religiosity.
My one quibble with the book had to do with Annabelle. From the start of the novel, her ability to stay in Washington was tied to her talent for manipulating the Delacroix family into giving the U.S. Government what they wanted, whether it was getting Gray to give the Smithsonian a specimen of a rare plant or other concerns which come up towards the end of the plot. I found her willingness to exploit the romance for her own benefit a bit distasteful, and while the problems it causes in their relationship are resolved within the text, I would have preferred to see a bit more remorse from Annabelle prior to the resolution.
Fortunately, that is one very minor flaw in an otherwise stellar work. The prose here is smooth, the plot intriguing, the hero thoroughly lovable, and the mystery absorbing. I think anyone who enjoys a richly detailed historical romance will be delighted with The Spice King.