The Taste of Temptation
Julia Kelly’s The Matchmaker of Edinburgh series continues with The Taste of Temptation, the second installment in the adventures of the clients of Mrs. Moira Sullivan, the country’s best and cheekiest matchmaker.
Caroline Burkette, accompanied by her maid, has joyfully fled the dirty, gossipy confines of London for the peace of Edinburgh. Caroline has had a difficult time of things, to say the least; a long court battle saw her nicknames ‘The Lovelorn Lass’ in the scandal sheets after she successfully sued her ex-fiancé for breach of promise. After the death of her mother (who filed the suit against Caroline’s will) and the continued censure and disappointment of her uncle and aunt, her uncle ‘gently’ suggested that Caroline move in with her brother, and Michael and his wife Elsie receive her well, even though relations between the three of them are less than perfectly genial.
Michael and Caroline have a difficult relationship; he’s prim and proper, she’s buoyant, emotional and exuberant. But none of that matters to the ambitious young miss, for she’s not planning to stay for long; she’s determined to snag a Scottish groom before she molders on the shelf, and has an invitation to consult with the most pre-eminent matchmaker in all the town – Mrs. Moira Sullivan – to accomplish that end.
Jonathan Moray is a newspaper man with a snarky mind and a yawning wallet. The Lothian Herald-Times is a reputable business, but the cost of trying to keep up with the speed of the news is taxing Moray’s resources; and when he considers bringing forth an evening newspaper, his accountant suggests he take out a loan to buy a third press and office space or sell off The Tattler – Moray’s first paper, a gossip rag to which he’s sentimentally attached. When he gets word that Caroline is in town, he thinks his luck’s changing – perhaps he can convince her to sit down for an exclusive interview that will help to sell enough papers to generate the funds he needs.
He plans on gaining that exclusive by reporting on her every deed until she agrees to sit down with him for an interview, and so he continually puts himself within distance of her so he can spy on her activities. Unfortunately, Caroline soon figures out his game, so he turns to blackmail – an exclusive with the Times or coverage in the Tattler. She doesn’t bite that little morsel, either, so he prints the Tattler exposé. Thus does Caroline loathe Moray, and thus does Moray try to wiggle his way closer to Caroline to get more scoops. Neither hero nor heroine suspects that Moira is slowly manipulating them into spending time together through further social engagements, or that the attraction between them might bloom into true love. But as Moray pursues his story and Caroline stubbornly pursues marriage with other men, can peace ever be achieved?
The Taste of Temptation provides the reader with a taste of frustration. Beautifully told, with interesting characters, it ends up dead-ending at several plot points that make you dislike the hero and laud the heroine for putting up with him.
Caroline is a terrific heroine. In spite of the fact that she’s been embarrassed by her brush with the legal system, and in spite of her broken engagement, she’s not about to shrink up and die. Instead, knowing that spinsterhood means social death, she goes after what she wants with an almost mercenary zeal that’s quite admirable, and finds herself making friends and building a life in Scotland after England treated her so poorly.
Moray is… an experience. It’s understandable that he’s so attached to the paper he built from the ground up and he’s not afraid to get ankle-deep into the mess he’s made – but wow, does he think that trampling on privacy rights and the hearts of the vulnerable is no big deal. It’s believable for a newspaperman, but he needs to be a romantic hero as well, and the two conflicting ideas of who he is causes the book to falter until close to the midpoint. He eventually shapes up and the book does a lot of hard legwork to make him the right guy for Caroline, but that beginning is hard for him to shake.
That’s not to discount the many details that Ms. Kelly gets right. We have a host of interesting minor characters, including a one who is queer (Eva, Moray’s co-publisher and partner in crime, who’s in a happy Boston marriage with a fellow widow), and Moray’s relationship with his best friend Gavin (hero of book one in the series) feels properly bloke-ish and filled with brio. Moira is delightful and chirpy and cheerful, and I liked Michael’s bellowing stiff-shirtedness.
But a cloud hangs over the romance; the hero and heroine meet because Moray wants to blackmail Caroline into giving him what he wants. Sorry, authors: blackmail is not romantic. Caroline laughing off Moray’s earnest attempts at grabbing a story with her tries to smooth away the horror of the idea – she’s just so charmed and he makes her laugh so much – but it isn’t enough; and nor is making her obvious hatred of him and such cold behavior a ‘challenge’. He courts her by sending clippings in the mail relevant to their latest encounter, which is an amusing choice that’s a fun way to build their relationship and evolves into a fine give-and-take chemistry. But there’s also something of a touch of plot predictability – yes, Moray is another afraid-to-commit-because-love-doesn’t-work-because-his-parent’s-marriage-tells-him-so hero, and we’re subjected to a groan-inducing third act misunderstanding that pads out the last fifty pages, both of which are so disappointingly unoriginal. When we’re told by Caroline that she loves Moray’s imperious arrogance, one can only wonder why. Ms. Kelly imports a lot of fresh ideas into her work, but those ideas end up being subsumed by notions like these.
The book is uneven, occasionally brilliant; most of its characters shine, and the romance takes on an interesting pattern after a while. But its unevenness makes it a frustrating experience that ekes out a recommendation in spite of its difficult points.