Traitor in Her Arms
I should have loved Traitor in Her Arms. I was sure the combination of spies, an enemies-to-lovers romance and the Scarlet Pimpernel was destined to be wonderful, and I’m so disappointed to tell you it wasn’t. The principals are unappealing, the plot contrived and ridiculous, the secondary characters are silly, and the whole thing is – frankly – a mess. Thieves – with backstories that apparently justify their criminal activity – find love and redemption when they simultaneously wind up in Paris. The set-up is ludicrous, the involvement of the Scarlet Pimpernel insulting to the character and his creator, and the outcome is predictable. Though I enjoyed the chemistry between the principals, I disliked their histories and motivations so intensely, it was difficult – nigh, impossible – to root for them.
Lady Gabrielle McCullough is a widow and thief. Shortly after the death of her husband, she discovered he’d racked up massive gambling debts and his creditors – a ruthless, violent and pitiless lot – want payment. When the story opens, Gabrielle is attending a ball with close friend Lady Diana and plans to escape the ballroom later on and steal a valuable necklace from her hostess. She’s only managed to stay a step ahead of her creditors by becoming a master thief; her position in society provides her with ample access to valuable art and jewelry. She later fences her stolen goods and uses the proceeds to pay off her husbands debts. (Note: we’re supposed to be sympathetic to this justification for her thievery). Gabrielle is aided and abetted in her thievery by her friend/bosom buddy/housekeeper – who coincidentally (and conveniently) trained her to become a master picker of locks and pockets – and Lady Diana, who eagerly encourages and supports Gabrielle’s escapades (cue eyeroll).
On this night, her plan is foiled when she discovers another thief, Ramsey Barnes, the Earl of Sedgewick, has beat her to the prize. After diligently and patiently picking the lock of the jewelry box and realizing the necklace is missing, she turns to find Ramsey smirking at her from the closed door. She’s vexed but not immune to his handsome good looks and arrogant air, and they engage in a flirtatious exchange wherein she attempts to lift the necklace whilst seducing him and he pretends to let her. When the evening ends, Ramsey still has the necklace, and Gabrielle is left empty-handed, nearly broke and flustered by her intense attraction to her husband’s former best friend.
Ramsey Barnes is living a lie he’s desperate to protect and is hopeful the necklace will provide the means to free him from a blackmailer. He hadn’t expect to run into Gabrielle, the woman he’s long desired, but the exchange – and their passionate kisses – are yet another reminder of all he stands to lose if his past is revealed. He’s curious about both Gabrielle’s motivations for stealing the necklace and wonders where she learned to pick locks. Though he’d like to uncover her secrets, he reminds himself that he doesn’t deserve the attentions of Lady McCullough and if she ever discovers the truth about him… well, it’s reason enough to keep away from her. Unfortunately, when he returns to his blackmailer, necklace in hand, she refuses to give him the incriminating evidence but offers him an alternative – identify the Scarlet Pimpernel and she’ll turn over all the evidence against him. Though we aren’t privy to all details of Ramsey’s secret, it’s clear that the truth has the power to affect more lives than his own and he agrees.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle is desperate. Violently accosted by one of her late husband’s creditors, she barely escapes an attempted kidnapping, but without the necklace, she’s unable to pay the debt. Desperate for funds, she plots with her housekeeper and Lady Diana, to steal the necklace from Ramsey, but that same evening she’s approached – in secret – by the Scarlet Pimpernel. Having learned of Gabrielle’s exceptional skills as a thief (come on!), he needs her help to free a mother and daughter imprisoned in La Force prison. The Scarlet Pimpernel asks Gabrielle to travel to revolutionary Paris, steal a valuable bracelet and use it to barter with the head guard for their freedom and Gabrielle knows she can’t refuse. The mission conveniently provides her a way out of London and a hiding place from her creditors so, despite the fears and objections of her friends, she agrees to help and departs… only to discover her nemesis, Lord Sedgwick, is also en route to Paris.
I want to tell you that from this flimsy, ridiculous premise, things improve. But they don’t. Amidst the backdrop of the ghastly revolution in Paris, smack dab in the middle of the Reign of Terror, Gabrielle and Ramsey somehow partner up and find themselves in increasingly improbable and impossible situations. Neither wants to trust the other, and Ramsey suffers increasing guilt about his role, but every moment they spend together is alternately full of their mutual naughty, lascivious thoughts and fearful paranoia about their dangerous mission. Reader: Paris is dangerous and their position is precarious. But somehow their mutual lust is always at the forefront of their every interaction. I lost count of the number of times I rolled my eyes in incredulity – wondering just how or why Ms. Galen thought this dark, tense setting was an appropriate backdrop for these two silly, fumbling, horny spies. The addition of secondary characters willing to help them – even after they repeatedly demonstrate a lack of skill as either spies or thieves – is similarly off-note. I don’t want to spoil the conclusion of the novel except to tell you it’s neat, tidy and I might have said – “oh, come on! Really? I’m supposed to believe that?” Okay, I said that.
I liked the people Ms. Galen wanted her principals to be – sexy, flirtatious, clever and deeply affected by their feelings for someone they decided was off limits long ago. Plagued with doubts – about each other, the relationship between them that might have been, what they’re doing together now – it’s easy to see how they struggle to accept the inevitable outcome of their partnership in France – that they’re meant to be together. Unfortunately, saddling the two of them with backstories that demonstrate a history of poor decision making and a willingness to do or say whatever it takes to save their own skins, made it difficult for me to accept their miraculous transformations into law abiding, inherently honest and good people. Positioning the Scarlet Pimpernel as some sort of omniscient father figure – capable of: running a secret spy ring, benevolently paying off gambling debts, and interceding with the King to help individuals who play footloose and fancy free with the truth of his origins… well, I liked the idea more than the execution.
Traitor in Her Arms dashed my hopes for the exciting premise of this novel and the series to come. The characters are flawed men and women I struggled to like or root for, and none of the secondary characters introduced in this novel left me eager for more. The revolution in France is a dark and ugly period in history; it’s no place for fools stumbling about trying to save the poor souls imprisoned on its shores. I was disappointed in this story and this couple.