The Reluctant Smuggler opens with a lost child. Young widow Charlotte Deems wakes from an exhausted doze to find that her two-year-old son, Oscar, has wandered out of the house. Charlotte immediately stumbles from her cottage, in the dark, on a stormy night, without any kind of lantern, to search for the boy along the treacherous clifftops of the Severn River.
To be honest, I was too distracted by the silliness of this setup to be much impressed by the dark man who appears at the edge of the cliffs and saves Oscar. Charlotte, however, immediately recognizes him as Lord Sebastian Whitbury, a local rake and smuggler. Fearing for her safety, she promises not to tell anyone about their encounter on the clifftops. Sebastian extracts a kiss to seal the bargain.
Charlotte’s path crosses Sebastian’s again when she takes a stroll to town and stops to watch a cricket match. It turns out that Sebastian is one of the players, and he recognizes her. Sebastian is already besotted with a local beauty named Miss Natalie Talbot. But that doesn't stop him from enjoying Charlotte’s company, or from insisting she accompany him on his smuggler’s watch to ensure her silence. Sebastian is waiting for his ship to come in literally. And when it does, he'll have enough of a fortune to offer for Natalie. The more time he spends with Charlotte, though, the less favorably Natalie compares…
Much of this book felt so forced and contrived that it was difficult to concentrate on the romance. (And there was precious little of that.) The dark night, kiss on the clifftops, etc. was difficult enough to accept. But the idea that Sebastian decides to drag Charlotte along on his smuggling watch in order to make sure she won't talk just doesn't work, especially as he’s already ascertained her reputation is that of a close-mouthed, reclusive woman, one who is also indebted to him for the rescue of her son. It felt as though the author struggled with a way to get them together.
Then there’s the issue of Natalie. Sebastian, two years younger than Charlotte at age 22, seems to be little more than a callow youth for much of the book, clinging to his crush on this local belle while ignoring the substantial woman under his nose. Yes, this is a book of growth as Sebastian matures in his taste in women, but he’s not very interesting as he does it. I for one prefer my heroes to be all grown up before I open the book.
Charlotte is a different matter. She’s far more aware of the ins and outs of smuggling than she lets on, and her resigned acceptance of the need to remarry in order to provide for her son is laudable. And given that the setting of the story is the quiet village of Severn Wells, it’s perfectly understandable that Charlotte would be attracted to the handsome, rakish Sebastian. Their gradual friendship is sweet. But at the end of the story, it would have felt just as natural for them to remain just friends, and that doesn’t say much for the romantic attraction. It was weak.
As a sweet Regency story of friendship, The Reluctant Smuggler may satisfy, but as a romance, it fell a bit short of the mark.