This story is based on a really ridiculous premise with huge gaps in logic, is populated with some of the most absurd characters, features a really distasteful scene in the middle, and lurches to an improbable conclusion. It is hard to believe that this effort is by the same author who wrote the memorable Lady Gallant and the Lord Meren mysteries as Lynda Robinson. Even Ms. Robinson's most devoted fans should think twice – at a minimum – before buying this unpleasant book.
Valin North, Marquess of Westfield, suffers from being pursued by marriage-minded misses who only want his title and from two pretty worthless younger brothers who are a drain on his personal finances. (Oh, the trials and tribulations of the rich and titled.) Because of a secret in his past, he feels unworthy to be loved. (Yes, that overworked plot gimmick again – and with a particularly unsavory twist.) At a party at his London town house he finds fault with all the young ladies present. One elderly dowager annoys him; she has the unmitigated gall to stare at him. (The nerve!)
Emily Fox is the illegitimate daughter of a well-bred governess. Her mother wed a thief (unwittingly, of course) who, after her death, fathered three children. On his death, Emily has assumed responsibility for her step-siblings, named Flash, Phoebe, and Sprout (I swear I am not making this up). She is determined that they will not be condemned to a lifetime in the slums of London, that they will receive a high-class education that will allow them to pursue respectable professions and marry well. (She seems to ignore the difficulties that having a London slum residence as a home address is likely to cause on a school application.)
To this end, she has adopted the persona of Mrs. Apple and follows in her stepfather's ignoble footsteps. Her practice is to insinuate herself into a social situation, steal some valuable item which she then turns over to a fence. (Does any of this seem compatible with the qualities of a heroine?)
After stealing a valuable painting from Valin's house (of course, she was the annoying dowager), she discovers a cryptic message concealed in the back of it. It appears to contain coded instructions to the location of a long-lost treasure belonging to one of Valin's ancestors. (A simple solution to her financial problems, right?)
Emily manages to get herself invited to a party at Valin's family seat as Emily de Winter, lately from school in France. (Naturally, in order to fit in she needs a fashionable wardrobe which includes gowns by Worth. If she can afford to patronize the Victorian Era's most renowned couturier, why can't she afford school tuition?) Along with some of her London cohorts (named Betsy, Turnip, and Pilfer – this book abounds with farfetched names), she explores his house looking for the hidden treasure.
Emily seems to have strange holes in her knowledge (not to mention a strangely earthy vocabulary of swear words for a well-bred young lady). The intrigued Valin is suspicious and has her investigated. The investigator can find no evidence of her existence. Rather than tossing her out on her ear, Valin arranges a pretend engagement between the two of them so that he can have some peace from the match-making plans all around him. (Of course, Emily is no less interested in his fortune than the other young ladies. She just is not planning to marry to get it.) This leads inevitably to some increasingly passionate encounters between them. With all their secrets, can it lead to more?
Ordinarily, at this point in a review I'd be focusing on what parts of the book worked and what didn't. When I thought over this book, I couldn't find anything that worked for me. Not plot, not characters, not even the writing.
I am willing to accept a lot of implausibilities in a plot – after all, it is fiction. Hidden treasure? Cryptic clues to the hiding place? Sure. No problem.
I am willing to accept wide disparities in the circumstances of the characters. Impoverished heroine? Fabulously wealthy hero? See it all the time.
But... I absolutely insist on a hero and heroine who have solid moral values and on characters who respond rationally to challenges. Lie and cheat? Rob from the rich and keep it? No thank you. Self-pity because you are just too rich and appealing to empty-headed misses? Some kinky bondage? I don't think so.
Where is the solid character development that so distinguished Lady Gallant? Where is the inner dilemma of confronting a personal crisis with courage and resolve? Where is the attraction between two different but equally worthy characters?
If I don't care about the characters, I can't care what happens to them. It is hard to imagine a less sympathetic assortment of characters than those in this book. I didn't care for any of them. And Emily and Valin no better than the rest.
Even if the characters were decent, their adventures are contrived and strain credulity. There is inadequate support for the unlikely episodes. Emily dreams up all these schemes to loot and pillage among the privileged class, but her access to high society is never explained. Are the rich and famous really that gullible? Among other guises, Emily has posed as a French comtesse. How? And how many priceless works of art will have to be sacrificed to send three kids to school?
I regret having to give such a poor rating to a book by an author I have long admired, but it all comes down to this: The Treasure is dross, not gold.