Berkley Sensation, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-26953-4
Historical Romance, 2014
It’s a cliché, I know, but sometimes the most memorable books are the ones that sneak up to me when I am least expecting it. In Bed with the Spy, huh? I look at the title, the cover art, and sniff like a haughty dowager before reading the synopsis at the back cover. Okay, the premise looks tempting – hero and heroine in a duel of hearts as they are caught in spy intrigue – but I’ve been around many times before and I’ve seen how many times books with similar premise had come my way and later go while leaving me still high and dry. And then I start reading, and, oh dear, I think I’m really caught this time.
The premise does sound far-fetched, I can’t lie. When her beloved husband Jeremy was cut down in battle, Lilias Fairchild loses herself in anger, grabs a sabre, and proceeds to morph into The Bride, slashing all in her way until, when she finally stops, she realizes that she has become a legend of Waterloo – the L’Ange de Vengeance – for her trail of carnage. It is during her tenure as the Angel of Vengeance that Alastair Whitmore, a mere soldier at that time, sees her for the first time. Let’s just say that she leaves a lasting impression on him.
Then we cut to present day, two years later. Alastair has retired from being a soldier, having inherited the title of the Marquess of Angelstone after all the other heirs croaked before him. Naturally, being a titled bloke means that he’s automatically qualified to become a spy for the Crown, so here he is. His code name is Angel, because nobody is ever going to make the connection between his title and his code name. Of course not – no matter how dumb the British spies may be, romance authors always make sure that the enemies are dumber, so don’t worry, nobody is going to stab something sharp into Alastair’s stomach anytime soon.
Anyway, Alastair is a spy because he wants vengeance. What, you imagine spies in a romance novel actually sign up because they are paid lots of money or they are patriotic? Don’t be silly – stop reading spy stories, they all lie. It’s all for Daddy or for vengeance, and since Alastair has a penis and not a vagina, for Daddy is out. No, he wants to avenge his girlfriend Gemma, who died because she was collateral damage in a plot against him. That evening in the ballroom, though, he has other things to distract him: Lilias is there, still accepted in polite circles despite having hacked to death who knows how many French soldiers, because Wellington is an admirer and supporter of her. On Lilias’s part, she begins entertaining ideas of having an affair with Alastair because he’s the first man to make her feel alive in a while. Unfortunately, she drops a medallion, left to her by her husband, and Alastair finds it: it bears the same insignia as that of a group of assassins he believes to be behind Gemma’s death as well as that of many informants and agents of the Crown. Is she one of… them?
The author, at this point, commits a common mistake typical of too many authors who slap the “spy” label on the arses of their heroes: for a spy, Alastair is as subtle and covert as an enraged bull charging into a shop of china. Alastair practically drags Lilias into her lair and barks at her about her being an assassin. In this scene, Alastair ends up revealing more than he should, and gets far less from her in return, so it’s actually a good thing that Lilias is not what he believes her to be.
Fortunately, things become really so much better from that point. Lilias and Alastair come to a common accord of sorts, as neither believes that the other is a villain, and Lilias discovers that there is more to her late husband than she ever knew. Worse, she’s somehow caught in the whole web of intrigue that killed her husband, and both he and she realize that it makes a lot of sense to use her as a bait to lure out the villains behind all the murders in this story. Oh, and they embark on an affair – he’s single, she’s a widow, so why not? – and this, of course, complicates the whole working relationship they have going on.
In Bed with a Spy works wonderfully because Lilias and Alastair are a well-matched couple. He has baggage, so does she, but both behave like actual adults who are damaged inside. They have issues, but these issues don’t define them. They both have emotions that feel real, and their motivations often seem to stem from them being human rather than from the dictates of the plot. Alastair is a nice change of pace in that while he has issues, he is the kind of dangerous bloke that hides the nasty things he can do under a civilized veneer. This makes his infrequent moments of savagery, when he’s pushed, kind of… sexy, if I am being honest. Lilias is well-matched in that she can definitely hold her own here, and while she is a target of the villain, she never feels like someone who needs to be rescued. While I have a hard time believing that a nobody can somehow start hacking away at the enemies and actually survive unscathed in a battleground like Waterloo, her behavior in this story certainly convinces me that she can be a great spy. Unlike Alastair, she can do subtle and deadly very well. She is also smart, coming up with the right conclusions and making astute observations as often as Alastair. Therefore, we have a couple here who work and love very well together because they are equals in so many ways. If this is a rescue fantasy, it’s because they both rescue one another. I really like this.
And, seriously, Lilias is awesome here. She doesn’t do that over the top She-Ra thing most of time, she’s more like O-ren Ishii when she’s mad. She gets quiet, she has the look in the eyes, and people who dare to look at her know that they’re already dead. Oh, before you start thinking that this book is Kill Bill, Part 3, I have better point out that the violence here is more in the emotions than actual action. The bloodiest part is the prologue, when the Angel of Vengeance is awaken, and even then, the author doesn’t go into detail. Still, it’s awesome that Lilias can do plenty of damage, and she’d do it too. None of that misplaced guilt or dramatic self-flagellation follow-up for her, because she doesn’t give two sticks as to what romance readers may think of her lack of stereotypical traits associated with femininity, romance novel-style.
This book also works because the author manages to balance both suspense and romance very well. The romance starts out as an affair between two people who are single and available, with nobody protesting that he or she is holding out for true love, and it’s pretty satisfying to see how this arrangement becomes something more as these two spend more time together. The pacing is excellent, as I can’t put down this book once I start reading because the whole thing just keeps going and dragging me along to the very end, and I don’t even know whether I’m at the edge of my seat or not because… well, I’m not sure of the many things taking place around me while my attention is absorbed by this story.
The identity of the villainous ringleader is a disappointment as it’s so obvious from the moment this person first appears in the story, but who cares? There are so many shades of fabulous in In Bed with the Spy, and the romance is top notch and poignant too with characters that feel both real and complicated making a beautiful mess out of things. I love this one, and I’d really love to know what the author was having when she wrote this thing, because, oh wow, awesome.