Harlequin Historical, $6.50, ISBN 978-0-373-29793-1
Historical Romance, 2014
Lucy Halbrook is a decent lady who has fallen on hard times after the death of her father. She learned only after the funeral that her father was addicted to gambling and drinking, and her mother helped the man cover up his addiction even as the man bankrupted them all. Lucy and her mother are taken in by Lucy’s aunt, but Lucy quickly learns that her uncle is a lecher whose amorous attention only becomes more persistent with time. When the story opens, she seeks employment as a companion or a governess to get away from her uncle as well as to create a life for herself.
She gets an unusual assignment: she is to be the fake fiancée of Ralph, Lord Adversane, at his Midsummer’s Eve party. A chaperone would be supplied to ensure that there is no impropriety, and the pay is very good. Lucy is too pragmatic to turn down the gig, especially when she’s being paid a lot to essentially live in luxury for a short time. It soon becomes apparent that there is more to this gig than meets the eye. For one, Lord Adversane’s late wife died in that very estate Lucy is staying at now, and it soon becomes clear that Lucy is hired because she looks just like this poor dead woman. Adversane wants to her dress up and look just like the wife – could it be that he wants to reenact the night his wife died? If so, why?
I like Lucy at first – she starts out a pragmatic creature who also, refreshingly, lacks the uncharacteristic democratic tendencies of many romance heroines in this kind of stories. She seems very conscious of the place of folks like her and the serving class in society, and she gently reminds her maid to be more discreet instead of treating the ladies she serves like her new best friend and gossip buddy. As the story progresses, however, she takes on many traits that make her feel less unconventional than she seems to be at first. Lucy starts talking back and being sarcastic to Adversane like they are equals, and she also starts wandering the grounds alone despite being warned that it may not be safe to do so. Lucy, at the end of the day, is another “I say what I want, and I do what I want, because I’m so cute and feisty that way!” heroine, sigh.
Adversane is a distant and aloof character, which makes him a pretty unfathomable guy for a romance hero. This is problematic because Lucy resembles his dead wife, so there is always this question of whether he wants her for herself or for her resemblance to that dead woman. Also, he is never straight up with her, always keeping her in the dark about his true motives, so I find it hard to believe that what he and Lucy have at the end of the day is true love. They don’t talk, they barely connect on an emotional level, and when they have sex, the whole thing feels like a scene abruptly tossed in to sell this story as a romantic tale. I feel that The Scarlet Gown should have been given the cozy mystery story treatment. The author’s efforts to include romance in this story actually weakens it because the romance part feels so contrived and tacked-on.
The biggest problem of The Scarlet Gown, however, is its utter predictability. The bad guy is obvious the moment this person shows up, and he’s a standard villain to the point of being a cliché. Despite the fact that nobody wants to tell Sarah what is happening, I can tell right away what Adversane is up to. I also correctly predicted the motives of the villain, the reason the wife died, and… well, let’s just say that there is absolutely zero suspense here.
The Scarlet Gown is cleanly written and, therefore, very readable and easily digested in one sitting. Unfortunately, the romance is weak and the suspense is pretty much a cobbling together of all the clichés the author can get her hands on. Reading this won’t kill anyone, but I don’t know why I’d recommend it to anybody. With no good romance or a mystery, this is one story best kept aside for that one day where there is absolutely nothing else better to read or do.