[I received an advanced digital copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]
After being left with her deceased husband’s gambling debt, as well as the threat of physical harm from the thugs he borrowed from, Lady Gabrielle McCullough resorts to thievery and becomes very successful at picking locks in order to gain access to her friends’ desks and safes which hide their valuables–usually while attending balls or parties they are hosting. She is caught in the act by her husband’s friend, Lord Sedgwick, who in turn steals from her the item she seeks, Cleopatra’s Necklace, which would have cleared her debts.
The two end up on a packet ship heading from London to Paris during the Reign of Terror, a time when aristocrats and commoners alike were butchered in the streets of Paris by mobs of starving and angry revolutionaries and “Madame Guillotine” was taking heads one after another.
Gabrielle is on board by request of the “Scarlet Pimpernel,” an Englishman whose acts of bravery and daring are infamous and whispered about in parlors. Some believe he is real; others think he is only legend, although there are many French royals who are reaching safety and credit him and his crew.
Gabrielle herself does not know his real identity, but she is inspired to help rescue an aristocratic woman and her small child from prison and eventual death when he asks for her assistance. Due to the nature of Gabrielle’s mission, she is reluctant to share with Sedgwick her real purpose for traveling to Paris. Even though they have long had a mutual affection for each other, she instinctively knows she cannot completely trust him.
Lord Sedgwick has secrets himself, and is forced to do things sometimes distasteful, illegal, and traitorous in order to avoid being exposed by his blackmailer. His latest “assignment” is to uncover the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel–and Sedgwick is fairly certain that Gabrielle can lead him to the elusive man. He is conflicted by his reasons for following her, as he actually wants to protect her, and he feels guilt for being duplicitous about his ulterior motives, especially when their time spent together leads to a romantic relationship.
This is, in large part, an adventure novel surrounding the events of the French Revolution. The characters find themselves in disguise, stealing jewels from Robespierre himself, bribing a constable at Prison de la Force, witnessing beheadings, being drug through the streets by suspicious citoyens, and eluding gendarmes by escaping via the sewer tunnels and catacombs under the city. Readers get caught up in the danger especially when a betrayal can result in a ride in a tumbrel full of the doomed on their way to “sneeze into the basket” at Place de la Révolution.
Exciting all throughout with a romance in which the lovers themselves are surprised and taken back by their feelings for each other.