So I feel like this book easily could have been four stars, maybe even five if Stephanie Laurens had just pushed the romance a different way. Unlike any of the other couples thus far, Penny and Charles have a history that layers over their present, and I found it more interesting than the typical strangers falling in love. That being said, their past was ambiguous and I don't think it was as strong as it could have been. I'll get into specifics in the spoilers, but it was just a bit disappointing.
Character wise, this is probably the weakest of the three books thus far (we're not speaking of Captain Jack) because Penny and Charles feel like the thinnest of the characters. I don't feel like anything really sets them apart, and the supporting cast doesn't really come up to snuff. Dalziel shows up, and he's fine. He doesn't do anything to annoy me which just as important. But Nicholas and his father aren't really that interesting either. Everyone is just very one dimensional. I know I said I wouldn't hold the fact that Laurens uses the same archetypes for all her character, but so far I've been able to pull out nuances that give the characters some depth. It doesn't feel that way for Penny and Charles.
The plot is, as always, the strongest element of the novel, though even this one is a bit weaker than the last two. Just a little bit. We're searching out for traitors (ultimately hunting Dalziel's final traitor) and the action has moved to Cornwall and to smuggling. Penny is concerned that her brother and father were secretly French spies, so she's sufficiently motivated to find the foes, and Charles has been asked by Dalziel to investigate rumors in the area. Their paths cross, and they work together to find the truth. I think the plot dragged ever so slightly, and Nicholas doesn't do enough to hold it together. The ultimate villain is interesting but he's not around long enough to make an impression.
Overall, this book is just fine. It's an enjoyable read.
So my big issue is the romantic conflict. It's actually a really good set up: Penny and Charles have grown up together. There's a four year difference in their ages, and when Penny was 16 and Charles twenty, they made love once. They parted ways--Penny basically made it clear she didn't want to pursue anything and Charles went off to war.
He's wondered for 13 years what he did, and when he learns Penny never married, he worries that the entire thing was too much--that he'd done something awful or wrong. Penny sent him on his way because she thought it was all lust on his side and not love. He returns from war, unexpectedly inheriting as the third son, and is looking for a wife. Penny is still nearby, and it's natural that feelings flare up again.
This is a great set up, except I don't understand why Penny thought Charles didn't love her. I kind of think this is one of those rare moments where flashbacks would have served the story well. Penny resists any thought of marrying Charles for a majority of the book because she doesn't think he loves her. And I just...I wanted to know what made her think that. Her motivation to keep him at a distance feels artificial and it bothers me.
What I did like about their relationship appears to be another Laurens trope: the hero may not always be thrilled the heroine is involved, but he doesn't do anything to really keep her out of the loop. Charles and Penny work together every step of the way, and it's just nice because so often these stories have that other kind of conflict but here, they are definitely a team.
There's also one part, early in the book where I decide Penny is my spirit animal. She and Charles are escaping through a secret tunnel, and she's got cobwebs in her hair. Charles is trying to pick them out, she's worried about spiders (because girl, who wouldn't?) And they have this exchange:
"What is it about spiders and females anyway? They're only tiny insects much smaller than you."
"They have eight legs."
An unarguable fact. He debated asking the obvious, but doubted he'd learn anything.
That is my entire feeling on the subject as well, Penny my love. I don't care that the majority of spiders are not harmful, or that they even serve a purpose. They have eight legs. End of story.
Like I said, it's a good book, but I think I'm frustrated because it easily could have been great.