I picked up Scandal in the Night by Elizabeth Essex by accident. I was standing in line at the grocery store, waiting as the woman in front of me (who apparently traveled forward in time from 1991) finished writing her check, and it was sitting on an endcap next to me. I grabbed it and started to peruse and was hooked almost instantly. It also made me wax half my eyebrow off (more on that later).
I expected this to be a traditional Regency (I’m kind of Regency-ed out here), but was delighted to find that most of this book is actually set in India. It has a sweeping plot, an over-the-top ballsy heroine, and a villain worthy of an Old Skool romance. In fact, it very much reminds me of an Old Skool romance, right down to the heroine’s apricot colored hair, except without the rapey bits.
The book opens with Thomas Jellicoe, third son to an earl, returning home exhausted after spending years searching for his lost love, Catriona Rowan. Imagine his surprise when he shows up to his brother’s estate and finds Catriona there all along, calling herself Anne Cates, and acting as governess to his nieces and nephews. He’s even more surprised when someone starts shooting at them.
Catriona knows Thomas as a Sikh horse trader named Tanvir Singh. She’s shocked to find out he’s actually an English gentleman. Thomas posed as Tanvir while acting as a spy in India. So all in the matter of the first few chapters we’ve got
1. Whoa! Heroine isn’t dead but is living with heroe's own relatives (which I thought was stretching the limits of coincidence—but whatever)
2. Whoa! Hero is not Sikh horse trader, but English gentleman (he was just really tan before. No. Really.)
3. Whoa! Someone is trying to kill one or both of them.
The book takes place over the course of a few days in Hampshire, 1830, but a majority of the novel is actually comprised of flashbacks to Catriona and Thomas’s time in India. Cue flashback music and wavy lines…
Catriona fled Scotland after a Terrible Thing Happened and is on the run. She’s currently in India, acting as governess to her Aunt Lettice’s children (I thought of her as Aunt Lettuce for the rest of the book). Auntie’s husband, Lord Summers, is the resident commissioner of Saharanpur. Being in India gets her away from the authorities in Scotland (who are after her), and Aunt Lettuce is useless enough to have zero interest in raising her own children and therefore is happy to employ Cat indefinitely and without much question.
Cat is in the bazaar one day when she sees a beautiful black mare. She approaches the animal and all but tames it to her hand. She’s like a Disney princess (also an Old Skool heroine quality); she whispers to the high-strung, otherwise bitey horse, and they form a goddamned spiritual bond. Tanvir Singh—above mentioned horse trader and spy, sees this and falls insta-love (or lust really) with Cat.
I mean, how could he not? Apricot hair? Check. Long pale limbs? Check. Forms immediate Dr. Doolittle-like bond with wild untamed mare? Fucking check.
I knew right then this book would be glorious.
Tanvir sells Lord Summers the mare specifically for Catriona as a means of getting to spend time with her. He has apparently been in India for years, building up his assumed identity, being so secret that even Lord Summers has no idea who he is. He has, presumably, seen lots of ladies in this time, but he loses his shit over Cat almost immediately. He. Must. Have. Her. He starts “accidentally” meeting up with her when she is out riding with the children, and the romance starts to bloom like a…er…Indian flower of some kind.
Cat’s uncle is oblivious to all this. He wants her to marry Lieutenant Birkstead, who is properly English and also an assmunch. Cat’s flattered by Birkstead’s attention, she is a poor orphan after all (also super Old Skool), but she stumbles on Birkstead and Aunt Lettuce in the garden getting busy. Birkstead knows Cat caught him with his pants down, and so he threatens her. He also still wants to marry her because her uncle is giving her a sweet ass dowry and also because she’s feisty and he wants break her will.
At this point Scandal in the Night was so deliciously Old-Skooly (villian wants to break her will? Damn) that I did frantic Google searching to see if it was a reprint or something (it’s not).
So the book bounces between “present day” England and India when Tanvir and Cat were falling in love. The sense of place here is so wonderful and rich, that I was almost disappointed when we flashed back to England. Cat and Tanvir’s love story had such a great dreamy quality that I wanted to stay there forever. Essex has a gift for description:
The first courtyard led on to another, and every courtyard was filled with sinuous palms and lemon trees laden with bright fruit. Everywhere she looked a thousand and one blazing torches illuminated walkways and bubbling fountains. And across the central garden courtyard, across the twinkling pools and night-blooming flower beds, was a tiered pavilion—floor upon floor stacked up like a wedding cake upon pillars. There were no walls to speak of—the spaces between the carved stone pillars were hung with jewel-toned curtains in shimmering silks and transparent gauze that fluttered in the evening breeze. Some of those curtained spaces were set with wide, white cotton mattresses and colorful bolster cushions and pillows in the Oriental fashion, while others contained furniture that could have graced a duke’s drawing room.
Don’t you just want to be there?
Anyway, there’s a great scene where Tanvir introduces Cat to Nawab Nashaba Nissa Begum, a local noblewoman who married Thomas’s confidant, an English Colonel. Begum and her daughter Mina see the heat between Cat and Tanvir and conspire to get them together. They take Cat into their zenana (a place where only women are allowed) where she can spend time with the local women, and they have her eyebrows threaded because dudes cannot resist some fine-ass eyebrows.
I shit you not. There is actual eyebrow threading here. And they don’t stop at the eyebrows if you catch my drift. Once Tanvir sees her eyebrows he realizes what else has probably been removed and BAM! They share their first steamy, hairless kiss. A kiss Birkstead sees.
At this point I’d been sitting on the couch, reading non-stop, for a few hours. I’d had some wine. I starting thinking about eyebrows and how mine were getting pretty bad. I took a break and went upstairs and broke out the waxing strips—the shitty ones that are straight and yet somehow you have to shape them to curved eyebrows.
Anyway, I clearly had too much wine to be involved in any depilatory process because I waxed half of my left eyebrow off. THE FRONT HALF. I can’t even draw that shit back in right because I’m a blond and there’s no eyebrow pencil that really matches. So I’m rocking the side-swept bangs till that shit grows out.
Back to the book. Birkstead is now jealous and evil and he does something REALLY REALLY AWFUL that drives Cat and Tanvir/Thomas apart. Cat believes Tanvir abandoned her. Tanvir/Thomas believes Cat “did a runner” and didn’t trust him to help her.
Cut back to “present day” England. Thomas isn’t letting Cat out of his sight now that he’s found her. He’s determined to have her back, despite her cool rejection of him:
Miss Anne Cates’s face might look as impassive and stoic as the Himalaya, frozen and unmoving as she sat so calmly by the unnecessary fire, but he did not for one moment think she was unfeeling. No. She felt. But like the remote, timeless mountains, Catriona Rowan was alive beneath the heavy covering of snow, shifting slowly, merely biding her time. She could not hide herself so thoroughly from him, though she gazed at him with all the calm certainty of a queen—in the world, but not of it.
But Cat is melting. And she still plucks her eyebrows—which is like telegraphing her lusty pants for him, I guess.
Oh yeah, and they have to figure out who is trying to kill them.
This book has a lot of action—so much that it’s hard to even sum it up. I enjoyed it immensely, but there were some aspects of the writing I struggled with. The prose bounces between florid and breathless. Here’s an example:
Perhaps she was a fever dream. Perhaps his weary mind was playing tricks on him now that he had finally resigned himself to the fruitlessness of his obsession. Now that he had grudgingly accepted his failure to find her. Now that he had given up and come home.
Thomas narrowed his eyes against the sharp northern sun, raised his hand to block the light glaring off the ornamental fountain, and looked again, determined to rid his brain of this useless, tormenting vision—her long, lithe body clad in gray, the pale freckled skin, the sweep of fine hair escaping the confines of restrictive pins and bonnet to fly away in the sunlit breeze.
But his heart and mind slammed against each other, like storm waves crashing, until the roar of her name in his head was deafening. Catriona. Catriona. Catriona.
See what I mean? A lot is going on here, and sometimes I found all the language exhausting. The constant re-hashing of the characters angst got a little overwhelming. I found that I like when Essex turned her descriptions loose on setting (especially India), but I felt sometimes more time was spent telling me about how Cat and Tanvir/Thomas felt, rather than showing me.
Also when Thomas is pretending to be Tanvir he talks funny, well in a dialect. All the Indian characters do. I don’t know if this is historically accurate or what but it pulled me right out the text every time:
I will also offer my services to thee, if thou shouldst care for accompaniment on thy rides. I confess I cannot rest easy until I am assured that thou art an accomplished horsewoman, and that my mare will not be able to play her tricks upon thee. I cannot have it said that Tanvir Singh sells dangerous horses to his Excellency, Lord Summers.”
Right. It saved me that he dropped out of character during the sexytimes because if he said “Thy legs are so smooth—dos’t thou use Nair?” I would have kicked something.
This book was fun, barrels of it. It was delightlfully Old Skooly, but the prose could be a bit much. I recommend it as a break from all the duke novels being printed right now. Just hide the wax strips till you're done.