Colonel William Reid has returned home from India to retire near his children, who are safely stowed in an academy in Bath. Upon his return to the Isles, however, he finds that one of his daughters has vanished, along with one of her classmates.
Having served as second-in-command to the Pink Carnation, one of England’s most intrepid spies, it would be impossible for Gwendolyn Meadows to give up the intrigue of Paris for a quiet life in the English countryside—especially when she’s just overheard news of an alliance forming between Napoleon and an Ottoman Sultan. But, when the Pink Carnation’s little sister goes missing from her English boarding school, Gwen reluctantly returns home to investigate the girl’s disappearance.
Thrown together by circumstance, Gwen and William must cooperate to track down the young ladies before others with nefarious intent get their hands on them. But Gwen’s partnership with quick-tongued, roguish William may prove to be even more of an adventure for her than finding the lost girls…
Let me get something off my chest. Ahem, Lauren Willig's publisher...tap, tap...yes, you. I, as one of Lauren's loyal readers, am really annoyed at you for publishing Miss Gwen's book IN A PAPERBACK ORIGINAL INSTEAD OF A HARDCOVER. Very annoyed. I'd sick Miss Gwen and her parasol on you if I could manifest her in the real world. I have a beautiful line of hardcover novels on my shelf that are now spoiled by a paperback. Luckily for you the Pink Carnation stories can't be spoiled by format changes.
Back to Miss Gwen and Colonel Reid.
As a reader, it was such a delight to have Miss Gwen develop fully from her dragon-like chaperone role into deeply dimensioned heroine. As much as she would despise the word. She has so much armor built up over the years that it was a delight to watch those layers peel away through her interactions with Colonel Reid and how befuddled she gets when those pesky things called "feelings" start to get in the way of clear, rational thinking. There is a point, very late in the book, where your heart just breaks for her. It's hard to imagine the Miss Gwen of The Secret History of the Pink Carnation provoking sympathetic feelings; she was only slightly less terrifying than the Dowager Duchess of Dovedale and we really don't meet that dragon until The Masque of the Black Tulip (book two). Speaking of "old" Miss Gwen - is it just me, or did she age backward in the series? Because I would swear that she seemed much closer to sixty in book one but here she's obviously in her early forties (and had much less gray and grizzled hair here).
Colonel Reid also gets to shine. In The Temptation of the Night Jasmine he seems like a jolly Scot of retirement age whose past amorous affairs have not resulted in easy lives for his children (Alex is fine because he is a legitimate son but Jack, being half-caste, has a very bumpy road....). Here, we see how much he recognizes that he hasn't been a good father, particularly to the daughters he sent to England, and how much it pains him to own up to that fact. His natural boisterousness is a great contrast to Miss Gwen's stand-offish personae; he makes a great foil. I just loved him.
And then there's the simple fact that our hero and heroine are very much outside the norm for romances. Even Vaughn, likely in his late thirties or early forties at most, is a conventional romance hero. Miss Gwen and Colonel Reid are middle-aged and both looking for a second chance at a happy relationship. So few romance novels have older heroines (older heros are slightly more common) so I applaud Willig for giving Miss Gwen her chance.
The Eloise-and-Colin framing story inches along toward a big decision but they get their own mystery in the form of the fabled Berar treasure. But they also get saddled with Jeremy (turd) - Colin's cousin and step-dad - if they wish to actually find the treasure. This was a nice diversion and I wonder how Lauren is eventually going to wrap up that relationship. I expect a happy ending.
At this point in my review, I usually update my heroine rankings for the Pink Carnation series. The standings after The Garden Intrigue:
While I liked Emma, she didn't top Letty and Arabella in the heroine rankings (she's probably duking it out with Mary or Laura - after Caroline Murat, Lady Vaughn won't scare her). Augustus, on the other hand, doesn't fare so well in the hero ranking. After Geoff, Miles, Turnip, Vaughn, Richard and Andre (tied), and Alex, the only hero Augustus tops is Robert the Duke of Dovedale (who still strikes me as a wet blanket, sorry). He's probably tied with Alex. He has very tough competition.However, Miss Gwen and Colonel Reid are so different from the previous Pink Carnation couples that I'm having trouble. Plus, Colonel Reid is Alex's father, so putting them in competition seems just wrong. So they get to be on a little pedestal all by themselves. I think Miss Gwen would like that.
And now we must wait over a year for Sally Fitzhugh's book because Willig teased us with a bit of a chapter about Turnip's little sister. I think she's going to give Letty and Arabella a run for their money.