Narrated by Heather Wilds
I’ve been enjoying Shana Galen’s current Covent Garden Cubs series, and even though I haven’t read either of her Regency Spies books, I thought that as While You Were Spying is actually the prequel to that series, picking it up without having read the others would mean I wasn’t missing out on anything I needed to know. Unfortunately, however, the story turned out to be mediocre and even the more-than-decent performance from Heather Wilds couldn’t save it.
Following a disastrous (and broken) engagement, twenty-one year-old Francesca Dashing has decided never to marry and to devote herself instead to caring for others and most especially to the sick and wounded animals she treats at the hospital she has created on her father’s estate. She lives quietly, doing her best to avoid her mother’s censure and unstinting desire to marry her off, but her peace is shattered when her determination to rescue a mistreated colt leads her into an encounter with the man who humiliated her in front of the ton at a society ball some years earlier.
Ethan Caxton, Marquess of Winterbourne, is not, however, holed up in a Hampshire barn just for the hell of it. He has been directed by his government superiors to investigate a smuggling ring which is supplying arms to the French, and has been led to the estate bordering that of Francesca’s family, where he believes the smugglers’ contact to be one of the farm workers.
Much to Francesca’s chagrin, he has no recollection of their previous meeting and just wants to get rid of her so he can get on with his job. But when the farmer is later found murdered and Francesca is attacked, he can’t ignore her any longer – not that he’s been finding it especially easy to do so in any case – and vows to protect her, in spite of Francesca’s insistence that she doesn’t want or need him to do so.
The story proceeds predictably, with both protagonists coming to know each other better; which, for Ethan means realising that something in Francesca’s past has made her distrustful of men, and for Francesca, accepting that no matter her feelings for the handsome marquess, he isn’t the marrying kind owing to the very public heartbreak inflicted on him by his former love. Because his mission to protect Francesca keeps him in England, Ethan sends his brother, Alex (who is also and conveniently an agent for the Foreign Office) to France to continue the investigation into the arms smuggling operation – which ends up coming back to bite Ethan in the arse in a way he hadn’t foreseen.
Ms Galen ties her plot threads together neatly, but the story is ultimately somewhat bland and the characters are rather too stock-in-trade for it to be anything other than ordinary. Ethan’s “a woman betrayed me so they must all be heartless bitches” attitude is unbelievable and incredibly irritating; and Francesca has the annoying habit of disregarding her own safety and going off on her own, no matter how many times she is warned against it or how much evidence there is to show her it’s an unwise move. And the idea of her being some kind of vet stretched my credulity too far; there’s a faintly ridiculous scene fairly early on in the book where she ministers to a rabbit whose leg was caught in a poacher’s trap. While Ethan is thinking “yum – rabbit stew!”, Francesca is all “I must save her!” which she does, although what on earth that rabbit is going to be good for with a mangled leg is anyone’s guess. I know we’re meant to be impressed by Francesca’s determination and skill at this point, but instead, I was waiting for the full Disney experience of all the little dickie-birds showing up to roll up her bandages and the squirrels to come in to mop up the blood on the floor and sweep the dust under the rug.
On the positive side, the romantic chemistry between the protagonists is strong, and the love scenes are sensual, well-written and well-performed. Ethan may be a bit of a cardboard-cut-out hero, but he’s a sexy, auburn-haired one (although I got a bit fed up with constantly hearing about his amber eyes), and Francesca does have good reason for her wariness of men. It took guts to end her previous engagement, and I appreciated that aspect of her character. I didn’t, however, appreciate Ethan’s stupidity in the last few chapters, which was ridiculously contrived and unnecessary.
Heather Wilds turns in an engaging performance which helped to keep me listening, although as I said at the outset, she couldn’t really do much with what is a rather lacklustre story. I’ve become used to her vocal eccentricities – the breaths in odd places, the strange inflections – to the extent that while I can’t ignore them, I try not to listen to them so much. It’s still frustrating, because otherwise Ms Wilds is a very good narrator and one I would perhaps listen to more often were it not for those ticks. Her pacing is maybe a little on the slow side, but her voice is richly modulated and easy on the ear, and her character differentiation is excellent. I have always liked the way she portrays the heroes in the books she narrates; she makes the most of her naturally low pitch, adding a brightness to the timbre to give a slight edge which is very attractive and, when called for, rather sexy. She does a great job in this story with Francesca’s mother, an Italophile who peppers her speech with badly pronounced Italian words and phrases (which put me in mind of Mrs Elton and her “caro sposo”), and very clearly distinguishes the two brothers, so that there is no question as to whether Ethan or Alex is speaking in their various scenes together.
While You Were Spying is one of those books that isn’t bad or good – it’s just “there”. I can’t say I disliked it, because Ms Wilds’ performance is engaging and there’s a nice dollop of sexual tension between the principals – but it isn’t something I think I’ll listen to again, either. If you’re a fan of the author’s, enjoyed the other books in the series (which are not available in audio), or are looking for an undemanding listen you can dip in and out of, then you might find this hits the spot. But if you want something deep and meaningful, compelling or superbly entertaining, then you might need to look elsewhere.
Book Content: C
Steam Factor: Glad I had my earbuds in
Violence Rating: Minimal
Genre: Historical Romance
Publisher: Tantor Audio
While You Were Spying was provided to AudioGals by Tantor Audio for a review.