James Cordier is an English spy who is more than ready to come home for good; stealing back royal emeralds from crazy Marta Fazi was to be his last mission. But then he ends up in Venice because Francesca Bonnard, English divorcee and notorious prostitute, has some very incriminating letters about her husband that the British government is very interested in. Having already tried to get them from her and failing, it is now up to Cordier to obtain these letters quickly and without fuss. But the two meet, sparks fly, and you know how the rest goes.
After being so disappointed in My Spymaster's Lady, I very much hoped that I would like this book, and I am very happy to say that I did. One of the elements I really enjoyed was the sense of humor present throughout, particularly Francesca's. A running joke throughout the story concerns the putti, the little cupids, painted on the ceiling of her parlor. Here's how Francesca thinks of them: "They were all boys, all naked. Thus the view overhead was of many little penises-forty at last count, though there seemed to be more today. Were they reproducing spontaneously or were the more buxom females and virile adult males getting up to mischief when the house was asleep?" Having always considered the putti seen in my art history classes to be distasteful at best, I thought this was hilarious (and, of course, Ms. Chase then turns this into a wonderful plot twist).
Francesca herself was a wonderful character. I liked her at once because of her humor, but, knowing she was a prostitute, I was a little worried the plot would revolve around her being world-weary and sick of her lifestyle, and then Cordier would be a burst of fresh air and "save" her from this lifestyle. It bothers me when heroines are fully capable of handling their own affairs, but they become boneless ninnies once they have sex with their love interest. Francesca had way more depth to her character, though. Cordier notices that she can shut herself off from others, which is what makes her so frustrating to him, since he needs to break down her barriers so he can figure out where the letters are. As they begin to fall for each other, he begins to see the little kernel of her that is repressed all the time, where she is more innocent and looks at him like a young girl in love. It was still the same-old "fresh air" kind of plot, but it had a new spin on it. Plus, Francesca was more than capable of taking care of herself to the very end; she jumps into the canal to save the man she loves.
Speaking of, Cordier was just as strong a character. He's able to withstand torture and pretend to be someone else (there's another funny scene where he pretends to be a clueless Spaniard (?) with slicked-back hair and a pointy moustache). He can climb in bed with a woman, steal what he needs, and be out with no trouble. However, Francesca is able to crack through him, so that he finds himself utterly mesmerized by her. It was also interesting that, like Francesca, he's part Italian. I haven't read any other romances with a half-Italian male lead, but I was pleased that he succumbed to passionate bouts of temper just like Francesca. I'm curious to see if other men in romances do that, too, because I was expecting the man to be cool and the woman to be passionate, which would then be one of the things that attracts him to her. It wasn't the opposites-attract story; instead, they find the commonalities between each other, which lets them fully understand each other in a way that other people cannot.
The story itself was lots of fun. The romance was amazing; the first love scene takes place on the top of the Campanile, at night, with them looking over Venice and singing scraps of Italian opera. I can't think of anything more romantic. Venice was the perfect setting for a romance. There was also plenty of action (fighting off Fazi's ruffians, mainly). Plus, the plot itself contained a few twists and turns, and all the elements that helped you understand the story in its entirety aren't given all at once, but as the story develops. It was very skillfully plotted, and I enjoyed the story immensely. Usually, romances can drag in the middle, before the big finale, but the story never slowed down.
This was a different romance than I am used to, and I really enjoyed it. The story was lots of fun, it was fast-paced, and the characters are wonderful. For me, this author is definitely a must-read.