Lady Charlotte Beaumont has spent her whole life being ignored. By her parents, her brother, even the servants. So she was secretly able to develop her talent for painting well beyond the usual watercolors. Too bad no one will let her actually use it—women are rarely accepted into the Royal Academy. But when a connection at the Haverhall School for Young Ladies gets Charlotte her dream commission, she’ll do whatever it takes to make it work. Including disguising herself as “Charlie.”
Flynn Rutledge has something to prove. His lowly upbringing is not going to stop him from achieving his artistic dreams. This commission is the key to his future, and his partner, an unknown youth in oversized clothes who is barely old enough to shave, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. But Charlie does inspire Flynn’s artistic passion—something he worried he might have lost forever. For all his street smarts, nothing can prepare Flynn for the shock of Charlie’s true identity. He doesn’t care that she’s a woman, but a lady of the ton is a different matter altogether.
Time and Setting: Regency England
Heat Level: 2
Genre: Historical Romance (novella)
Reviewer Rating: 4.5 stars
Review by Em
The Lady in Red wraps up Ms. Bowen’s Season for Scandal series and teases us with a glimpse of what’s to come in The Devils of Dover. In this charming novella, two strangers find themselves working together to complete a set of church murals. Secrets, frustrations and doubt mark the start of the relationship, but a surprising revelation and a shared passion for art – and eventually, for each other – finally gives them the freedom to soar. It’s a terrific, romantic conclusion to a series, and augurs well for what’s to come.
Lady Charlotte Beaumont has lived a quiet life largely ignored by everyone around her. Left alone for long periods, she’s used that time to secretly develop her talent as a painter. But as The Lady in Red begins, Charlotte wants more. She’s approached King, a shadowy figure in the black market art world, with a painting and a plan. She’ll give him the painting in exchange for helping her secure a job painting the new murals at the famous church of St. Michael’s. King recognizes her painting as a forgery, but he’s intrigued by Charlotte. He offers a different deal – he’ll take the painting and find her a position at St. Michael’s in exchange for a favor at a future date. Charlotte agrees and then listens as he proceeds to dictate the odd and specific terms of the deal.
Charlotte is hopeful but confused after her meeting with King. She waits for word from him and is surprised when instead, Clara Hayward, the headmistress of the Haverhall School for Young Ladies, one of England’s most exclusive finishing schools, comes to call. She plays along with her visitor but isn’t quite sure what Ms. Hayward expects from her. Unbeknownst to Charlotte, Haverhall – through its ‘exclusive programs’- secretly provides training and instruction to women in traditionally male dominated fields. Acting on King’s direction, Ms. Hayward has accepted Charlotte into Haverhall and before long, arranges for Charlotte to become “Charlie” and join the other craftsmen working on St. Michael’s.
Flynn Rutledge is trying not to panic. Although he’s a talented and ambitious painter, Flynn is struggling to form a vision for the church murals and nothing seems to inspire him. Learning he’s to be partnered with another painter is leaves him angry and frustrated; after meeting “Charlie,” a nobody who’s vague about his past experiences and working background, Flynn has his doubts about the partnership.
Though Charlie and Flynn get off to a rather inauspicious start, it isn’t long before their relationship changes. Flynn, initially dismissive of Charlie, soon recognizes the young painter’s talent. He’s curious about him and tries to draw him out, but it’s clear Charlie doesn’t want to talk about himself. That’s fine with Flynn, since he’s similarly disinclined to share his own challenging past. When Charlie discovers Flynn’s sketches for the murals and offers a different perspective, Flynn reacts angrily. But with Charlie’s gentle encouragement, Flynn finds fresh inspiration in his sketches and begins to find himself again as an artist. Once Flynn has the concept down, the pair begin to execute their shared vision for the murals. Charlie is finally living her dream; Flynn is finally, passionately, re-engaged in his art.
In this first half of the novella – before Flynn discovers Charlie is a she – Ms. Bowen does a wonderful job showing how the friendship between the couple evolves and helps them both to grow. As Charlie, Charlotte is confidently and capably working as a professional painter. Flynn treats her as an equal and, despite her disguise, she’s finally free to be herself. She’s attracted to Flynn – as a man, as a friend, and as a painter – but she’s unwilling to reveal herself and sacrifice the opportunity given to her by King. Flynn, after a painful, failed love affair with a society beauty, was lost when he arrived at St. Michael’s. Following an impoverished childhood, ambition and talent gave him a brief taste of success. But his failed love affair, and the shame and anger that’s stayed with him since its demise, have shaken his confidence. Charlie helps re-awaken his belief in his talent and his passion for art. It’s a refreshing surprise when Flynn finally discovers his partner is a female, that Ms. Bowen doesn’t use the revelation as a reason to turn them against each other. Instead, Flynn is shocked – but happily so. He isn’t angry at her for lying to him; instead he tries to understand why Charlotte found her way to St. Michael’s.
Much like the evolution of their working relationship, once Charlotte’s secret is out, the personal relationship between her and Flynn changes quickly. Charlotte was attracted to Flynn from the start and once Flynn discovers Charlie is actually the beautiful and talented Charlotte, it isn’t long before those friendly thoughts turn lustful. They go from friends to lovers in short order, but their tender physical relationship – which continues over the course of the commission – isn’t enough for Charlotte to reveal who she truly is to Flynn, and her secret provides the catalyst for a premature end to the affair. I particularly loved the two sides of this relationship – Flynn and Charlie, then Flynn and Charlotte – and how the relationship evolves from a simple friendship to a love affair, but I disliked the mechanism by which Ms. Bowen breaks them apart. And break them apart she does. Flynn, who started out as a bit of an arrogant jerk when we first met him, doesn’t do himself any favors in the latter half of the book. I won’t spoil what happens here except to say that he eventually does redeem himself in the moving and satisfying conclusion.
Though The Lady in Red is a novella, Ms. Bowen manages to cover a lot of ground and the story never feels rushed or overly busy. Flynn and Charlotte are a lovely departure from the other couples featured in the Season for Scandal series, and their love story is refreshing change from typical regency fare. I’m curious about Clara Hayward and her Haverhall School for Young Ladies, and looking forward to getting to know her in the upcoming A Duke in the Night. Once again, Ms. Bowen delivers a charming and romantic love story that left this fan hungry for more.