The Game and the Governess by Kate Noble (audiobook) – Narrated by Beverley A. Crick

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As the Earl of Ashby, Lord Edward Granville has never been in short supply of luck, earning him the nickname “Lucky Ned.” Why should he not take risks most sensible men would run from, since the tide always turns in his favor? Making a wager that he can have any woman he desires even without his title, Ned switches places with John Turner, his friend and secretary. But once he does, Ned’s luck suddenly abandons him, for the ladies now have eyes only for Turner. When Ned meets governess Phoebe Baker, he becomes intent on gaining her affections.

Phoebe wants nothing more than to keep her head down, teach her students, and go unnoticed–especially by the Earl of Ashby. But his rakish secretary has the infuriating habit of constantly crossing her path. Yet Phoebe cannot deny that her pulse quickens in Ned’s presence. If this prim-and-proper governess lets her heart rule, will fate intervene where Ned’s luck has forsaken him?

Rating: B for narration; B for content

The Game and the Governess is a very strong start to Kate Noble’s new series, wherein she takes a seemingly trite plot and turns it into a compelling story which is by turns funny, charming and poignant.

The story opens upon Miss Phoebe Baker on her final day at the exclusive school where she has been a pupil for the last few years. Her father’s fortune has been lost in an ill-advised business deal, and his demise followed shortly afterwards, leaving Phoebe unprovided for. A friendly schoolmistress has helped her to find a position as a governess, and Phoebe must learn to adapt to her reduced circumstances and her new situation as neither master nor servant.

Edward Granville, Earl of Ashby – known as “Lucky Ned” – was plucked from obscurity at the age of twelve, having been discovered to be the sole heir to an earldom. He really does seem to have everything – wealth, good looks, and an inordinate amount of good luck whether it be with women, cards, or anything else. Given the ease with which everything he wants falls into his lap, he’s sure it’s due to his luck and has nothing to do with the fact that he’s an earl. With the carefree self-absorption of youth, he is quite happy to leave the management of his affairs and estates to John Turner, his friend-turned-secretary, who, we discover, left his own business concerns in order to help Ned out of a tight spot some five years previously.

Their friendship began during the war, when Ned, then a raw recruit, joined Captain Turner’s regiment; they have remained friends, although from some of Turner’s dryly ironic comments, it’s clear that their friendship has become somewhat strained of late. Eventually unable to listen to any more of Ned’s paeans to his incredible luck, Turner snaps and points out that it’s Ned’s money and title that ensures him plenty of female attention, good seats at the opera, and whatever else he wants. Ned doesn’t believe him, and the pair makes a wager which leads to them switching places during a business trip into the country. Turner bets Ned that he won’t be able to woo a woman without benefit of his title and all its trappings – in the guise of a humble secretary, for instance – and Ned is instantly determined to prove him wrong.

Of course, something like this is immediately headed for disaster, not least because we’ve already learned that Phoebe holds the Earl of Ashby responsible for her father’s ruin. But Ms Noble’s writing is so engaging and her characterisation so strong, that the rather clichéd nature of the plot was a minor consideration and I was quickly hooked and keen to listen to the story unfold.

Unusually for a romance these days, the hero and heroine don’t really start interacting until the second quarter of the story, but I didn’t feel that as a deficiency as it allows the author time to establish her characters and to have a little fun at Ned’s expense.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance

Salt Bride by Lucinda Brant (audiobook) – Narrated by Marian Hussey

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England, 1763. The Earl of Salt Hendon and squire’s daughter Jane Despard share a secret past of mistrust and heartache. Forced into a marriage neither wants, the patient and ever optimistic Jane believes love conquers all; the Earl will take some convincing. Enter Diana St. John, who will go to extremes, even murder, to hold the Earl’s attention. Can the newlyweds overcome past prejudices and sinister opposition to fall in love all over again?

Rating: B for narration; B for content

Salt Bride is a thoroughly enjoyable story set in the Georgian era, in which the author’s sense of style and her evocative descriptions of the clothing and various settings bring the period vividly to life.

At the beginning of the story, Miss Jane Despard is obliged to marry the handsome and wealthy Earl of Salt Hendon (or “Salt”, as he is known). One might think being married to a man blessed with both wealth and good-looks would be no hardship, but Salt and Jane have a history which neither of them can ignore. Four years previously, Salt proposed to – and was accepted by – the lovely Jane and, carried away on the tide of passion, the pair anticipated their vows. Fully intending to present himself to her father the following day, Salt is unexpectedly called away, and when he returns a few weeks later, it’s to discover that Jane has been thrown out of her father’s house and is living under the same roof as her uncle-by-marriage, the prosperous merchant, Jacob Allenby.

Hurt and angry at what he believes to be Jane’s heartless defection, Salt assumes Jane is under Allenby’s “protection” as well as under his roof, and takes himself back to London to embark on a spectacular round of bed-hopping. Jane, whose father disowned her when she discovered she was pregnant, believes Salt abandoned her after having his way with her, as he never made any attempt to see or contact her following the letter she sent advising him of her situation. But years later, fate has a cruel sense of irony, and in order to fulfil the terms of her guardian’s will and prevent the financial ruin of her beloved step-brother, Jane has no alternative but to marry Salt after all.

She’s never fallen out of love with him, but his reaction to her is cold and harsh. He is being forced into this marriage because his sense of honour will not allow him to renege on a promise made to Jane’s father on his death-bed. He does not scruple to make Jane fully aware that he is not marrying her by choice, and indeed treats her very poorly, insulting her and telling her that once married, she will be shut away in the country while he gets on with his life in town. And while Jane knows she has no alternative but to go through with the marriage, she is no pushover and gives back as good as she gets, making it clear that she is just as unhappy about the situation as Salt is.

Obviously, this is not the best basis for a marriage – and it’s also not an uncommon premise in an historical romance. The couple has to navigate their way through misunderstanding and misdirection, much of it orchestrated by the villain of the piece, Lady Diana St. John, who is Salt’s cousin, and obsessed with him to the point of madness. As the story progresses, Jane and Salt grow closer and rekindle their old feelings for each other, as well as coming to understand the reasons behind their misconceptions about each other and, more importantly, the lengths Diana has gone to – and is prepared, still, to go to – in order to get what she wants. Knowing that Salt will never marry her, she nonetheless aims to keep him for herself by acting as his hostess and remaining constantly at his side through the glittering political career for which she believes he is destined.

While the story of the forced-into-marriage may be somewhat formulaic, I was nonetheless compelled to keep listening by the quality of the writing, storytelling and narration, and by the deliciously despicable Diana, who is a brilliantly realised character. She’s over-the-top for sure, but she’s so devious and clever that there are times the listener can almost believe she’s going to get away with her nefarious plans – and they really are nefarious, involving not just a determination to dispose of Jane, but revealing a streak of such dark malevolence and cruelty that makes her both repulsive and strangely compelling.

Marian Hussey isn’t a narrator I’ve listened to before, but her performance here is excellent and I will certainly be seeking out more of her work as a result.

Her voice is very pleasantly modulated and her narrative is well-paced and expressive. She differentiates very effectively between characters so that there is never any question as to who is speaking in those scenes – and there are quite a few – in which there are more than two or three characters present. Her interpretation of the various female characters is very strong, with her portrayal of Diana being the stand-out performance. That lady’s languidly supercilious utterances are laced with venom and bitterness as she cuts a swathe through London’s society as its most sought-after hostess. Ms Hussey doesn’t have a particularly deep voice, but her portrayals of the men in the story are successfully done by use of a variety of tone, pitch and timbre. For Tom, Jane’s younger half-brother, Ms Hussey adds a slight edge to her voice and introduces an element of eagerness into his words which expertly convey his youth and inexperience. Salt’s speech is considered and deliberate, with an air of authority and arrogance that perfectly reflect his austerity of character.

Overall, Salt Bride is a very enjoyable listening experience. Jane and Salt make an engaging central couple, there is a well-drawn cast of supporting characters and the makings of a secondary romance which I believe continues into the sequel. Ms Brandt’s eye for detail and her ability to craft a fast-moving, suspenseful and highly entertaining story combined with a highly polished performance from Marian Hussey make this an audio I have no hesitation in recommending to fans of historical romance and romance audiobooks alike.

What a Duke Dares (Sons of Sin #3) by Anna Campbell

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What woman in her right mind would say no to marrying the dashing Duke of Sedgemoor? Miss Penelope Thorne, that’s who. She’s known Camden Rothermere since they were children-and she also knows she’d bring nothing but scandal to his name.

Cam can hardly believe Penelope turned down his proposal. But if she wants to run off to the Continent and set the rumor mill ablaze, he can’t stop her. Then her brother’s dying request sends him to bring home the one woman he thought he’d finally gotten over.

The only way they’ll both get back to London without their reputations in tatters is to pretend they’re married during the journey. That means kissing like they mean it and even sharing a bed-until it becomes hard to tell where the game ends and true desire begins . . .

Rating: B-

This, the third book in Ms Campbell’s Sons of Sin series, is one I’ve been looking forward to. I enjoyed meeting the very proper and austere Duke of Sedgemoor in the other books, and had high hopes for his story.

The last thing Camden Rothermere needs, in the opinion of his childhood friend, Penelope Thorne – is to ally himself with a family whose name is a byword for scandal. And she tells Cam so in no uncertain terms when she turns down his proposal of marriage, for the Thornes are by no means pillars of respectability. Her father is a rake and gambler, her eldest brother is cut from the same cloth, and Penelope herself is fond of forming her own opinions about things, frequently outspoken and not at all the type of demure debutante who will make Cam a dignified wife.

Her real reason for refusing him, however, is a completely different one, which she can’t tell him. Because Cam watched his parents’ marriage disintegrate -

“As a result of love, my father descended into cruelty and obsession and my mother became a byword for promiscuity.”

- he doesn’t believe in love and wants nothing to do with it.

And Penelope – who has loved him all her life – won’t marry without it.

Like the heroes of the other full-length books in the series, Cam doesn’t know the identity of his father. In order to try to make society forget the circumstances of his birth and the public misery of his parents’ marriage Cam, now the powerful, cold and self-possessed Duke of Sedgemoor, has spent his entire life being fiercely correct, making sure his actions are above reproach, and doing everything he can to restore his family name to respectability.

Shortly after turning down Cam’s proposal nine years earlier, Penelope seized the opportunity to join an eccentric aunt on a trip to the Continent, and then settled with her in Italy. But the aunt has recently died, and in order to fulfil a promise made to Pen’s dying brother, Cam must find her and take her home. He traces Pen to a shabby inn somewhere in the Italian Alps, where he finds her being accosted by a group of nasty Italian bandits. Fortunately, Cam turns up in time to rescue his damsel, guns blazing, in a very “movie hero” moment, which I have to say, Ms Campbell does rather well.

The problem is that Penelope doesn’t want to go back home. England is too confining for a young woman with more than half a brain and she has no intention of going back there to be suffocated by society’s do’s and don’ts. But she can’t refuse her brother’s last wish and the pair set off for England.

Because Pen can’t travel with Cam unchaperoned, they have no alternative but to travel as a married couple and almost make it back without anyone being aware of their deception. But on the final stage of their journey, during a stormy Channel crossing, their ship is seriously damaged and Cam and Pen barely escape with their lives. Once rescued, back on land and ensconced at an inn, they are assumed to be married – and this time, there is no way they will get away with the pretense. Pen is adamant that she doesn’t want to marry Cam, knowing that being married to a man who will never love her will all but destroy her. But she can’t bear to see him surrounded by scandal and gossip when he’s worked so hard all his life to avoid it, so she agrees to his request and marries him, deciding that she will try to become the sort of demure, biddable duchess he wants.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance

Vienna Waltz by Teresa Grant (audiobook) – Narrated by Derek Perkins

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Nothing is fair in love and war…

Europe’s elite have gathered at the glittering Congress of Vienna–princes, ambassadors, the Russian tsar–all negotiating the fate of the continent by day and pursuing pleasure by night. Until Princess Tatiana, the most beautiful and talked about woman in Vienna, is found murdered during an ill-timed rendezvous with three of her most powerful conquests…

Suzanne Rannoch has tried to ignore rumors that her new husband, Malcolm, has also been tempted by Tatiana. As a protgégé of France’s Prince Talleyrand and attach for Britain’s Lord Castlereagh, Malcolm sets out to investigate the murder and must enlist Suzanne’s special skills and knowledge if he is to succeed. As a complex dance between husband and wife in the search for the truth ensues, no one’s secrets are safe, and the future of Europe may hang in the balance…

Rating: B+ for narration; A- for content

Vienna Waltz is a real treat for fans of meaty, intricately plotted and well-researched historical fiction. Set during the Congress of Vienna in 1814, when the ambassadors from the major powers in Europe – Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia and France – gathered in order to seek a long-term peace following the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars, the book is the first in a series of mystery/espionage novels featuring Malcolm Rannoch, attaché to the British delegation, and his half-French, half-Spanish wife, Suzanne.

While ostensibly a diplomat and bureaucrat, Malcolm is in fact one of the British Foreign minister’s most successful intelligence agents – he doesn’t like the word “spy”. His wife is equally tough and resourceful and, like her husband, adept at keeping secrets – many of which pertain to their hasty marriage two years previously. We learn throughout the course of the story that theirs is a marriage of convenience, albeit one “with benefits”, as they have a son. Malcolm literally stumbled across Suzanne, bruised and bloodied following an attack on her home – during an intelligence mission in the Spanish mountains. After escorting her to the British Embassy in Lisbon it seemed that marriage was the most logical way to afford her his protection.

As a working partnership in the service of the British government, they are a superb team, and as parents, they dote on their son, Colin. But as a couple, their relationship is shrouded in the unspoken, and they are quite guarded around each other when it comes to expressing their feelings. Malcolm, the grandson of a duke, had never intended to marry, given the frequency with which he is required to risk his life and the example afforded him by his parents of a disastrous marriage in which both partners were frequently and blatantly unfaithful. And Suzanne is a mystery – to Malcolm and to the listener – although some aspects of her past are revealed in this story. Yet while the pair views their marriage as one of expediency, it’s obvious to everyone who sees them together that they care very deeply for each other.

The romantic angle in the book is fairly low key, although it is integral to the story. At the beginning, Suzanne receives a note from Princess Tatiana Kirsanova, one of the most beautiful women present at the Congress. The princess is known to have taken many lovers from the highest echelons of society, including both Tsar Alexander of Russia and Prince Metternich, Foreign Minister of Austria. And, if rumour is to be believed, Suzanne’s own husband is one of those men currently in receipt of the lady’s favours.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

The Anatomist’s Wife by Anna Lee Huber (audiobook) – Narrated by Heather Wilds

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Following the death of her husband, Lady Darby has taken refuge at her sister’s estate, finding solace in her passion for painting. But when one of the house guests is murdered, her brother-in-law asks her to aid the insufferable Sebastian Gage—a fellow guest with some experience as an inquiry agent. While Gage is clearly more competent than she first assumed, Kiera isn’t about to let her guard down, as accusations and rumors swirl.

When Kiera and Gage’s search leads them to even more gruesome discoveries, a series of disturbing notes urges Lady Darby to give up the inquiry. But Kiera is determined to protect her family and prove her innocence, even as she risks becoming the next victim.

Rating: C+ for narration; A- for content

It’s possible that I may have squealed with delight when I learned that Anna Lee Huber’s series of historical mysteries featuring Lady Keira Darby were being released as audiobooks. The books themselves (there are three so far; The Anatomist’s Wife is first in the series) have all proved to be highly entertaining, well-constructed tales featuring an engaging heroine, a gorgeous hero and a delicious slow-burning romance which has developed slowly but surely across all of the stories.

The widow of a renowned surgeon and anatomist, reclusive artist Lady Keira Darby was thrust into the limelight in the most unpleasant way following her husband’s death. A much older man, Sir Anthony Darby married Keira with the sole intention of putting her artistic skills to use by forcing her to illustrate the book on anatomy he was writing – simply because he was far too tight-fisted to pay someone to do the job.

The exposure of her involvement in the project led to Keira being branded as “unnatural” and shunned by society at large, the worst gossip painting her as an evil woman who trawled the streets looking for likely subjects for experimentation. That might seem rather a leap, but when one considers that these stories take place just a short time after the discovery of the shocking activities undertaken by Burke and Hare, and all the sensationalist stories and scandal that surrounded them, it’s perhaps not so difficult to understand the impetus behind such lurid accusations.

In the sixteen months since her husband’s death, Keira has lived quietly with her sister and brother-in-law, the Earl and Countess of Cromarty, at their remote residence of Gairloch. But when, during a house-party, one of the guests is found murdered, many of the other guests are only too willing to point the finger of suspicion at the woman dubbed “The Butcher’s Wife” and “The Sawbones’ Siren”.

With the necessary authorities several days ride away, the earl asks one of his guests, Mr Sebastian Gage, the son of a renowned military officer and inquiry agent, to begin his own investigation into the murder. Keira doesn’t like what she’s seen of the handsome and charming Mr Gage – he’s too handsome, too charming and too often surrounded by hoards of women who are only too eager to throw themselves at his feet and into his bed. But when her brother-in-law also requests her help – her knowledge of anatomy may enable her to assist in the investigation – the unlikely pair reluctantly agrees to work together until the authorities arrive.

Gage isn’t wild about the idea of having someone assist him, and Keira is hard-pressed to hide her dislike. But as the book progresses, the two begin to make discoveries about each other, as well as discoveries relating to the murder; Keira realises that there’s much more to Gage than a pretty face, and he comes to value her insight and her keen powers of observation.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

A Good Debutante’s Guide to Ruin by Sophie Jordan (audiobook) – Narrated by Carmen Rose

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The last woman on earth he would ever touch…

Declan, the Duke of Banbury, has no interest in ushering Rosalie Hughes, his stepsister, into society. Dumped on him with nowhere else to go, he’s determined to rid himself of the headstrong debutante by bestowing on her an obscenely large dowry, making her the most sought after heiress of the Season.

…is about to become the only one he wants.

But Rosalie isn’t about to go along with Declan’s plans. Surrounded by fortune hunters, how is she supposed to find a man who truly wants her? Taking control of her fate, Rosalie dons a disguise and sneaks into Sodom, a private club host to all manner of illicit activity – and frequented by her infuriatingly handsome stepbrother.

Rating: B- for narration; B for content

A Good Débutante’s Guide to Ruin is the first in a new series from Sophie Jordan, and if you can get past the rather daft idea of two innocent, well-bred young ladies sneaking out to a sex club, being provided with suitably skimpy clothing by the owner/madam, and not being recognized by the male relatives they encounter there, it’s an enjoyable story which boasts plenty of sizzling chemistry between the two leads.

Twenty-year-old Rosalie Hughes completed her education at a Yorkshire school two years earlier, but her mother has ignored all the polite reminders to come collect her daughter. Rosalie’s only other family is the step-brother she hasn’t seen for over a decade. Declan, now the Duke of Banbury, was fifteen when his father threw him out of the family home. He is not best pleased at finding a young woman he hardly knows on his doorstep, but he is at heart a gentleman and allows her to stay, calling on his aunt to move in and act as chaperone.

Rosalie is relieved at the fact he doesn’t turn her out, but rather bewildered by his coldness and thinly veiled hostility towards her. It’s clear that she worshipped him as a child and continues to carry a torch for him. But for Declan, Rosalie only dredges up painful memories of her mother Mélisande , who caused his rift with his father and whose lies and deceit have coloured his attitude towards women ever since. All he wants to do is get rid of Rosalie so he can return to his normal round of drinking, gaming and whoring.

Declan decides that the best way to be rid of Rosalie is to marry her off, so he lets it be known that he has settled a large dowry upon her. Rosalie isn’t against marriage, and, trying to set aside her childish fancy for Declan, knows the best she can hope for is to be able to find a kind and considerate husband. But before she settles, she wants to live a little, so when Declan’s cousin Aurelia suggests they slip out and pay a visit to Sodom, the notorious sex club frequented by the young men of the ton, Rosalie agrees. On the appointed night, skimpily gowned and heavily masked, the girls are escorted through the club by its mysterious lady owner, and get an eyeful of various amorous encounters (!). While Aurelia is quite happy to hang around and watch, Rosalie decides that what she’d like is to be kissed for the first time, and by someone who knows what he’s doing.

The identity of the selected orally experienced paragon will come as no surprise.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance

The Accidental Abduction by Darcie Wilde

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After having his proposal rejected by a beautiful but flighty woman, Harry vows he is done with unpredictable and impetuous women for good. Until beautiful and fierce Leannah Wakefield barrels into his life, inadvertently kidnapping him while on a wild carriage ride and leaving him all too eager to get back in the saddle…

Leannah would sacrifice everything to protect her family. So upon hearing of her sister’s intended elopement, she races across London to stop the ill-advised ceremony before it can happen. However, when her mad journey picks her up an unlikely stowaway, one who ignites her desire beyond all reason, she’s the one who ends up hastily wedding a handsome and secretive stranger.

But as Leannah and Harry immediately encounter opposition, jealousy, and suspicion of their hurried nuptials, they begin to doubt that their unquenchable passion can truly lead to a happy marriage—especially when both the bride and groom have devastating secrets to hide…

Rating: C+

This is Darcie Wilde’s second book, and having seen some favourable reviews for her début, Lord of the Rakes, I was keen to give her a try. I found her writing style to be engaging and was especially pleased to discover that she has put a different spin on the well-used trope of two people who barely know each other getting married. There are plenty of marriage-of-convenience and compromised-into-marriage stories which feature a couple with little prior knowledge of each other tying the knot and then falling in love, but in The Accidental Abduction, the two central characters – Harry Rayburn and Leannah Wakefield – meet in less than auspicious circumstances, feel an incredibly strong attraction towards each other and marry on impulse, believing they can sort everything else out later.

Also unusual for an historical is the fact that neither protagonist is titled. Harry is very wealthy, but his money comes from trade, and while Leannah was brought up a “lady”, her family is poor as church mice.

The story opens with Harry proposing – unsuccessfully – to one of the belles of the ton, a beautiful but empty-headed young woman. On his way home from drowning his sorrows, Harry attempts to save a woman who is struggling with a pair of runaway horses, and ends up jumping into her carriage in order to help her. But it seems that she’s not struggling at all – she’s pushing her horses hell-for-leather in order to catch up with her eloping younger sister, and doesn’t stop despite having taken on an unwanted passenger.

When one of the horses throws a shoe, the woman has no alternative but to stop and admit defeat. But Harry isn’t so easily deterred. The weather is bad and if he and his “abductress” are stuck in it, so are her sister and her beau; he suggests they head for the nearest inn as they need shelter, and it’s quite possible that her quarry will have had to hole up there as well.

Leannah Wakefield is so used to having to do everything for herself and her family on her own that she is initially dismissive of Harry’s offers of help. However, she can’t continue her pursuit with a horse that needs shoeing, and reluctantly accepts that Harry is right, and they need to shelter from the storm and find somewhere to have the horse re-shod.

Leannah is a widow and has, since the death of her much older husband, been the glue holding her family together. Her father is ill, her young brother is just twelve and her younger sister, Genny, is both beautiful and headstrong, and it’s all Leannah can do to keep their heads above water. Quite naturally, this sort of existence has worn her down over the two years since her husband’s death, and meeting someone like Harry, strong, reliable and full of confidence – justifiably so, it seems – brings home to her just how much she’s missed having someone to care for her for a change. Harry’s presence also awakens her baser instincts – he’s young, well-built and good-looking, and…well, some aspects of widowhood have been more difficult for her than others.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.