Rogue in Red Velvet (Emperors of London #1) by Lynne Connolly

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When respectable country widow Connstance Rattigan finds herself in a notorious London brothel instead of at the altar, only one person can save her from the auction block.

Alex Vernon, Lord Ripley, walked away from Connie once before, when he discovered she was engaged. Now that her fiancé has betrayed her, he doesn’t intend to leave her again.

Once he has made love to her, Alex feels the situation is resolved. He’ll marry her. But Connie has other ideas.

Only three problems to solve—Connie signed a marriage contract as binding as the marriage ceremony with someone else, she’s disgraced in the eyes of society, and she won’t marry him until her name is cleared.

Rating: B-

I was initially drawn to Rogue in Red Velvet because of its setting of London in the 1750s, which makes a nice change from my regular diet of Regency and Victorian set stories. It’s the first in a new series from Ms Connolly featuring the so-called Emperors of London, a group of men (all related) who are rich and powerful movers and shakers in society.

Lord Alexander Ripley is young, handsome, wealthy – and thus a prime target for marriage-minded young ladies and their equally determined mamas. Trying to hide from one particular young woman who can’t seem to take “no” for an answer, Alex stumbles into the library of the house he’s staying in and meets Mrs Constance Rattigan, the goddaughter of Lord Downholland. She is eschewing the house-party and is currently engaged in seeking out and cataloguing all the documentation she can find which relates to the family’s long history and traditions. Immediately struck by Connie’s good sense and complete lack of artifice, Alex offers his help, which Connie gratefully accepts – some of those books are bloody heavy!

Connie has noticed Alex before, of course, but being a widow of advanced years (she’s twenty-eight!) knows she’s never going to be able to do more than look. Even though she’s about to sign the contracts for her betrothal to Jasper Dankworth, her godmother’s nephew, she decides to live a little and enjoy Alex’s company for the brief period they can spend together. Alex proves to be a good companion – kind, intelligent and deeply honourable, in spite of his rakish reputation with the ladies.

Their brief idyll ends and Alex returns to London on the same day as Connie’s soon-to-be-betrothed arrives. Connie married for love the first time, but things did not work out at all well, so she has determined that her second marriage will be for more practical reasons. Dankworth is young and good-looking, although known to be a little unsteady. Lord and Lady Downholland think that marriage to Connie will settle him down, and are keen to promote the match, which will also keep their property in the family, as they have no children of their own and Connie is the closest thing they have to a daughter.

The contracts are signed and a date for the wedding is set. Connie travels to London in order to make her own preparations – but never reaches her destination. Dankworth’s need for money has become desperate and he has found himself a bigger prize, but breaking his contract with Connie will ruin him. So he comes up with a vile plan which will enable him to legally rid himself of any obligations. He has Connie drugged, abducted and taken to a Covent Garden brothel, there to be publicly auctioned off to the highest bidder.

This aspect of the plot may seem a little far-fetched at first glance, but it’s true that these sorts of auctions did take place at the time and that the “auctioneers” were less than scrupulous about the provenance of their “goods”.

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

Not Quite a Wife by Mary Jo Putney

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Marry in haste, repent at leisure. James, Lord Kirkland, owns a shipping fleet, half a London gaming house, and is a ruthlessly effective spymaster. He is seldom self-indulgent. . .except when it comes to the gentle, indomitable beauty who was once his wife.

Laurel Herbert gave James her heart as an innocent young girl–until she saw him perform an act of shocking violence before her very eyes. That night she left her husband, and he let her go without a word of protest.

Now, ten years later, a chance encounter turns passionate, with consequences that cannot be ignored. But as they try to rebuild what was broken, they must face common enemies and a very uncommon love. . .

Rating: C-

This, the sixth book in Ms Putney’s Lost Lords series tells the story of a couple who have been estranged for over a decade. I’m a sucker for a good second-chance romance, so this book seemed as though it would be right up my alley – and while it did tick a few of my favourite boxes, there are some really big flaws that I found it impossible to ignore, and which kept pulling me out of the story.

James, Lord Kirkland, and his wife Laurel fell in love at first sight and were married in their teens. They parted after only a year of marriage and have lived separate lives for over a decade when they are unexpectedly reunited. On a visit to Bristol, Kirkland is beset by a malaria attack, and, in his weakened state, is set upon by thieves. Bruised, battered and bloody, he is found in the street and taken to the local infirmary, which is run by Daniel Herbert – a former friend – and his sister, Laurel, who is known by everyone as Miss Herbert, having kept the fact of her marriage a secret. Needless to say, she is not only stunned to see her husband injured, she is astonished at seeing him at all, given they have not had anything to do with each other for such a long time.

Later that night, having treated Kirkland’s physical injuries and given him something to lower his fever, an accidental touch ignites something long denied in both of them, and they indulge in a completely unexpected act of passion. The next morning, Laurel’s hopes that Kirkland will remember nothing of their lovemaking are realised, and she sends him on his way as soon as his manservant arrives to assist him.

Laurel’s life since she left her husband has been filled with work. She assists her brother – a doctor – at the infirmary they have established, and also runs a refuge for women escaping abusive relationships called Zion House. She enjoys her work and her life – although Kirkland’s reappearance has awaked something in her she had thought long since buried. But her work at the infirmary and the refuge keep her very busy – so busy, in fact, that she doesn’t immediately realise that her body clock is off. But when she does notice, she knows that there is only one possible explanation.

Even though she knows that, once born, Kirkland will have the right to take the child away from her should he so wish, Laurel has no thoughts of concealing her pregnancy. When he is informed of it, James rushes immediately to Bristol, suggesting to Laurel that they should try to find a way to live together amicably for the sake of the child. They agree to a compromise that will see Laurel spending most of her time in Bristol and visiting London occasionally; and Kirkland asks her to spend a month in London with him straightaway. The fact that there has actually been a Lady Kirkland for the last decade is bound to cause rather a stir and James wants to start to introduce her to society. Because Laurel left him very shortly after their extended honeymoon, nobody knew of the marriage except immediate family.

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

Mastering the Marquess by Lavinia Kent

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One night of fierce passion and unbound pleasure leaves two strangers craving much more in Lavinia Kent’s sumptuous novel of sensual discovery.

The time has come for the widow Louisa, Lady Brookingston, to move on, but she refuses to remarry at the cost of shaming her late husband’s memory. Their six years together were wedded bliss—even if a war injury prevented him from fulfilling his marital duties. Only one woman can help Louisa: Madame Rouge, the discreet proprietress of a club where London’s elite explore their wildest fantasies.

Geoffrey, the Marquess of Swanston, has no intention of agreeing to deflower an anonymous virgin. But when Madame Rouge tempts him with the absolute power he’ll have over a woman who knows nothing of carnal delights, he’s intrigued. Control is the one thing he cannot resist—and control is what he loses during his night with the blindfolded beauty. He longs to take her further, to leave his mark upon her perfect behind, but the mystery woman refuses to see him again. Instead Geoffrey reluctantly agrees to take a wife, the widow of his dear friend, Lord Brookingston—fating them both to a wicked surprise.

Rating: B-

Mastering the Marquess is an erotic historical romance (strictly M/F) in which a young widow’s sexual awakening at the hands (and other body parts!) of a man who values control in all aspects of his life proves to him that maybe allowing someone get close to him isn’t such a bad thing.

Lady Louisa Brookingston is that rare thing – a virgin widow. Her late husband – her childhood sweetheart – was badly injured in the war, so badly that he was left unable to perform his husbandly duties. Louisa is still young enough to have a family of her own and wants to remarry, but doesn’t want to tarnish her husband’s reputation by going to her second husband in her untried state. She seeks help from a discreet madam – Madame Rouge – whose select, high-class brothel she knew her husband had visited regularly during their marriage. Louisa wants to divest herself of her maidenhead, and wants to do so discreetly before she begins to look about her for a suitable husband.

Madame has just the man – one she knows will be considerate and sure to give the virginal Louisa the best night of her life. Geoffrey Danser, Marquess of Swanston, is a man who exerts an iron control over all facets of his life – and especially enjoys doing so in the bedroom. At first, he is disinclined to deflower a virgin but Madame entices him by reminding him of how much he enjoys instructing his partners in the delights of bedsport, and by suggesting how much more exciting he will find it to initiate a partner who has no idea of what is “normal” and what isn’t.

The assignation is arranged. Neither party will be made privy to the other’s identity, and will be masked or blindfolded during their encounter in order to ensure their anonymity. After her initial nervousness, Louisa realises the inability to see her partner is strangely freeing, and finds herself at last able to indulge her sexual curiosity. Geoffrey finds himself responding to her in a way he hadn’t anticipated and the pair discovers a completely unexpected companionship which leaves them unable to forget their night together.

Louisa can now embark upon her search for a husband in earnest and Geoffrey can go back to his highly controlled life and his discreet sexual liaisons – except for the fact that his father’s latest ridiculous scheme sees him needing to find a large sum of money quickly if he is to avert disaster – and the only way he can lay his hands on a fortune that fast is to marry one.

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

The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla by Lauren Willig (audiobook) – Narrated by Kate Reading

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In October of 1806, the Little Season is in full swing, and Sally Fitzhugh has had enough of the endless parties and balls. With a rampant vampire craze sparked by the novel The Convent of Orsino, it seems no one can speak of anything else. But when Sally hears a rumor that the reclusive Duke of Belliston is an actual vampire, she cannot resist the challenge of proving such nonsense false. At a ball in Belliston Square, she ventures across the gardens and encounters the mysterious Duke.

Lucien, Duke of Belliston, is well versed in the trouble gossip can bring. He’s returned home to dispel the rumors of scandal surrounding his parents’ deaths, which hint at everything from treason to dark sorcery. While he searches for the truth, he welcomes his fearsome reputation—until a woman is found dead in Richmond. Her blood drained from her throat.

Lucien and Sally join forces to stop the so-called vampire from killing again. Someone managed to get away with killing the last Duke of Belliston. But they won’t kill this duke—not if Sally has anything to say about it.

Rating: Narration A; Content: A

The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla is the penultimate in Lauren Willig’s highly entertaining Pink Carnation series, and, as with the books that precede it, has a dual storyline which switches between the early nineteenth and twenty-first centuries as American grad student Eloise pursues her research into the life and times of the Pink Carnation as well as her relationship with her English boyfriend, Colin. While this book perhaps deviates somewhat from the series’ roots in the tales of the espionage and counter-espionage being practiced by the English and French during the Napoleonic Wars, it’s nonetheless a thoroughly enjoyable story which is brought vividly to life by the utterly splendid Kate Reading.

We first met Sarah – Sally – Fitzhugh in The Mischief of the Mistletoe, (Book 7 in the series). She is now in her second season, and the story opens at a soirée being held at a house next door to that of the Duke of Belliston – who, rumour has it, is a vampire.

Sally is a wonderfully no-nonsense young woman, and pooh-poohs that suggestion instantly. Since the publication of The Convent of Orsino, a gothic novel written by Lizzie’s stepmother (formerly Miss Gwendolyn Meadows, confidante of the infamous Pink Carnation), London has been overtaken by vampire fever, and even being a duke is not enough to avoid suspicion and gossip. Bored by the party – and by the season as a whole – Sally takes up her friends’ challenge to beard the supposed vampire in his den, and makes her way into the garden next door – only to be immediately accosted by the purported creature of the night himself. And the sparks start to fly.

“I am not trespassing,” Sally said haughtily. “I was simply admiring your foliage.”

The Duke of Belliston arched one brow. “Has anyone warned you that strange plants might have thorns?”

If she had wanted a lesson in horticulture, she would have consulted a gardener. “Has anyone ever told you that it is exceedingly annoying to speak in aphorisms?”

For a moment, a flicker of something that might have been amusement showed in his dark eyes. Amusement, or merely the reflected light of the candle. “Yes,” he said. “It tends to truncate conversation quite effectively.”

Sally wasn’t accustomed to allowing herself to be truncated.

Ms Reading’s delivery in passages such as this is one of the many highlights of her performance. She has a wonderful way of delivering dead-pan utterances without overdoing it, which is an excellent match for Ms Willig’s clever humour.

The duke is quite aware of his reputation and appears unaffected by it. But Sally is annoyed at the cruel gossip she continually hears being circulated about him, and is determined not only to learn more about him but to champion him.

Lucien, Duke of Belliston doesn’t want a champion, or even to integrate himself back into the society from which he fled twelve years ago. He has returned to England from Louisiana, where he has been living with his mother’s family, determined to discover the identity of the person who murdered both his parents when he was a boy. Dogged by gossip and haunted by his past, he’s a troubled young man who has finally come to realise that it’s time for him to stop running, find out the truth and bring the murderer to justice.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

The Truth About Leo by Katie MacAllister

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Can Dagmar flee Denmark

Dagmar Marie Sophie is a poverty-stricken Danish princess whose annoying royal cousin is about to have her stuffed away in a convent. When she finds a wounded man unconscious in her garden, she sees a way out of her desperate situation.

By Lying to Leo?

Leopold Ernst George Mortimer, seventh earl of March, and spy in the service of the king, finds himself on the wrong end of a saber and left for dead. He wakes up not remembering what happened…in the care of a beautiful woman who says she is his wife.

Back in London, Leo-with the help of his old friends the eccentric Britton family-sets out to unravel what he’s forgotten… Is Dagmar truly the wonderful, irrepressible woman who makes his heart sing, or is she a dangerous enigma bent on his destruction?

Rating: C-

The Truth About Leo is the fourth book in Ms MacAllister’s Noble series, the first of which, Noble Intentions was released over a decade ago. Two more books followed, but Ms MacAllister turned her attention elsewhere after the third, and has only now returned to the Regency era with this new addition to the series.

I had a good idea of what I’d be getting when I requested this book. I reviewed the audiobook version of book one, Noble Intentions a while back, and said that it was “a well-done piece of romantic fluff” in the vein of a slapstick comedy, so I was looking forward to more of the same. I don’t know whether the humour I found in that audiobook came more from the performance than the material, or whether it’s just a better book, but whatever the reason, The Truth About Leo doesn’t measure up – it falls flat, and, because the author is trying too hard to be funny just – isn’t.

Leo Mortimer, Earl of March, works for the British government and is making his way to Berlin from Russia via Denmark. Stopping to rescue a kitten from a tree proves to be a very bad idea, because after heroic efforts on behalf of the imperilled feline, he is beaten, stabbed and left for dead in the back garden of the Yellow House, the residence of Her Serene Highness, the Princess Dagmar Marie Sophie of Sonderburg-Beck and her English companion, Julia.

Dagmar is in dire straits. Her cousin, the Crown Prince, who for some, unexplained reason detests her, is planning to evict her within a matter of days, and Dagmar has nowhere else to go. She has no other relatives she can turn to, she certainly doesn’t fancy the idea of living out the rest of her days in a convent, as her cousin has threatened, and even though she’s half-English, she cannot obtain passage to England due to the unforeseen lack of available transport because of the recent decimation of the Danish fleet.

It seems there is only one way she can possibly get out of Denmark, and that would be if she were the wife of an English officer. But where on earth is she going to find one of those at short notice? And even were she to find one, how can she convince him to marry her?

Yep. You’re way ahead of me.

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

Ten Ways to be Adored When Landing a Lord (Love by the Numbers #2) by Sarah Maclean (audiobook) – narrated by Mary Jane Wells

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Since being named “London’s Lord to Land” by a popular ladies’ magazine, Nicholas St. John has been relentlessly pursued by every matrimony-minded female in the ton. So when an opportunity to escape fashionable society presents itself, he eagerly jumps—only to land in the path of the most determined, damnably delicious woman he’s ever met!

The daughter of a titled wastrel, Lady Isabel Townsend has too many secrets and too little money. Though she is used to taking care of herself quite handily, her father’s recent passing has left Isabel at sea and in need of outside help to protect her young brother’s birthright. The sinfully handsome, eminently eligible Lord Nicholas could be the very salvation she seeks.

But the lady must be wary and not do anything reckless and foolish…like falling madly, passionately in love.

Rating: Narration B+, Content B

It’s been a while since I read Sarah Maclean’s Love By The Numbers trilogy, but I remember liking this – the middle book – the best out of the three. The hero is Lord Nicholas St. John, a bit of a nineteenth century Indiana Jones – an adventurer and expert in antiquities whose exploits in foreign lands have landed him in hot water on numerous occasions. Returned to England, he has been identified – much to his mortification – as London’s most eligible bachelor and is now the subject of a series of magazine articles devoted to the techniques a young lady might employ in order to “land a lord.” Partly to escape the hordes of young women batting their eyelashes at him, and partly to help the Duke of Leighton, Nick travels to Yorkshire on the trail of Leighton’s sister, who has mysteriously disappeared.

His enquiries lead him to the small and uninspiring village of Dunscroft in Yorkshire. He and his Turkish companion, Durukhan – or Rock, for short – can find no further trace of the runaway, and are trying to work out what to do when Nick dashes off in order to save a young woman from walking into the path of a runaway cart.

The woman is Lady Isabel Townsend, daughter of the recently deceased “wastreal”, the Earl of Reddich. Her father was an inveterate and unlucky gambler who left nothing when he died, so she worries constantly about how she is going to maintain the estate until her ten-year-old brother is old enough to take the reins. Not only that, but she is keeping a massive secret. Townsend Park has a double identity as Minerva House, a sanctuary for young women escaping from impossible and abusive situations.

Isabel has very reluctantly decided to sell the collection of marble statuary bequeathed to her by her mother in order to purchase a new property for the refuge. Given that Nick is a member of the Royal Society of Antiquities, his arrival is timely. He agrees to catalogue and value the collection for sale. But then Isabel is faced with a massive problem: how to keep Nick and Rock from discovering the secret of Minerva House? And once she has spent more time around the handsome and very charming Nicholas St. John, how to curb her growing attraction to him?

Nick finds himself similarly fascinated by his hostess, and it doesn’t take him long to work out what her prickly manner is hiding. His thing for damsels in distress has landed him in deep trouble before, yet he doesn’t allow that to stop him from offering Isabel his help. But she finds it difficult to accept assistance, and even more difficult to trust others. Her father’s irresponsibility has led her to believe that men can’t be trusted, an impression only reinforced by the stories of cruelty suffered by the women she has taken in at Minerva house.

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

The Laird (Captive Hearts #3) by Grace Burrowes

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The morning after Michael Brodie marries the lovely Brenna, he marches off to join Wellington’s army, leaving his new wife alone with his unseemly Uncle Angus and an estate to manage.

Ten years later, when Michael finally returns home, he discovers a nest of vicious lies, tales of disloyalty, and most surprising of all, a blossoming love for the woman he left behind.

But his beloved is keeping a dark secret from him. A secret that begins to unfold when Michael’s young sister joins their household, and Uncle Angus’ true nature is revealed.

Rating: A-

This is the final book in Ms Burrowes’ Captive Heartstrilogy, which has focused on three men who were profoundly affected by their experiences during the Napoleonic Wars. In the previous book, The Traitor, we learned that Michael Brodie, half-Scot, half-Irish, had been sent to protect Sebastian St. Clair – or Robert Girard as he was then known – while he carried out his work as an interrogator in the French army. The reasoning behind Michael’s deployment was complicated (basically, Sebastian had proved himself a valuable asset to the British and Wellington wanted him kept there and kept safe), and also meant that, even after the cessation of hostilities, Michael felt unable to go home given the frequency of the threats made against St Clair’s life.

The Laird is the story of Michael’s homecoming and of all the difficulties he has to face upon coming back to the land he has not seen for nine years and, more importantly, the bride he left after their (unconsummated) wedding night. The overall tone of the story is somewhat different to the other two and, indeed, to many others of Ms Burrowes’ books, but it is no less compelling for that.

Michael’s wife, Brenna, was sixteen when they married, having been brought up at Castle Brodie since the age of eight. After their wedding, she begged Michael to take her to France with him, but not wanting to subject her to that sort of hardship, he refused. He also refused to consummate their marriage because he didn’t want to leave her pregnant – although as the story progresses, we discover there was another reason behind that decision. And he also had no way of knowing that Brenna’s desperation to leave with him was due to more than the unwillingness of a bride to be separated from her new husband. Michael concedes that Brenna has every right to be angry with him for his extended absence, but there is something else behind her wall of cool stand-offishness that he can’t quite work out.

So Michael has returned to a wife he barely knows and who is full of anger, resentment and, he is surprised to realise, fear – as well as to a home and lands which are much changed since he left. The estate is failing, his tenants are wary of him, and, for no reason he can fathom, have taken his wife into active dislike. Even though she has provided financial assistance to those who have defaulted on their tenancies and then decided to make a life overseas rather than to scrape a meagre existence in the large coastal towns, and even though she continues to help the community as best she can, Brenna is treated with discourtesy and thinly veiled hostility.

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