Romancing the Duke by Tessa Dare (audiobook) – narrated by Carmen Rose

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As the daughter of a famed author, Isolde Ophelia Goodnight grew up on tales of brave knights and fair maidens. She never doubted romance would be in her future, too. The storybooks offered endless possibilities.

And as she grew older, Izzy crossed them off. One by one by one.
• Ugly duckling turned swan?
• Abducted by handsome highwayman?
• Rescued from drudgery by charming prince?

No, no, and . . . Heh.

Now Izzy’s given up yearning for romance. She’ll settle for a roof over her head. What fairy tales are left over for an impoverished twenty-six year-old woman who’s never even been kissed?

This one.

Rating: B- for narration, B+ for content

Tessa Dare is, in my book, the undisputed queen of the sexy, funny, screwball-style historical romance. Her latest series, Castles Ever After, begins with Romancing the Duke which is full of her trademark humour as well as delivering a deeply felt romance featuring two thoroughly engaging protagonists.

Isolde Ophelia (Izzy) Goodnight has been left almost destitute following the death of her father, a famous author of childrens’ stories. When she discovers, completely out of the blue, that she has been left a bequest in her godfather’s will, she uses the last of her meagre finances to travel to Gostley Castle in Northumberland to meet with the executor at his request. On arrival, she meets a dishevelled but devastatingly handsome man who proclaims himself to be Ransom Vane, Duke of Rothbury and owner of the castle – but when the executor arrives, he informs her that SHE is now the owner, as the castle had been purchased by her godfather some months before.

Both Izzy and Ransom are aghast. For one thing, Ransom has holed up at the castle intent on the biggest self-pity party in the history of the universe following an incident which left him scarred and almost blind – and he most definitely does NOT want company. He also knows that he has not sold the property, and is adamant that Izzy must leave. For her part, Izzy had hoped for a monetary bequest to support herself – instead, she is confronted with a huge, dilapidated, bat-and-rat-infested castle in the north of England. But Izzy has elevated the practice of “making the best of things” to an art form in her twenty-six years – she informs Ransom that she’s not leaving and starts making plans to set the place to rights.

Ransom is still determined to get rid of her and tries everything he can think of – which includes presenting himself as a threat to her virtue by kissing her senseless – but Izzy won’t be deterred and in any case, she has nowhere else to go. So they strike a bargain. Because of his injury, Ransom is unable to deal with the huge mountain of correspondence which has arrived over the last seven months – in which, Izzy suggests, they might find documentation about the supposed sale – and she offers to act as his secretary.

During the course of their work, it becomes apparent that there is something insidious afoot, which could cost Ransom more than his run-down castle.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Mr (not quite) Perfect by Jessica Hart

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What do women really want?

Journalist Allegra Fielding has a problem. She’s pitched a story to her boss – how to transform a not-so-perfect man into Prince Charming – and now she has to deliver! But where is she going to find a man willing to take part in a makeover? Time to blackmail her flatmate, Max…

But Allegra’s cunning plan backfires spectacularly when Max refuses to be ‘perfected’! He’s a guy who knows what he likes, and he’s going to enjoy proving to Allegra that there’s nothing hotter than a man who’s a little rough around the edges…

Rating: A

This month’s prompt for the Multi-Blog Reading Challenge was to read a Contemporary Romance. Actually, this is where the “challenge” part of a reading challenge comes into play, because it made me pick up a book in a genre I don’t read much any more. I admit, I have probably welched on it to some extent though, because the book I picked up was a) something a couple of my AAR colleagues rated very highly, so I was pretty sure I’d like it, and b) a category romance, which meant it was something I could whip through in a couple of hours. That wasn’t because I didn’t want to read something longer – I did actually have another book in mind – but I was running out of time and didn’t want to miss the deadline.

Mr (not quite) Perfect is a charming and sexy friends-to-lovers story which, while it may be eminently predictable, is elevated into something a bit special by the quality of the writing and characterisation. I know that Mills and Boon/Harlequin books take a lot of flack sometimes for being too simplistic and/or too formulaic, but they have a good number of writers in their stable who are able to freshen up those formulas by means of intelligent and inventive writing; and I have a huge admiration for those among them who are able to do that while also putting out 4-6 books a year.

Allegra Fielding is a junior feature writer for a fashion magazine called Glitz and is longing for the opportunity to prove herself to her fearsome editor and earn herself a promotion – and at the beginning of the book, she thinks she has come up with the way to do just that. Given that many women bemoan the fact that the men in their lives are lacking in some way (they don’t dress well, don’t cook, aren’t romantic enough…) Allegra hits on the idea of turning a “Mr Average” into a “Mr Perfect” and writing an article about it. In order to do that, of course, she has to find herself a willing guinea pig – who takes the form of Max, her best friend’s brother.

Allegra and Max have known each other for years; she thinks of him as her friend’s straight-laced, boring brother, and he sees her as his sister’s ditsy, frivolous friend. Max has recently split up with his fiancée and has temporarily moved into the house Allegra shares with his sister while she is away in Paris. Allegra tells Max this is her big chance, her breakthrough article – and mentions that it will involve him going out with a famous underwear model, which is certainly an added inducement, but Max can also see how important this is to Allegra and he agrees to help her.

Of course, this throws them more into each other’s company, which they both believe accounts for the fact that they are beginning to look at one another differently and to feel a pull between them of something other than friendship.

For a category romance, the characterisations are surprisingly deep. Both Max and Allegra have perceptions about each other which are challenged as things progress, and Allegra has a very interesting relationship with her mother, who is a kind of female Jeremy Paxman (a British journalist well known for ripping politicians to shreds on the TV every night!). Max is a lovely guy – ordinary, perhaps, but not boring, and one who sounds and thinks like a bloke (something that doesn’t always occur in romance novels!), but isn’t afraid to put himself out there when push comes to shove.

The friendship between Max and Allegra is extremely well written, the dialogue feels very naturalistic and much of it is very funny. The sexual tension between them builds beautifully, and when they finally do give into their urges and hit the sheets, the language is far from explicit but the scene is hot enough to blister paint.

One of the best things about the book is that, by the end of it, both Max and Allegra have grown a bit and come to realise that sometimes the thing you want (or think you want) isn’t necessarily the thing you need. Max learns that perhaps making an effort occasionally isn’t a bad thing while Allegra comes to see that ‘ordinary’ doesn’t have to mean ‘boring’ or ‘unexciting’. Mr (not quite) Perfect is a superb read from start to finish, and is certainly worth a few hours of any romance fan’s time.

How to Master Your Marquis by Juliana Gray (audiobook) – narrated by Heather Wilds

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Of all her sisters, Princess Stefanie is by far the least amenable to law and order, which is why she’s appalled to find herself masquerading as an unbearably drab clerk for the most honorable barrister in England. But her dull disguise turns out to have its privileges: namely, the opportunity to consort unchaperoned with her employer’s exceedingly handsome nephew, James Lambert, the Marquess of Hatherfield.

Hatherfield quickly realizes that his uncle’s spirited new clerk is, in fact, a lovely young woman of daring habits. The outwardly impeccable marquis isn’t about to reveal her deception. After all, he’s hiding a dangerous secret of his own. But when one too many escapades with the madcap princess bring Hatherfield’s troubled past to light, it is only Stefanie’s sharp wits that stand between the marquis and utter disaster, and only Hatherfield’s daring that can save the princess from the shadowy agents bent on finding her

Rating: B+ for narration and B for content

I reviewed the first title in Ms Gray’s A Princess in Hiding Romance trilogy – How to Tame Your Duke – narrated by Veida Dehmlow, and enjoyed it in spite of a few reservations about both story and performance. This second book in the set boasts a different narrator, and having enjoyed Ms Wild’s performance in Julie Garwood’s Castles, I was keen to listen to her again.

The premise of the series is that three princesses from a minor (and fictional) German principality have to go into hiding following the assassination of their father. Their uncle – the powerful and machiavellian Duke of Olympia – has arranged for each of the girls to be smuggled to different parts of Britain, disguised as young men and given employment in lowly occupations, incognito, in order to ensure their safety. To say I’m not a fan of the whole cross-dressing thing is an understatement, but it’s a tribute to Ms Gray’s storytelling ability that she was able to make me like this book despite my dislike of that particular trope.

Princess Stefanie, the youngest of the three sisters, is the joker in the pack. She’s unconventional, spirited and full of fun, so placing her in the stuffy chambers of one of London’s foremost legal minds may not be the best fit for her, but Olympia has his reasons. At her first meeting with her new employer, Sir John Worthington, she also meets his friend, James Lambert, the Marquis of Hatherfield, who happens to be the most gorgeous man on the planet. As a result, she finds the prospect of spending time under Sir John’s roof a much more attractive one.

Much of the story is told in flashback, a device I rather enjoy. When done well – as here – it really helps to build tension, and I like getting glimpses of the characters “in the present” and then finding out how they got there.

Following the first meeting between the principals in the prologue, we jump forward a few months to the Old Bailey, where Hatherfield is on trial for the murder of his stepmother. It’s clear that he and Stefanie are already in a relationship, but as Stefanie is still in disguise and working for the counsel for the defence, whatever is between them must remain a secret, so as not to reveal Stefanie’s true identity.

Despite the fact that the story centres around a murder trial, there’s a lot of humour in the book, much of it stemming from Stefanie’s rather “manful” attempts to be seen as one of the boys. There’s also some terrific dialogue between her and the Marquis; her natural vivacity and impish sense of humour make her a very attractive character and a perfect match for Hatherfield, who might be the most beautiful man she’s ever seen, but is also a bit of a dull dog. However, he wouldn’t be the perfect romantic hero without a bit of a tortured past, and his is a particularly distressing one. He’s the antithesis of the sort of hero who typically inhabits the pages of many an historical romance, because most of the time he behaves like a responsible adult!

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan (audiobook) – narrated by Rosalyn Landor

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Sebastian Malheur is the most dangerous sort of rake: an educated one. When he’s not scandalizing ladies in the bedchamber, he’s outraging proper society with his scientific theories. He’s desired, reviled, acclaimed, and despised—and he laughs through it all.

Violet Waterfield, the widowed Countess of Cambury, on the other hand, is entirely respectable, and she’d like to stay that way. But Violet has a secret that is beyond ruinous, one that ties her irrevocably to England’s most infamous scoundrel: Sebastian’s theories aren’t his. They’re hers.

So when Sebastian threatens to dissolve their years-long conspiracy, she’ll do anything to save their partnership…even if it means opening her vulnerable heart to the rake who could destroy it for good.

Rating: A for narration, A for content

I read The Countess Conspiracy immediately upon its release back in December and it was easily one of my favourite books of 2013. Reading it was a highly emotional experience, however, and I had to keep taking breaks because I found it so intense. It’s clearly a book that’s very close to its author’s heart, paying tribute as it does to all the “forgotten” women of history, specifically those who were involved in the numerous scientific discoveries made in the nineteenth century, but who were derided or dismissed because of their sex.

For a book of average length, the novel is very complex, with multiple plot threads weaving themselves in and around the lives of the two protagonists. We have met them before, albeit briefly, in the previous books in the series, The Duchess War and The Heiress Effect. Sebastian Malheur is cousin to Robert, Duke of Clermont and his half-brother Oliver Marshall; Violet, the widowed Countess of Cambury more or less grew up with Robert and Sebastian as their family estates were close together.

In the previous books, Sebastian was shown to be the joker of the group. Even though his scientific work has made him an object of disgust and ridicule in some circles, he nonetheless maintains a happy-go-lucky manner which, combined with his handsome features and devastating charm, makes him the life and soul of any party. He’s highly intelligent, witty, and the kind of man who is able to put even the most nervous of people at their ease, yet, one of his most attractive qualities is his inability to realise just how clever he actually is. Even he thinks of himself as a bit of a waste of space, a view which is further reinforced by the fact that his elder brother keeps insisting Sebastian has made nothing of his life.

Violet is Sebastian’s complete opposite. She’s tightly buttoned up and lets nobody get close to her. Her eleven-year marriage was unhappy and, by the last years, she had become incredibly withdrawn and subject to frequent and increasingly dangerous bouts of illness.

Both Sebastian and Violet have complicated relationships with their respective families; Violet’s mother, in particular, is an incredibly intriguing character who, while a stickler for propriety on the surface, would nonetheless do anything to ensure the safety of her two daughters. And Sebastian desperately wants his brother’s approval. But the complications of these familial relationships are almost nothing compared to the difficulties that are faced by Sebastian and Violet in their own incredibly complex partnership.

As a woman, Violet’s scientific discoveries were not taken seriously. Five years earlier, Sebastian had the idea of presenting her work as his – just to see if the academic establishment would take Violet’s ideas and concepts seriously with a man’s name on the work. Once her paper was accepted, Violet asked Sebastian to continue as her mouthpiece, so to speak. Over the years, Sebastian has become almost as much of an expert in their chosen field as Violet. Nobody knows of their collaboration but the deception has begun to take its toll on Sebastian and at the beginning of the story, he tells Violet he can no longer continue.

Violet is devastated. All she has is her work – her work is her identity and she feels as though her entire world has been ripped out from under her.

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

Once a Rake by Eileen Dreyer

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All he wants is her help . . .

Colonel Ian Ferguson may be a rake, but he’s no traitor. Accused of trying to kill the Duke of Wellington, the disgraced Scotsman is now a fugitive–from the law, the army, and the cunning assassin who hunts him. Wounded and miles from his allies, Ian finds himself at the mercy of an impoverished country wife. The spirited woman is achingly beautiful . . . and hiding some dangerous secrets of her own.

All she needs is his heart . . .

She was a child nobody wanted. Now for Lady Sarah Clarke, holding on to her vanished husband’s crumbling estate is her final chance to earn respectability. She knows that hiding the devastatingly handsome Ferguson will jeopardize her home. Common sense demands that she turn him in. But a single, delirious kiss shatters her resolve . . . and awakens a passion that neither of them can escape

Rating: B

Once a Rake is the fourth book in Ms Dreyer’s Drake’s Rakes series, in which the titular rakes are in fact a group of English gentlemen-spies who are working to root out traitors and wrong-doers as part of Britain’s fight against Bonaparte. I haven’t read the previous books in the series, and although this one can be enjoyed as a standalone, there were a couple of times I found myself wishing I had a bit more background information. But that wasn’t often, and it didn’t cause me any major problems in following the storyline.

The thing that hooked me in straight away was the quality of the writing, which had great warmth and depth to it. Our heroine, Lady Sarah Clarke, is working herself into the ground trying to run her small estate with very little help, and to cope with her self-centred mother-in-law and frequently petulant fifteen year-old sister-in-law. Sarah’s husband is in the army and has not been heard from for months and his smarmy cousin, Martin, is his heir. Martin is convinced his cousin is dead, so wants the ladies out of the house and off the land – and isn’t above employing underhand tactics to get what he wants.

Sarah is the illegitimate child of a duke who disowned her, constantly slighted her, and reminded her of her status as a “nobody”. Since his death, her brother has taken the same position, and even arranged for her to be married off, using a dowry as a bribe – a dowry which was then spent by her husband in purchasing his commission.

Money is scarce, and Sarah works hard on the farm and to keep her little family together, even though Lady Clarke the elder shows her little real consideration. Even so, because Sarah has never really had anywhere she can call home, or anywhere she feels she has ever belonged, this is the closest thing to family she has ever had. Still, the intensity of her feelings of isolation and loneliness leap off the page.

Given the struggle she has to keep things on a reasonably even keel, the last thing Sarah needs is to find a wounded man hiding out in one of her barns.

Colonel Ian Ferguson, an officer in the Black Watch, is on the run, having been accused of making an attempt on the life of the Duke of Wellington. Badly wounded as he made his escape, Ian needs to travel to London to meet with Lord Marcus Drake, so that he can both exonerate himself and impart the information he has gained as to the identity of the would-be assassin, but he is too weak to undertake such a journey. Torn between wanting to help an injured man and the knowledge that his discovery could bring serious repercussions for her family, Sarah reluctantly agrees to let him remain at Fairbourne until he is recovered enough to move.

There’s an immediate current of attraction between Ian and Sarah – even though they both realise that nothing can come of it. For one thing, Sarah has a husband, and for another, Ian is betrothed to a society lady, one who shares his reformist views and who he believes will be the perfect partner to help him navigate his way through political society. Then there’s the fact that he’s a wanted man and she’s illegitimate, poor and insignificant.

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

The Leopard Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt

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The One Thing a Lady Must Never Do…

Wealthy Lady Georgina Maitland doesn’t want a husband, though she could use a good steward to run her estates. One look at Harry Pye, and Georgina knows she’s not just dealing with a servant, but a man.

Is Fall In Love…

Harry has known many aristocrats—including one particular nobleman who is his sworn enemy. But Harry has never met a beautiful lady so independent, uninhibited, and eager to be in his arms.

With Her Servant.

Still, it’s impossible to conduct a discreet liaison when poisoned sheep, murdered villagers, and an enraged magistrate have the county in an uproar. The locals blame Harry for everything. Soon it’s all Georgina can do to keep her head above water and Harry’s out of the noose…without missing another night of love.

Rating: A

This book has been on my TBR pile for quite some time, so when I saw that one of the prompts for the AAR Days of the Week Reading Challenge was to read a book in which the hero or heroine is a landowner, a farmer, a gardener, a botanist, or a book that has the words “garden” or “flower” in its title, or the book is set in the country side, I immediately added the it to my list.

There are many historical romances which feature a central couple of unequal status or fortune. Dukes, Earls and Marquesses fall in love with governesses and companions all the time, but it is less usual to find the inequality working the other way, and have a wealthy, titled heroine falling for a commoner and working man. But that’s the premise here, and Ms Hoyt explores the double standard – held to an extent by the protagonists themselves as well as by wider society – in a way which feels quite realistic.

Lady Georgina (known as “George”) Maitland is the daughter of an earl who has spent most of her twenty-eight years in the thick of London society. Unusually for the time, she owns property in her own right, having recently been bequeathed an estate – Woldsly Manor – in Yorkshire, and when the book opens, is travelling there in the company of her land steward of six months, Mr Harry Pye.

Soon after their arrival, they discover that all is not well, both on the Woldsly estate and others in the locality. Large numbers of sheep are being poisoned – and the local squire and magistrate, Silas Granville, who has a long-standing grudge against Harry, insists that he is responsible.

Georgina, who is quite capable of making her own judgement as to the character of her steward, does not believe this for an instant, which rather surprises Harry. He’s well aware of the fact that the upper classes are far more likely to take the word of one of their own than to take the part of a servant – something which is borne out by his own experience.

But George is not your average aristocrat. She’s independent – both of mind and financially – clever and a bit of a free-thinker, and isn’t prepared to let an innocent man be wrongly accused. She is also strongly attracted to Harry (who may be described as unremarkable, but who is seriously HOT), as is he to her – but the huge difference in their stations presents something of an obstacle.

Harry is very much his own man. The son of a gamekeeper, he spent time in the poorhouse before leaving when he was old enough and, because of his good instinct for land management rose quickly to become a land steward at a young age. He’s intelligent, hard-working, honourable and blessed with a good dose of common sense. He might not be a gentleman by birth, but he is frequently shown to advantage when contrasted against Granville and his eldest son, who are indolent, greedy and selfish, the worst kind of landowner and surely, the type of man least deserving of the label of “gentleman”.

George and Harry are in the grip of a lust like they’ve never before experienced – but George knows that she will have to make the first move. The problem is, she has no idea how to go about it and Harry isn’t going to make it easy for her. He’s a proud man, and even though he wants George desperately, he also isn’t prepared to be taken up as a bit of rough on the side and discarded when his lady has sated her curiosity.

I thoroughly enjoyed the way the relationship between Harry and George developed. Their growing awareness of each other, their deepening attraction – and the eventual and combustible consummation were all very well written, and Elizabeth Hoyt certainly delivers in the combustible department! The build-up of sexual tension between the pair is very skilfully done and the sex scenes are deliciously earthy and hot. I think the book’s being set in the mid 18th century and away from London made a romance between the pair more believable than if it had been set in the more obsessively “proper” 19th century among the hotbed of London society.

The suspense plot is well handled, too, with plenty of twists, turns and the odd red herring; and there is a strong cast of secondary characters, not least of which are Granville’s two sons, whose characteristics and actions do much to illuminate the extremely unpleasant character of their father.

Up until the last 15 or 20 percent of the book, I was convinced it was going to be an A+ read – until George does something so completely out of character that it left me scratching my head. It didn’t ruin the book, but it did draw out the ending unnecessarily and made no sense, so I had lower the grade a little bit.

Other than that, however, this is a wonderful book, and Harry is one swoonworthy hero. I hope to be able to get to the other two books in the series soon.

All Through the Night by Connie Brockway (audiobook) – narrated by Alison Larkin

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A woman compelled. A man obsessed. A love that defies king and country. In the glittering world of Regency England, Anne Wilder plays a dangerous game. A widowed lady by day, by night she becomes a masked thief preying on society’s elite. She roves high above London’s black rooftops, compelled by phantoms from her past to take ever greater risks. Until her restless spirit led her into Colonel Jack Seward’s trap . . . where seduction may be her only way out. She’d played him for a fool, taking advantage of his hungry response to escape from his clutches. But as Jack hunts for the thief, his heart falls captive to a self-possessed widow. Torn between illicit passion and tender love, Jack is duty-bound to capture the audacious criminal, even if it means ripping society apart to do so. Now, he stalked her through the ton, never realizing the lovely widow who captured his heart was the same woman who roused his most violent passions.

Rating: C for narration and C for content

Originally published in 1997, All Through the Night is often described as being quite dark in tone for a historical romance and it’s easy to understand why. The hero and heroine are both emotionally damaged and their relationship – at the outset – is based on lust and sexual obsession rather than tenderness or love.

Anne is the respectable widow of Matthew Wilder, a naval officer who died in the Napoleonic War. He was an inexperienced sailor and yet somehow managed to land himself a commission, which resulted in his death and the death of almost his entire crew. Wilder was held in high esteem by everybody who knew him and appears to have been the perfect man and the perfect husband although it’s clear from the outset that Anne’s opinion of him differs from everybody else’s. She feels an immense burden of guilt over the fact that she could not love him as he wanted to be loved and, in his final letter, Wilder more or less told her he had gone to war in order to relieve her of his presence and the pretence of loving him.

In the years since her husband’s death, Anne has tried to assuage her guilt by establishing the Charitable Society for Soldiers’ Relief and Aid, a home for war veterans and the families of soldiers who died and now have nowhere else to go and no means of support. The home is in desperate need of funds and Anne uses her position as companion to a popular young débutante to solicit donations from members of the ton. The problem is that while many pledge money, many also renege on their promises.

But Anne is nothing if not determined and when people default, she simply steals the money or the equivalent in jewelry from them instead. For by night, Anne Wilder is Wrexall’s Wraith, a burglar who is renowned in society for “his” audacity in targeting the wealthiest among the ton.

Colonel Jack Seward was born in an Edinburgh workhouse and removed from there at a young age by Henry Jamison – one of the Home Office’s most powerful officials (and possibly Jack’s father) who raised and trained him, turning him into a spy and lethal killer. Jack has been detailed to discover the identity of the Wraith because it appears that “he” has stolen an important letter containing information which could be very damaging to the king. Jack must catch the thief and recover the letter.

Jack is stunned when he discovers the Wraith is a woman and even more amazed when he finds himself unable to forget her. He’s not a man who lets his personal desires rule him and certainly is not normally swayed by the baser emotions like lust, but the thief sparks something in him he’s never known and he is determined to pursue her, capture her, and bring her to justice. Among other things…

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