The Black Madonna by Stella Riley

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Originally published in 1993, this title has now been republished in ebook form by the author. My review of the hardback version was originally posted on 13 Feb 2013; and has been updated in May 2013, to reflect revisions incorporated into the new ebook edition.

By July 1639, unpopular taxes, religious differences and no Parliament in a decade have turned England into a simmering cauldron of discontent. Less concerned by this than by his ailing finances, King Charles seeks ways of filling his empty treasury. Enter Luciano Falcieri del Santi – master-goldsmith and money-lender; a man known to London as the Italian … and possessed of a hidden agenda.

As the cauldron slowly boils over into Civil War, the changing times are reflected in the lives of the Maxwell family. From his seat in the Commons, Richard Maxwell watches the escalating quarrel between the King and John Pym – and, in Oxfordshire, his wife cares for the estate and their five children. Their eldest son, Eden, struggles to save his marriage to Royalist-bred Celia whilst taking up his sword for the Parliament; and eldest daughter, Kate, vows to hold their home against both Cavalier and Roundhead, should the need arise.

After six months in the Queen’s household, Kate Maxwell takes most things in her stride. A spirited red-head, she deals with the financial demands of the Royalist garrison in nearby Banbury, the constant carping of her sister-in-law and the Puritanical zeal of second-cousin Nathan. The only thing she finds utterly impossible to handle, is her involuntary and growing attraction to sardonic, irresistibly magnetic and diabolically beautiful Luciano del Santi.

The paths of Richard Maxwell and the Italian cross by chance one dark night in a filthy backstreet – and a friendship is born. It is some time, however, before Richard learns the truth about this clever, icily restrained young man. On the surface, Luciano merely operates his businesses from Goldsmith’s Row on Cheapside. In reality, he has a much darker purpose. He is in England to discover the truth behind his father’s execution as a traitor and, if possible, to avenge it. This, with the country becoming a battlefield and scant information to go on, is both difficult and expensive – but it is not Luciano’s only problem. He must also accumulate sufficient capital to repay his uncle in Genoa the massive loan which has financed his venture – for failure to do so will result in ruin. Soon, he also begins to realise that – unless he is both careful and lucky – the revenge quest may cost him his life.

His own safety and that of everyone he cares about rests on success. Only success will permit him to reclaim the Black Madonna, the symbol of his heritage which has made his vendetta possible. And only success will allow him to offer his heart to the girl he loves.

From the machinations within Parliament to the last days of the King’s cause, The Black Madonna is a historically detailed and richly-woven tale of passion, intrigue and love in a time when England was lost in a dark and bloody conflict.

Rating: A+

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Stella Riley’s work, so anyone reading this could be forgiven for thinking that the five star rating was a foregone conclusion. And perhaps it was – I’ve always found her writing, characterisation and storytelling to be of consistently high quality, and The Black Madonna is no exception. But in fact, I’d venture to say that she’s set an even higher bar with this book because it is, without doubt, a really superb example of how to craft a compelling piece of historical fiction.

The events of The Black Madonna take place between 1639 and 1646, in the run up to and during the events of the “first” English Civil War.

In it, we follow events as seen through the eyes of the members of the Maxwell family and their friends and acquaintances; and along the way take in romance, politics, family dilemmas and a years old mystery and quest for vengeance.

Richard Maxwell and his wife, Dorothy are a happily married couple with five children (and how lovely it is to read about an older couple who are still very much in love and attracted to each other). Richard is a member of the Commons, and while he is frustrated by the King’s actions in (among other things) levying taxes to fill his coffers without the support of Parliament, he does not adopt an anti-royalist stance either. Rather, Richard is a good, honest man who wants the best for his family and his country; and who doesn’t want to take sides, but eventually finds he cannot do otherwise.

Running alongside the momentous political events of the time, we are drawn into the life of the Maxwells and all the ups and downs that family life entails. Eden, the eldest son, falls in love with a woman who is completely wrong for him; Amy the middle daughter is an inveterate flirt who is going to get herself into trouble if she’s not careful and Kate, the eldest daughter is sometimes far too forthright and clever for her own good.

Add in to all that the mysterious Italian goldsmith and usurer, Luciano Falcieri del Santi – a man with the face of an angel, a mind like a steel trap and a tongue like a razor-blade – and the stage is set for a truly gripping read.
The fate of the Maxwells becomes bound up with that of del Santi when Richard and Eden Maxwell rescue Luciano from a severe beating one night in the murky backwaters of the City of London. Thereafter, Richard and Luciano strike up an unexpected, yet very genuine friendship, which is one of the joys of the book; and which brings the latter into closer contact with Richard’s family. The youngest son Toby, is riveted by the goldsmiths’ art and wants to be apprenticed to del Santi, while Kate, finding herself utterly fascinated and reluctantly drawn to him, is trying desperately to resist what she thinks can only be a stupid, girlish infatuation.

Luciano, however, is not the man for her (as he tells her several times) – he has no room for emotional entanglements in his life. He is, of necessity, focused on his business and, as we later discover, on finding the person responsible for his father’s execution for treason several years earlier. He knows his quest is a dangerous one and is therefore reluctant to involve anyone else in it, although he eventually admits to himself that he needs help and therefore confides in Richard.

It is, however, impossible for Luciano to avoid the growing unrest in England and the tensions between King and Parliament erupt into Civil War.

Stella Riley handles her large cast of characters with aplomb once more and again skilfully integrates her fictional storylines and characters with actual events and historical figures.

Her research is impeccable; and although I will admit that, especially in the first few chapters, I felt a bit overloaded with background detail to the extent I felt the need to go and look up a few things! – once the setting has been established and we have been introduced to the Maxwells, the Langleys, del Santi and assorted other characters, things take off and the book became hard to put down.

The multiple plot strands are woven very skilfully together. The war progresses, initially in the King’s favour, but inescapably, the tide begins to turn; Luciano begins to close in on his quarry and becomes a target; and the Maxwells are plunged into danger and tragedy. Amid all this is the slow-burning romance between Kate and Luciano, an attraction they are both desperate to deny. Their exchanges throughout the first part of the book are ascerbic and sometimes deliberately hurtful as Kate, desperate to hide her feelings, tries to repel him; and Luciano, who isn’t the least bit fooled, tries to warn her off. But the thing is – the more the reader sees of them – apart and together – the more it becomes apparent that these two are a matched pair; intelligent, quick-witted, passionate and – in their own ways – unique.

Luciano’s reluctance to become involved with Kate is as much due to the fact that he has to focus all his attention on his business in order to repay a massive loan from his uncle as it is about his fears for her safety. In the original version, there are hints that he feels more for Kate than he lets on, but for the most part, he plays his cards very close to his chest. In the ebook version, the author has made a number of small changes and added some new scenes which give the reader more of an insight into how Luciano is thinking and feeling that I think are a truly valuable addition to the romance and to the story as a whole.

On a side note, I particularly enjoyed seeing glimpses of some of the characters featured in Ms Riley’s earlier novel A Splendid Defiance – the thirteen year-old Abigail Radford near the beginning, and later, members of the Banbury garrison and Captain Justin Ambrose.

As the Maxwells story continues, the war escalates and the King’s fortunes begin to worsen; and things come to a head for Luciano and Kate at the ill-fated siege of Basing House. The Black Madonna has it all – adventure, romance, heartbreak (I don’t mind admitting that there were a couple of real “lump-in-throat” moments), tenderness and humour. It’s a real page-turner and I honestly didn’t guess the identity of the bad guy until fairly close to the end.

I’ll finish by saying that I’ve waited over twenty-years to get my hands on a copy of this book, and it was every bit as good as I’d hoped.

Brava!

Just Like Heaven by Julia Quinn (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

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Honoria Smythe-Smith is:

A) a really bad violinist
B) still miffed at being nicknamed “Bug” as a child
C) not in love with her older brother’s best friend
D) all of the aboveMarcus Holroyd is:

A) the Earl of Chatteris
B) regrettably prone to sprained ankles
C) not in love with his best friend’s younger sister
D) all of the aboveTogether they:

A) eat quite a bit of chocolate cake
B) survive a deadly fever and the world’s worst musical performance
C) fall quite desperately in love
It’s Julia Quinn at her best, so you know the answer is . . .
D) all of the above

Rating: B+

This is the perfect piece of audio-fluff for when – as I am – you’re laid up in bed with a stinking cold and can’t read a book because it makes your eyes ache!

It’s classic JQ – light-hearted, with plenty of witty dialogue; and it contains one of my favourite tropes, the “friends-to-lovers” one.

Lady Honoria has known Marcus Holroyd since she was a child. He’s her big brother’s best friend, the only child of an only child who has been given the best of everything in life – except familial life and affection. It’s a miracle he hasn’t grown up a complete head-case, but he’s a genuinely nice guy; shy, somewhat reclusive and possessing a dry wit which he generally keeps hidden.

Honoria is the youngest of her siblings by well over ten years, and as her sisters are all married and her brother Daniel (we get his story in A Night Like This) had to leave the country, she is terribly lonely and desperate to find a husband so that she can have a home of her own. Most of all, she hates the silence. Having grown up in a large, bustling household, there is now just her and her mother, who has become very withdrawn since Daniel’s departure.

When Marcus becomes desperately ill, Honaria insists on going to him; and threatens to go alone when her mother demurs. Fortunately, her mother relents and the pair head off to Marcus’ Cambridgeshire estate where they discover him to be in far more danger than they had believed. Seeing her son’s best friend in such dire straits seems to give Honoria’s mother the kick up the backside she needed to pull her out of her listlessness and together, she and Honaria work tirelessly to save Marcus’ life.

There are some truly tender scenes – between mother and daughter and Marcus and Honaria – in that part of the book. Although they more or less grew up together, the couple have not been especially close in recent years – although unbeknownst to Honaria, before Daniel left, he asked Marcus to keep an eye on her and “stop her marrying an idiot”. As he recovers, the two draw closer and begin to realise the true nature of their feelings for each other.

There’s a bump along the road to true love when Honaria discovers that Marcus had chased off a number of her suitors the previous year and gets huffy about it – but really, it’s a mole-hill (see what I did there?) rather than a mountain and doesn’t take long to sort out.

Both protagonists are attractive characters. Marcus isn’t a rake or man with a dark secret in his past, he’s just a truly decent man who doesn’t like to be the centre of attention (although when push comes to shove, he’ll do it if he has to) and who wants to be loved and have a family of his own around him.

Honoria is no silly debutante. She’s kind and funny and fiercely loyal to her family and its traditions. She’s one of the few people to truly ‘see’ Marcus for what he is underneath the rather starchy exterior he presents to the world; and even though she worries that his attentions to her have been a result of his promise to her brother, she is sensible enough to realise she’s wrong and that he does truly care for her.

If I have a criticism, it’s that the sex scene was really not necessary. I have no objection to sex in romance novels, but it felt like it had been shoe-horned in here for the sake of it.

Rosalyn Landor did her usual superb job with the narration. There are five or six different female characters featured throughout the novel, and in some scenes, they all appear – but each voice is clearly delineated so there is never any doubt as to who is speaking. The narrative passages are well-paced and invested with the lightness of tone and humour that is prevalent throughout the story.

Just what the doctor ordered 🙂

A Bride by Moonlight by Liz Carlyle

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Passion and secrets simmer behind the elegant façade of Victorian London in another deliciously intriguing novel featuring the dangerous men of the mysterious St. James Society.

Royden Napier, Baron Saint-Bryce, is tall, dark, and ruthless—and on the hunt for a dangerous beauty . . .

On the eve of her escape to the Continent, bold, beautiful Lisette Colburne accepts a proposal she dare not refuse: masquerade as the future bride of the steely-eyed Royden Napier and help him solve his most dangerous case. Soon Lisette is in even greater danger—of losing her heart to the one man with the power to destroy her . . .

Estranged from his aristocratic family, the enigmatic Napier has forged a reputation as Scotland Yard’s most relentless police commissioner. He’s vowed to bring Lisette to justice—but with every forbidden kiss and every tantalizing touch, he finds himself becoming less convinced of her guilt . . . and more certain he must have her. But when danger touches Lisette, can he save her?

Rating: B

This is the fourth book in a series of which I have not (yet) read the other three. Usually when I pick up a book mid-series, I can say confidently that I don’t think it’s necessary to have read the others, but with this one, I felt at a slight disadvantage, and I’m not quite sure why that was. There’s a fairly large cast of recurring and supporting characters, all of whom are introduced in a helpful foreword by the author – but in the early stages, I had to keep referring back to the list to check who was who, which did interrupt the flow of reading. But after a chapter or so, I had it worked out and I got sucked into the story.

The story opens in 1847 in the office of Assistant Commissioner of Police, Royden Napier. A young woman, Elizabeth Colbourne, bursts into his office demanding the re-arrest and conviction for murder of Rance Welham, future Lord Lazonby (whose story is told in the previous book). She holds Welham responsible for the death of her father and her sister’s fiancé, for a life lived in penury in the charge of uncaring relatives, and for causing the death of her sister. She wants to see him hang for his crimes. Napier is struck by the depth of her hatred and her intensity, but can do nothing for her – Welham has been exonerated, due process has been followed, and that’s an end of it.

We then jump ahead two years, and to the scene of the murder of Sir Wilfred Leeton, an old crony of Rance Welham’s. Now Lord Lazonby, Welham has sent for Napier, knowing that he’s the only man who can clear Welham’s name of suspicion once and for all. In order to secure Napier’s cooperation, Welham tells him that before he was killed, the late Sir Wilfred had made accusations of corruption against his father, who had held the position of Assistant Commissioner before him.

At this point, I was expecting the rest of the story to concentrate on the search for the truth about Napier’s father and the quest to prove Lazonby’s innocence. But shortly after this, it took a swift turn into different territory, which I think was very much a turn for the better. Instead of being an adventure romp, the book is more by way of an Agatha Christie-type country house mystery which features a sizable cast of characters, all with grudges to bear and secrets to hide.

Napier is, in fact, the heir to the viscountcy of Duncaster. He never expected to be such; his late father was the third son, estranged from his father, and Napier has been more than content to make his own way in the world. But following the deaths of both his uncles, he is now Lord Saint-Bryce and his grandfather’s heir. At first, he wants none of it. He has had very little to do with his family and wants to keep it that way. He’s risen through the ranks on his own merits and followed in his father’s footsteps to become Assistant Commissioner, and he is committed to a life of service to the Crown. But at the request of his superior, Sir George Grey – an old friend of Viscount Duncaster – Napier travels to Wiltshire to meet with his grandfather and quietly investigate the circumstances surrounding the recent deaths in the family.

Sir George also warns Napier of the match-making schemes of his great aunt Cordelia, Lady Hepplewood, suggesting that it might be prudent for Napier to take along his ‘fiancée’ in order to keep her at bay. Napier realizes that while it not be an ideal situation, it will make his appearance seem more like a visit than an investigation –and he also realizes that if he takes the right woman with him, she could prove helpful.

His choices however, are limited. He ends up taking someone he wouldn’t have chosen in a million years: Elizabeth (Lisette) Colborne. She is a key witness (and more, Napier suspects) in the murder of Sir Wilfred, and is on the point of leaving the country, but Napier, certain that she knows more than she lets on, offers her a deal. If she accompanies him to Wiltshire for a couple of weeks, he will let her leave the country.

Napier’s visit is well-received by his grandfather, who is under the impression that he has come to his senses at last and is there to start to learn how to manage the estate. He quickly attempts to dispel that notion, adamant that once he has uncovered the truth about his uncles’ deaths, he will return to his job and his life in London. He and Lisette are plunged into a family enmeshed in petty squabbles and not-so-petty resentments, and despite his initial misgivings about taking her along, Napier is forced to admire the subtlety with which she stands up to his great-aunt, and the ease with which she gains the confidence of the other women of the house. It is Lisette who gives Napier something to think about when she points out that the skills he has honed over his years in government service have, in fact, well-equipped him for the task of running a large estate, and that in doing so, he would still be serving his country — albeit in a different way.

Lisette is an engaging and slightly unusual heroine. In her late 20s, she’s had far from an easy life, losing her parents at a young age and then being farmed out to relatives in America who both used and neglected her. She had to grow up very quickly and take responsibility for herself , her aunt, and sot of an uncle who she learned later had been paid to take both her and her sister (who has since died) away from England after the death of her parents.

She’s prickly, she’s tough, and she’s clever. Clever enough to admit to herself that spending most of her life hating and seeking revenge upon the man she holds responsible for her family’s tragedies has left her almost soulless and empty and to wonder if she’s capable of any finer feelings. And clever enough to realize that it’s time for her to start living her own life and put the past behind her before it’s too late.

Napier has a reputation for coldness, ruthlessness, and incorruptibility. He could have been a bit of a dry stick, but at the heart of his story is the way he comes to the realization that not every situation can be seen in black and white and to acknowledge that sometimes a bad thing can be the right thing in certain circumstances. He falls hard for Lisette, even as he is constantly questioning her part in Leeton’s murder, and it’s only when he admits to both himself and her that he no longer cares about her involvement that she can finally trust him enough to tell him the truth. With regard to the accusations against his father, Napier at last admits to himself that he had probably known for some time that all was not quite above board – but there is no proof. The man he was at the beginning of the book would likely have been completely broken by the discovery that the father he idolized had feet of clay; but the man he has become by the end of it is able to accept – albeit not to condone – his father’s duplicity.

The relationship between Napier and Lisette is antagonistic, tender and passionate. They are immediately and devastatingly attracted to each other even while recognizing that a relationship between them could be dangerous and stupid. They get under each other’s skins and into each other’s heads in a way neither has before experienced, which both entices and scares the hell out of them. The sexual tension between them is like a ticking time-bomb and fairly leaps off the page, and there is a great deal of humor in their frequent bickering.

The supporting cast is clearly delineated, from the gruff patriarch to the eccentric aunt, the downtrodden companion, the dictatorial aunt, and the youngest cousin Beatrice who is just twelve and worried for her future.

I found A Bride by Moonlight to be an entertaining page-turner that quickly caught my interest and – apart from a few things that confused me at the beginning –sustained it right until the end.

A Rogue’s Rescue by Donna Lea Simpson

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Despite her vast wealth, Miss Ariadne Lambert, at the ripe old age of thirty-three, is a plain and aging spinster with little but a fading hope that a knight in shining armor will come to sweep her off her feet. Which makes her the perfect prey for the unscrupulous “Dapper” Dorsey, who would stop at nothing to seduce a needy and wealthy woman and then coldly fritter away her funds in the gaming halls of London. As Ariadne succumbs first to his wily charms and then to his kisses, will her need for affection rob her of her dignity—and her fortune?

Viscount Ingram, whose soiled reputation from one especially salacious incident has left him exiled to the sidelines of society, marks his time as a dark and brooding man, tolerated more for his title than his merit. But even he has his standards, and when he learns of a rival’s plot to seduce and then steal from a helpless spinster, he vows to stop him.

Ingram’s noble sentiments and uncharacteristic sincerity are in for a shock, however, as he discovers that the hopelessly gullible Ariadne is in fact a clever and shrewd woman who’s got more than a silly giggle up her sleeve. As the two team up in a devilish scheme to bring about the final undoing of Dorsey, cooperation turns to admiration and then attraction, and they discover that their last chance to repair their reputations may also be their first chance at finding true love.

Rating: B

This is a well-written, well-plotted novella which had previously been published in an anthology that originally appeared in 2002.

Miss Ariadne Lambert is thirty-three, intelligent, rather plain and on the shelf.  At a ball, Lovell Melcher, Viscount Ingram overhears her being discussed as very rich and very gullible, likely to fall prey to the first unscrupulous cad who takes an interest in her.

Ingram then sees her being approached by the handsome, charming and utterly  unprincipled ‘Dapper’ Dorsey’ – a well-known roué and despoiler of young women, and against his better judgement, decides he can’t let her fall into Dorsey’s clutches and intervenes.

What Ingram can’t know of course, is that Ariadne’s simpering miss act is just that – an act.  Underneath the surface she has a sharp mind and a quick wit, and she and her friend Olivia Beckwith have concocted this scheme in order to con Dorsey into returning some very indiscreet letters that were written to him by a friend of theirs who is desperately in love with him.  They had an affair which he ended, and now, she says, he is extorting money from her on pain of circulating her letters throughout the ton.

Ingram is compelling rather than handsome, doesn’t suffer fools and doesn’t shout about his many charitable causes. By his own admission, he is merely tolerated by society and is content to remain on its fringes.  As a viscount, he is invited almost everywhere, but he has an unsavoury reputation and, almost worse, is a self-made man, having only recently and completely unexpectedly inherited his title.

Ariadne’s annoyance at having her plans for Dorsey continually thwarted gives Ingram glimpses of her true self – at the intelligence that lies beneath the awful clothes and simpering manner, and he is more and more intrigued by her.  Eventually, of course, she has to tell him what she and Olivia are up to or risk his ruining their chances of achieving their goal forever.

Instead of trying to stop her or leaving her to it, however, Ingram has an even better plan, which they proceed to put into effect, and all is settled – even though not quite in the way they had expected.

This novella contains a mere 78 pages, and yet Donna Lea Simpson packs in a lot of story.  The characterisation of Ariadne and Ingram is excellent and their exchanges are witty and affectionate.  The romance between them develops quickly of course, but even so, the author manages to convey that there’s a true affection between them, and a very strong foundation for their future relationship.  Although this is clean (just kisses), the air between them fairly sizzles and it’s a really nice change to have an “older” couple (well, in their thirties!) as the focus of an historical romance.

A Rogue’s Rescue is an excellent example of storytelling that is succinct without sacrificing plot or character and a title I don’t hesitate to recommend.

If Ms Simpson could see her way clear to having her other Regencies published as ebooks, I for one, would be most grateful!

Miss Chartley’s Guided Tour by Carla Kelly

Miss Chartley

To all appearances, Miss Omega Chartley is a schoolteacher on holiday. In fact she is a gentlewoman fallen on hard times, left at the altar eight years earlier and forced to make her own way in the world after the loss of her family fortune.

Omega’s modest tour of England is cut short when she comes to the aid of a runaway. Jamie Clevenden has fled the clutches of a brutal uncle, and Omega is determined to help him escape the law, as represented by Bow Street Runner, Mr. Timothy Platter.

Aided by a kindly war veteran and his adopted daughter, the two fugitives arrive at the home of Jamie’s other uncle, the Viscount of Byford — none other than Miss Chartley’s disgraced fiancé, Matthew Bering. There Miss Chartley will finally learn the secret that Lord Byford has hidden from her all these years, the story of a dark chapter in his past that stands in the way of not only their happiness but that of his nephew. Now they must face the truth together, no matter how dire the consequences.

Rating: C+

While I enjoyed Miss Chartley’s Guided Tour, and there were certainly elements in it that readers of Carla Kelly’s regency romances will probably recognise, I can’t help thinking that it isn’t one of her best.

The story is a good one. Miss Omega Chartley, having been abandoned at the altar at the age of eighteen has very shortly afterwards to come to terms with the suicide of her father, which leaves her and her brother in straightened circumstances. She obtains a position as a teacher at a girls’ school in Plymouth, where she works for eight years, and is taking a holiday before taking up a new post in Durham.

Along the way, she befriends a young runaway by the name of Jamie who for some reason, seems rather familiar to her. He is running away from his uncle and guardian, Lord Rotherford who beats him regularly and who, we discover later on, will stop at nothing in order to obtain the boy’s considerable fortune.

Jamie is intent on finding his other uncle – his late mother’s brother – Viscount Byford, in the hope that he will rescue him from Rotherford.

Pursued by a Bow Street Runner, and joining forces with a maimed ex-soldier(Hugh Owen) and his half-Spanish charge (Angela), the rag-taggle band eventually makes its way to Byford to confront the viscount and ask for his help.

Viscount Byford turns out to be none other than Matthew Bering, the man who had jilted Omega eight years ago.

Omega has never really stopped loving him, even through her embarrassment and anger at his treatment of her. The question of why he did what he did has haunted her – and when she finally discovers his reasons, they’re not pretty. The rest of the story involves Matthew’s quest to find out what really happened on the eve of his wedding and to secure Jamie’s future.
As is often the case in her books, Ms Kelly doesn’t shy away from dealing with some unpleasant subject matter – the plight of ex-soldiers, the poverty of the lower classes, children orphaned by war, prostitution, greed and murder to name but a few.

There were, however, a few weaknesses that prevented me from giving the book a higher rating. For one thing, while the clues are followed and the loose ends tied up – one of them a twist I didn’t see coming – it all happens incredibly quickly. Then there’s the fact that Matthew left the girl he loved standing at the altar and just disappeared – and did nothing for eight years. I suspect that had Omega and Jamie not stumbled across him, he would likely have continued to do nothing. The point, I suppose, is that Omega’s reappearance in his life and his desire to protect his nephew have spurred him on to find out the truth once and for all, but it’s rather a stretch of credibility to suppose that he would have waited eight years to act. His guilt and shame have driven him to a solitary life, but he also allowed Omega to suffer the censure of being jilted and the agony of not knowing why for eight years without an explanation.

There’s also the issue of Matthew’s difficulties in the bedroom department. I confess, it makes a change to find a hero who isn’t a stud who suffers from a permanent erection when in the vicinity of his lady-love, but for Matthew to be able to go from zero to hero for the first time in eight years simply because he’s with the “right woman” was, I felt, implausible.

Those reservations aside however, this was an enjoyable read, with humour and affection radiating from almost every page. Matthew’s concern for Omega is touching, as is the way he comes to love Jamie and Angela as his own. Given the issues between them, he and Omega are surprisingly comfortable with each other, and the way their relationship re-kindles is charmingly done.

When Passion Rules by Johanna Lindsey (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

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Forced to flee Napoleon’s rampaging army on the continent, orphaned Alana Farmer and her eccentric guardian make a new home for themselves in London. There, Alana enjoys every privilege a daughter of the nobility could hope for, plus an education fit for a queen. Now, on the eve of her debut into London Society, she learns the shocking secret of her birthright. Can it be true? Is she really the lost princess of the European kingdom of Lubinia? Persuaded by her guardian to return to their homeland to quell a bloody revolt, Alana finds herself in an isolated, mountainous country whose customs strike her as medieval!

With controversy and intrigue brewing around the beautiful newcomer, Christoph Becker, the captain of the palace guards, arrests Alana on suspicion that she is either a wily imposter or a seductive spy working for the shadowy figures determined to depose the king. No stranger himself to seduction, Christoph uses every means at his disposal to draw the truth from his alluring prisoner, even if he must lay his own life on the line to protect her from harm. Now, as a fiery passion flares between Alana and the man who has wrongly imprisoned her, the fate of a nation rests in their hands and on their hearts.

Rating: B- overall

C for the story and A for the performance

Okay. So I admit that this isn’t a book that would normally have been near the top of my TBR pile.  I haven’t read it before, haven’t read any reviews and only had the synopsis to go on; and decided that while it sounded okay, I wasn’t going to bust a gut when I’ve got so many other things I want to read.

BUT.  Then I discovered that Rosalyn Landor had narrated the audiobook, and as I’ve been glomming her stuff big time lately, I changed my mind.

This is one of those times when I think the performance elevated my enjoyment of what would probably –in print – have been a fairly ordinary book.  The story starts out with an assassin deciding – rather like Snow White’s huntsman – that he can’t kill the princess, but unlike the huntsman, he takes her away with him to England and brings her up as a lady rather than leaving her to roam the woods and shack up with seven vertically-challenged forest-dwellers.

On Alana’s eighteenth birthday, her ‘guardian’ (known as Poppy) sits her down to tell her the truth.  She’s not his niece and she’s the heir to the throne of Lubinia (a fictional country somewhere where there’s lots of snow and hot guys in tight uniforms with sexy accents).

Alana is devastated by the news and doesn’t believe it.  But there is unrest in Lubinia due to the king’s lack of an heir and the country is facing civil war – so there is only one thing to do.  Alana must return to take up her rightful place, and Poppy is going to find out once and for all who paid him to kill the baby princess.

With Poppy’s warnings about the need for caution in her ears, Alana heads for the palace to present herself to her father.  She goes alone – if Poppy (formerly Leonard Kasner, aka “Rastibon”) is discovered he will be imprisoned or shot on sight, so he leaves her to her own devices while he heads off to track his quarry.  After all, as well as learning to sing and embroider tablecloths like any other English lady, Alana has been trained to fence, shoot and box, so she can take care of herself.

After a long wait at the palace, Alana encounters the captain of the guard, the mouth-wateringly gorgeous Count Christoph Becker.   After mistakenly thinking she’s come to the palace looking to find herself a powerful ‘protector’ (nudge, nudge) he then informs her that she’s the latest in a line of imposters who have presented themselves as the princess and then proceeds to interrogate her and behave like a complete asshat.

But the thing is, because of Ms Landor’s exceptional acting abilities, I couldn’t dislike him for it!  She gave him a sexy accent with just the right amount of arrogance to be attractive and brought out the humour in his frequent double-entendres and suggestive comments; so while I was listening knowing I should be rolling my eyes at his total lack of PC (or, as Alana would have said, his “barbaric tendencies”), I wasn’t.

Once the two of them met (which was a fair way into the story) things started to move at a cracking pace.  Christoph doesn’t believe Alana’s story for almost the whole of the book, but he fancies the hell out of her does at least decide to give her the benefit of the doubt.  There are a couple of plot twists and turns which make for an enjoyable romp (one of which I didn’t see coming) and some rather charming scenes featuring Christoph’s family – all of whom were superbly and distinctively voiced.

While I found Christoph rather attractive (I know *hangs head*.  He’s an alpha-asshat, but so disarming with it!),  Alana was rather annoying at times.  She slept with Christoph and then kept him at a distance while desperate for more; insisted on thinking of him as a barbarian, which he plainly wasn’t and didn’t get to display her kick-ass fighting skillz, which I thought was rather a shame.  On the positive side, she was brave and intelligent (mostly) and the banter between her and Christoph – while being a little too modern at times – was probably the best thing about the book.

The best bit?  For me this came late on, once Christoph has brought Alana to the king and he’s acknowledged her as his daughter.  The king asks Christoph if he’d done something he (the king) had suggested previously – namely to seduce Alana to get information out of her. Oops.  You have to feel sorry for Christoph at that point – in the dog house for shagging the king’s daughter (even though he didn’t do it for information ;-))

The ending is rather rushed.  Alana is restored to her father and he immediately wants to marry her off to the head of the opposing faction in order to secure peace.  As she’s in love with her gorgeous captain, she is naturally not best pleased – but this is a romance, so it all works out in the end.

I’m sure that if I’d read the book, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it half so much as I did listening to it. Rosalyn Landor’s narration was as well-paced and beautiful as ever, and she invests even the minor characters with their own distinct voices.

When Passion Rules isn’t something I’d recommend if you want a book to take seriously, but it was a fun romp for when you want to put your brain into “park” and have a rest and a bit of unabashed fun.  And failing that, you can just stare at the cover model. Because. Day-um! 😉