It Happened One Midnight by Julie Anne Long

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More than one beautiful woman’s hopes have been dashed on the rocky shoals of Jonathan Redmond’s heart. With his riveting good looks and Redmond wealth and power, the world is his oyster—until an ultimatum from his father and a chilling gypsy prophesy send him hurtling headlong toward a fate he’ll do anything to avoid: matrimony.

Intoxicating, elusive Thomasina de Ballesteros has the bloods of London at her feet. But none of them knows the real Tommy—the one with a shocking pedigree, a few too many secrets, and a healthy scorn for rakes like Jonathan.

She is everything Jonathan never wanted. But on one fateful midnight, he’s drawn into Tommy’s world of risk, danger…and a desire he’d never dreamed possible. And suddenly he’s re-thinking everything…including the possibility that succumbing to prophesy might just mean surrendering to love.

Rating: A-

I’m woefully behind on the Pennyroyal Green series – in fact, the last one I read might have been book three – but that didn’t matter when it came to reading this, the eighth in the series.

Jonathan Redmond is the youngest son of Isaiah Redmond, renowned businessman and investor. He views Jonathan as something of a wastrel and even when the latter tells his father that for the past couple of years he’s been making investments in small businesses and asks to join his father’s consortium, Isaiah dismisses him out of hand. It’s plain that he has terribly low expectations of his son and instead of encouraging him in his business endeavours, Isaiah tells Jonathan he must marry within the year or be cut off without a penny.

As is the case with most of the young, handsome and charming men of historical romances, getting leg-shackled isn’t exactly to Jonathan’s taste. But as things stand, most of the young women of the ton are throwing out lures, and he supposes that one is as good as another and prepares himself to choose a girl to marry from their number.

He is vaguely acquainted with Miss Thomasina de Ballesteros, the daughter of a Spanish courtesan who presides over the weekly salons held at the home of the eccentric Countess Mirabeau. Thomasina – “Tommy” – acts as hostess at these functions; she is vivacious, attractive and witty, having the gift of making whichever young man she is speaking to feel as though he is the only man in the room. Jonathan’s friend Argosy is smitten, as are many of the young bloods who attend the salons, but Jonathan takes a more cynical view. Possessed of an inordinate degree of charm himself, he is well aware of Miss de Ballesteros’ modus operandi and watches from the sidelines as other men moon over her and make bets as to who will be her next lover.

The highlight of the book for me was the superbly witty exchanges between the two leads. Both are highly intelligent and sharp-tongued with fabulous senses of humour, and I especially liked Jonathan’s ability to laugh at himself. He’s gorgeous to look at and knows it, but he’s not vain and frequently makes a joke of his attractiveness.

After he and Tommy have rescued Charlie from the mill

”I’m sure you always smell like starch and soap and bay rum.”
It startled both of them into a moment of awkward silence, the sudden inventory of how he smelled.
“You left out ‘and a certain ineffable manly goodness native only to you.’”

I really hope that’s the author taking a poke at the frequent references to the way heroines always seem to be able to describe exactly what scent is favoured by their men.

And then, when they are about to embark upon another daring rescue and Jonathan is wondering whether he ought to adopt a disguise:

”… a disguise will not be necessary. In fact, I think it will be most effective if you look exactly the way you do now.”
“Which is how…? Desire incarnate?”

But there is much more lurking beneath the banter, and it’s not long before Tommy has embroiled Jonathan in her dangerous scheme to rescue workhouse children who have been sold to work as little more than slaves in service, in mills and other businesses and who are being badly mistreated. It doesn’t take Jonathan long to guess at Tommy’s reasons for being so devoted to doing what little she can for these children – and he surprises himself with his own capacity to care about them. The scenes in which he interacts with some of these children – especially the rascally Charlie – are tender, funny and very genuine. That’s another thing that makes him such an attractive hero – he’s devoted to his family of course (despite his strained relationship with his father), but he discovers in himself a huge wealth of concern and caring for these poor, mistreated children who have no-one to care for them or about what becomes of them.

He finds that he cares deeply about Thomasina, too, and the way the romance unfurls gradually as the pair get under each other’s skins is a real delight.

Running alongside the hi-jinks surrounding Tommy’s exploits and the burgeoning romance is Jonathan’s determination to achieve success with his investment schemes and prove himself to his father. He shows himself to have a fine head for business and comes up with a superb marketing strategy to launch the printing business in which he is a partner by using the ton’s well-known appetite for juicy gossip.

I thought It Happened One Midnight was a thoroughly enjoyable read and it’s made me want to catch up with the rest of the series sooner rather than later. It was very well-written and I liked that the fluffy exterior had darker undertones dealing with issues which were certainly coming to the fore at the time. Jonathan was a wonderful hero – handsome, intelligent, wonderfully caring and possessed of a wit on which you could cut yourself shaving (!). He loved his family very much and was man enough to realise that life is short and sometimes you have to make your own happiness. He stood up to his father in a manner that allowed them to maintain a relationship and I thought, all in all, that he was a very mature, well-grounded individual.

Tommy was one of the more unusual heroines I’ve encountered in the pages of historical romances, but I felt that she wasn’t one of those who was written as ‘feisty’ for the sake of it. She had had a hard life and had learned to look after herself – often the hard way – and she found it genuinely difficult to believe that she had at last found someone who was prepared – and she could trust – to shoulder some of her burdens. The sexual tension between them was delicious, the love scenes were both romantic and sexy and I liked that neither character lost their sense of humour when they were in bed together. Out of it, Tommy matched Jonathan step for step and quip for quip, and while she may not have been the unspoiled virgin so often featured in romantic novels, they were a very well-suited couple and I can definitely see her making an excellent politician’s wife.

It Happened One Midnight is an entertaining and very enjoyable read that strikes a good balance between the romance and the more serious issues running alongside. Highly recommended.

Is that a banana in your pocket… or are you just pleased to see me?

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A few weeks ago, I read a book – which I enjoyed very much – that prompted me to write a post about the different euphemisms which those of us who read romantic novels frequently see used on a regular basis during the … “romantic interludes”… which take place between the hero and heroine between the sheets, up against doors, on floors, on tables, on rugs… and so on.

If you’re not a fan of sex scenes in your romance novels, then you might want to look away now, because this is a post about the language used to describe those steamy moments. So be warned that there will be several rude words and naughty phrases from here on out.

Back in the day when I used to read (and write) fanfiction, I remember reading some truly execrable sex scenes. You know the sort – the ones where you know the author was trying to burn up the screen but ended up causing widespread hilarity. There is a fine line to tread between something being hot or being funny, and while it is certainly going to be the case that one person’s turn-on is another’s unbridled amusement, I find that there are certain words and/or phrases, or an overall ‘feel’ that is guaranteed to make me giggle rather than get hot under the collar.

You can read the rest of the post over at All About Romance. Please feel free to join the discussion and post your favourite – or not – examples 🙂

The Rules of Engagement by Jillian Leigh

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Long ago, Hugh Trevalyn invented a fiancée to fend off marriage-minded females. Now he must procure the perfect girl to play the part.

Who better than Amelia Grant, his oldest and dearest friend? She alone might understand—and forgive—his moment of madness upon beholding the beautiful Lucy Meriwether, a moment that resulted in Hugh’s first real proposal of marriage and Lucy’s vow to meet his ex-fiancée in the flesh. However, as the proposed conversation snowballs into an elaborate charade involving Hugh’s rakish cousin, scandal, and inappropriate kisses, as Hugh risks Amelia’s friendship to win Lucy’s hand, a wise reader has to wonder: What exactly are the rules of engagement? And, after the battle, whose heart will be won?

Rating: B

The Rules of Engagement is a quick, engaging (see what I did there?) comedy of errors which features one of my favorite tropes – that of “friends-to-lovers.”

Hugh Trevalyn is a very attractive and charming young man who, in his desire to be able to flirt and enjoy his pleasures with the ladies without being pressured into marriage, invents a sickly fiancée, whom he cannot immediately marry for some, unspecified reason. He maintains this fiction for at least a dozen years (and one of my niggles with the story is how he manages to get away with it for that long), and by the time he reaches his mid-30s, he finally finds a young woman whose refusal of his amorous advances leads him to a real proposal of marriage.

The problem is that while Hugh has forgotten about the existence of his “fiancée,” the lovely Lucy Merriweather has not; and when Hugh tells her that the engagement is at an end, Lucy insists he introduce her to his ex so that she can see for herself that the poor woman has suffered no ill effects as a result of the end of their engagement.

As he is head-over-ears in lust, Hugh agrees, and then hot-foots it home to ask his oldest friend, Miss Amelia Grant to help him out by playing his fiancée for a few days so that he can allay Lucy’s concerns. Amelia is around the same age as Hugh and has been secretly in love with him for quite some time – but as his best friend she wants him to be happy and reluctantly agrees to the charade. And here’s another niggle – Amelia is obviously an attractive woman, so I find it hard to believe she remained unmarried into her thirties at a time when marriage was one of the very few options open to a woman of good birth. I imagine she was waiting for Hugh to come to his senses and see what was under his nose, but after a few years, wouldn’t she have had to accept it wasn’t going to happen and try to move on with her life?

Anyway. Hugh accompanies Amelia to London and introduces her to Lucy. He also introduces her to his younger and rakish cousin, Aubrey St. Clair, who is immediately – to Hugh’s horror – rather taken with her.

Of course Hugh is madly jealous (without realizing it) and warns Amelia off; and of course, she ignores him, which embroils her in a short-lived scandal. But all ends well – even though Hugh’s proposal while tipsy gets him a slap and a massive hangover, and Amelia’s annoyance with him leads her to indulge in some very aggressive topiary.

This novella has a lot going for it, despite the niggles I’ve already mentioned. Amelia is really the star of the piece, and I suspect that were she a less attractive character, I may not have liked Hugh very much, because for most of the story, he comes across as thoughtless, oblivious and driven completely by what’s between his legs instead of what’s between his ears.

What makes him likeable however, is the way he interacts with Amelia. They have known each other forever, so they speak their minds to each other, and they like arguing to the extent that they sometimes provoke each other on purpose, which I think is always a sign of imminent “couple-dom.”

I also liked the fact that Lucy wasn’t a mere plot-device, or presented as some evil schemer who was aware of Amelia’s feelings and determined to marry Hugh to spite her. She was genuinely concerned for the fate of Hugh’s ex-fiancée, even though her speeches about a woman’s need to be subservient and to maintain rigid propriety struck me as somewhat hypocritical, given her willingness to let Hugh drag her into a dark corner and kiss her on several occasions.

The relationship between Hugh and Amelia was well written, warm, and believable, and the author has a knack for dialogue which had me giggling on more than one occasion. I think the ending was a little rushed, but overall, this was an enjoyable, quick read and I would certainly consider reading more of Ms Leigh’s work.

The Rose at Twilight by Amanda Scott

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Proud and beautiful Lady Alys Wolveston is left without a protector at the end of a decisive battle in the bloody War of the Roses. She refuses to accept Henry Tudor as the legitimate king; her loyalty is to the late Richard III and his Queen Anne, her beloved foster mother. But the Welsh knight Sir Nicholas Merion prevents Alys from returning home and carries her off to London to become the King’s ward . . . and, eventually, Sir Nicholas’s wife. She refuses to submit to the arrogant Welsh warrior, plotting with his enemies and fiercely denying her attraction to him. But as she comes to know the battle-hardened man’s humor and generosity, and experiences his thrilling touch and the comfort of his strength, she can’t help but lose her heart to him. Now Alys will find herself trapped in deadly political intrigues that demand that she choose between love and loyalty to a once-great king.

Rating: B-

A Rose at Twilight is one of many historical romance titles from decades past which have been reissued by Open Road Media in digital formats. This re-issue of a title originally published in 1992 is set shortly after the Battle of Bosworth, which saw the demise of King Richard III and the ascent of Henry Tudor to the English throne.

The heroine, Lady Alys Wolverston, is on her way home in the aftermath of upheaval. Having been brought up in the household of the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, Alys is a die-hard Yorkist and has nothing but scorn for Henry the usurper and those families who had betrayed Richard on the battlefield. The problem is that she has never learned to keep her own counsel and frequently expresses herself without thinking — never a wise thing to do when the political situation is in flux and there are so many adjustments to be made.

At the beginning of the story, Alys is travelling to her home but is waylaid by a troop of soldiers under the command of the handsome Welshman, Sir Nicholas Merrion. As he is loyal to Henry, he and Alys naturally do not see eye to eye and she is not at all hesitant to make her opinions of Henry and his followers known to anyone who will listen.

As a member of a well-known Yorkist family, Alys is to be brought to Henry in London and put under his wardship until he decides her fate, which will probably mean she will be married off to one of his supporters.

Nicholas and Alys are immediately igniting sparks with their antagonism. She is adamant that she much reach Wolveston, regardless of the fact that Nicholas informs her that most of the inhabitants of the estate and surrounding village have been struck down by a virulent sweating sickness. She has not seen her father in years – the custom for the children of the nobility was that they were “fostered” by other noble families and Alys spent most of her youth with the Gloucesters – but when Nicholas makes a comment about two of her brothers which she knows to be false, she is even more determined to see her father and find out the truth.

I confess, I frequently found Alys’ attitude to be either too modern, too annoying, or both. I realize that having her behave as women at that time were expected to, and to submit without question to whatever the men told her to do, would not have made for a very interesting story. But she is stupidly stubborn at times, and her actions sometimes lead her into situations in which others must risk themselves in order to extricate her. At this point in the story, despite having been warned against it several times, she sneaks away from Merrion’s camp and into her father’s apartments, only to find him ravaged with the sickness. He dies while she is there and she does not find the information she seeks; and then she becomes gravely ill. She recovers, but not before she has infected her faithful maidservant Jonet. To be fair to Alys, she is distraught – but I can’t help thinking she should have listened to Nicholas in the first place!

When they reach London, Alys is assigned to wait upon the Lady Elizabeth, daughter of King Edward and soon-to-be wife to Henry. One thing I found unusual about this book was the characterization of Elizabeth. In most of the other books in which she appears that I’ve read, Elizabeth is portrayed as a gentle, serene woman, but in this one she shows an unpleasant side. She and Alys don’t like each other, and Elizabeth often goes out of her way to be downright nasty to Alys. I’m not saying either portrayal is right or wrong – I just found it interesting that it was so different to the way she’s normally written.

Henry informs Alys that she is to marry Lord Briarly, a member of the Stanley family who so thoroughly betrayed Richard at Bosworth. Of course, that alone is enough to horrify her, but Briarly is also nearing sixty and is looking for a brood mare rather than a wife. Alys has known all her life that she would have no say in the matter of her marriage and as the king’s ward, knows she has to alternative but to accept his choice.

But her fortunes are about to change. Her eldest brother Roger dies suddenly, leaving Alys the sole heiress of a large estate and fortune. In a rather novel move for the time, Henry wanted to distribute the wealth and power of his nobles rather than have it all concentrated in just a few hands, and so Alys finds herself married not to Briarly but to Nicholas Merrion, in reward for his loyal service to his king.

Already very much attracted to him, Alys is not overly dismayed, but their relationship remains a tempestuous one, with Alys’ blatant dislike of the new king and her unruly tongue frequently leading to discord between them. And it’s not just that – some of the things she says are bordering on treasonous, and yet knowing that, she still makes no effort to curb her tongue, at least in public.

It’s clear that Nicholas is more than fond of her, although she cannot be sure if she is merely the wife who was conveniently attached to a large parcel of land and a fortune; but her constant carping about Henry and Nicholas’ misplaced loyalties would try the patience of a saint. At one point, when she contradicts her husband and belittles him in front of his men, he threatens to beat her for her disobedience – and I can’t say as I blame him. I wanted to slap her about a bit myself!

Needless to say, Nicholas isn’t your typical medieval husband who would have exercised his legal right to beat his wife and he finds another way to punish Alys – by making her apologize publicly to him and everyone else.

The novel closes with the defeat of the rebellion against Henry in which a young man called Lambert Simnel claimed to be the Earl of Warwick, son of George, Duke of Clarence, the younger brother of Edward IV. Despite her Yorkist leanings, Alys has come to respect Henry (who, in the novel, is presented as an intelligent, shrewd man with a dry sense of humor) and learning of the plot to kill him by attacking his position at the rear of his army, she finally admits that while she might not like the fact he took the throne from Richard, Henry is better for the country than any young puppet-king would be. She is also terrified that Nicholas could be killed in the fighting, and realizing that it is too late to send a messenger, sets off herself to find her husband and warn him of the plot.

This is an era of history that has long fascinated me, and I thought that the novel was well researched and supplied enough background detail to spark the readers’ interest while not turning into a history lesson. The writing is good, although I felt that having the story seen solely from the heroine’s point of view meant that the hero was sidelined and that we never got to know very much about him and his motivations. That said, however, he was affectionate towards Alys and showed a lot of patience when she insisted on throwing her Yorkist loyalties in his face, and was even willing to admit that he understood their importance to her, even though he could never share them.

I also found the pacing to be rather uneven. The opening chapters which detail the first encounters between Alys and Nicholas and their journey to London were very engaging, but I felt that the pace slackened off as soon as they reached their destination. One reason for this could be that, given Nicholas’ position as one of Henry’s most trusted knights, he and Alys spent large chunks of the story apart; and I thought that once they were both present, the pace picked up until their next separation. It’s not that there was nothing else happening – this was a time of great change and there was always intrigue and politicking – but none of that usually involved women whose situation in life usually rendered them passive and reactive to events.

I was pleased that the author did not have Alys suddenly become a fervent Lancastrian at the end, because that would have been too implausible. Instead, Alys comes to realize that blindly supporting a cause is not necessarily a noble thing to do and that sometimes it’s important to consider the smaller as well as the bigger picture. She also – at last! – understand the need to curb her tongue and exercise caution as to what she says and in whose presence she says it.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, despite my reservations about the heroine. It was well-written as well as being informative, eventful and engaging; and even though I consider myself a Ricardian, I nonetheless liked the author’s portrayal of Henry Tudor as a man trying to do the best to unite a country almost overwhelmed by internal strife.

The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan

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Miss Jane Fairfield can’t do anything right. When she’s in company, she always says the wrong thing—and rather too much of it. No matter how costly they are, her gowns fall on the unfortunate side of fashion. Even her immense dowry can’t save her from being an object of derision.

And that’s precisely what she wants. She’ll do anything, even risk humiliation, if it means she can stay unmarried and keep her sister safe.

Mr. Oliver Marshall has to do everything right. He’s the bastard son of a duke, raised in humble circumstances—and he intends to give voice and power to the common people. If he makes one false step, he’ll never get the chance to accomplish anything. He doesn’t need to come to the rescue of the wrong woman. He certainly doesn’t need to fall in love with her. But there’s something about the lovely, courageous Jane that he can’t resist…even though it could mean the ruin of them both.(

Rating: A

Ms Milan’s novella The Governess Affair, which is the prequel to this series, was one of my favourite books from late 2012, and I’ve listed Hugo and Serena from that story as one of my favourite couples on my reviewer profile here at AAR. Oliver Marshall, the hero of The Heiress Effect is their son, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting his story since I read the prequel in December.

And yes. It was well worth the wait.

Oliver bears many similarities to Hugo who, although not his biological father, is his father in every way that matters. Like Hugo, he is ambitious, fiercely intelligent, tenacious, and not above getting his hands dirty when something unpleasant needs to be done. He aspires to a political career and is slowly and carefully making a name for himself in the right circles, even though he is well aware that he doesn’t quite fit in with those he would join in Parliament.

Right at the end of The Governess Affair, we got a glimpse of the young Oliver at Eton being taunted and bullied by the boys there who considered themselves his betters, and then being befriended by Robert, heir to the Duke of Clermont (who was also Oliver’s biological father). That Clermont is now long dead, but Robert regards Oliver as his brother and has publicly acknowledged him as such. But even the acknowledgement of a duke cannot redeem Oliver in the eyes of some members of society; and he has to navigate carefully between two different worlds, the working class one of his parents and the higher echelons of society that contain the men of power and influence he needs to impress if he is to achieve his ambitions. As he has grown older, Oliver has realized that the best way to get what he wants is to stop standing up and standing out; and he has instead cultivated an appearance of calm acceptance and good sense, even though it sticks in his craw to have to kowtow to some of these men. But by doing so, he believes he can use the people who would use him, and has had some degree of success with those tactics.

But there is an “angry young man” bubbling beneath the calm exterior. Oliver is a passionate advocate for voting reform, and has his eyes firmly trained on his goal – until, that is, those eyes land on Miss Jane Fairchild for the first time.

Jane is already a laughing-stock among polite Cambridge society because of her terrible dress sense and her unerring ability to insult anyone and everyone. But there are one hundred thousand very good reasons she is tolerated – and she is well aware of it, even calling it The Heiress Effect. It suits her to appear stupid and to put up with the cruel comments and insults she knows are directed at her behind her back (and sometimes to her face) because, like Oliver, Jane Has. A. Plan.

Jane needs to remain unmarried for the next eighteen months, until her half-sister, Emily, reaches her majority. Emily suffers from some form of epilepsy (I’m guessing), although in general her seizures are mild. But the girls’ uncle, (and Emily’s guardian) Titus Fairfield, believes her to be an invalid, keeps her confined to the house, and persists in finding doctors and quacks who insist they can cure her, while subjecting her to the most horrendous treatments. He is desperate to get Jane married off and out of his house and Jane is equally as determined not to leave Emily to be poked, prodded and God knows what else while she remains under his roof.

Having never had a mother’s care, Jane grew up with nobody to guide her as to correct deportment and behavior or help develop her taste in clothes. As a result, she has always been different and an object of derision – so it was a simple matter for her to build on her lack of taste and manner in order to scare off potential husbands.

The first time she meets Oliver Marshall, she assumes he’s like all the other men she’s met – interested in her fortune – and immediately sets out to insult him. Naturally, he is taken aback – but being a gentleman, he behaves beautifully and doesn’t rise to any of her slights, all the time wondering why on earth she dresses so garishly and makes herself such an easy target. Reluctantly, he is intrigued and sympathetic, recognizing in Jane someone like himself, someone who doesn’t quite fit in. The more he sees of her, the more curious he is as to why nobody ever gives her a taste of her own medicine and the more appalled he becomes – not at her behavior, but at the fact that she seems to be oblivious to what people are saying about her.

Having been, while at Eton, on the receiving end of many insults – both verbal and physical – Oliver is determined not to join in with the general badmouthing of Miss Fairfield’s dress sense and manners; but the moment when he snaps is really rather lovely. She has deliberately referred to him as “Mr Cromwell” throughout the evening, and when she offers to send him the recipe for a cure for lumbago, he tells her to send it to him at his London address:

”Oliver Cromwell, care of the Tower, London, England.”

It’s at this point that Jane realizes that the quiet, unassuming Mr Marshall is very likely not at all what he seems. His demeanor has led her to believe:

”…that he was a quiet little rabbit. He wasn’t. He was the wolf that looked as if he were lounging about on the outskirts of the pack, a lone hanger-on, when in truth he had adopted that position simply so that he could see everything that transpires in the fields below. He wasn’t solitary; he was waiting for someone to make a mistake.”

I really liked the ‘wolf’ analogy, which I thought was a nice nod to Hugo’s having been known as “The Wolf of Clermont”.

Throughout the course of several meetings, Oliver and Jane strike up a deep and genuine friendship, which I thought was one of the highlights of the book. They truly are kindred spirits; in each other they have found someone with whom they can be themselves, and the scenes between them at this point are funny, tender and brimming with romantic tension. Oliver speaks with heartfelt intensity about what he wants to achieve in politics and about his motivations and his desire to make a difference – but more importantly tells Jane that he has figured her out, and that he knows what it is like not to be ‘one of the crowd.’ The scene where he tells her she is not alone is simply beautiful. In return, Jane opens up to him, telling him about her sister and her need to protect her until she comes of age. She thinks he’s lovely – and tells him so! – but what Jane doesn’t know is that Oliver has been approached by the Marquess of Bradenton, a very influential man in the political circles Oliver moves in, because the Marquess wants Jane brought down a peg or two (or several) in public. Bradenton has borne the brunt of Miss Fairfield’s misplaced wit one time too many, and wants her silenced; in return for this, he offers Oliver his support, and that of his cronies, for the voting reform bill.

Oliver is hugely torn. On the one hand, Jane is like him – an outsider, someone who has known derision and cruelty and he is reluctant to inflict more. On the other – Bradenton’s support would mean the enfranchisement of thousands and he tries to set one woman’s humiliation against the betterment of many. In a lovely scene, Oliver seeks his father’s advice; which is basically, “you already know the right thing to do”.

Which he certainly does.

There is quite a lot going on in this novel, but everything is woven together so skilfully that it flows naturally and none of the different elements is left unaddressed or unfinished. We meet Oliver’s youngest sister, Free (whose story will be told in a future book in the series) who is an advocate of universal suffrage and who wants to study at Cambridge; and we are reacquainted with Oliver’s aunt Freddy (Serena’s agoraphobic sister), who is as ascerbic and strangely insightful as she ever was, and his rakish cousin, Sebastian Malheur, whose appearance in the final section of the novel has well and truly whetted my appetite for his story , which I believe will be the next in the series. There is also a secondary romance in the book, at which I admit I balked a bit, because I’m not normally keen on having attention taken away from the primary couple – but I needn’t have worried. The relationship between Jane’s sister Emily and the young Indian barrister Mr Battacharya is established simply and realistically, and the scenes which take place during their stolen afternoons together are sweet and full of the shyness of first attraction.

As one would expect from Ms Milan, the historical detail is well researched and the central romance is beautifully written. Oliver and Jane are immediately engaging and very real; alike yet unalike they draw strength from each other even as they face up to the reality that they cannot be together. I think it’s important to say that the reasons for that are not external; they are not the result of a Big Misunderstanding, or an evil, interfering relative, but rather due to Oliver’s belief that Jane is not the sort of woman he needs at his side. She’s brash and wears garish colours and she doesn’t care what people say, but she’s comfortable with who she is, even as she knows she will never be the kind of submissive, “don’t notice me” kind of political wife that Oliver wants.

Even though it’s immediately apparent to the reader that Oliver is utterly and completely wrong in that particular assumption, I found it impossible to think any less of him because of it. His willingness to sacrifice his personal happiness for something bigger and his struggles between his desires and his conscience don’t diminish him in any way. It might not make him the perfect romantic hero, but it certainly makes him an interesting human being.

(He’s also auburn-haired and bespectacled. I think I may be in love.)

The ending was really lovely, with a poignant and unexpected twist that finally brings Oliver to the realization that, in his own way, he’s been just afraid of going “outside” as his aunt Freddy ever was. But unlike her, the walls which have constrained him have been of his own making; and while he has certainly accomplished more by biding his time and being quiet than he did by lashing out, he discovers that he doesn’t much care for the person he has become, the man who has “made a career of quiet.” He wants to step into the sun and live his life in noisy, messy color –and there is only one woman who can help him to accomplish that.

The Heiress Effect is intelligently written and full of warmth, sensuality and humour, a real treat for anyone looking for a well-written story with memorable characters. I wouldn’t say it’s absolutely necessary to have read the preceding books in the series to enjoy this one, but if you haven’t read The Governess Affair or The Duchess War, you’ve missed out on a couple of superb reads!

The Bridegroom Wore Plaid by Grace Burrowes (audiobook) – Narrated by Roger Hampton

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Ian MacGregor is wooing a woman who’s wrong for him in every way. As the new Earl of Balfour, though, he must marry an English heiress to repair the family fortunes.But in his intended’s penniless chaperone, Augusta, Ian is finding everything he’s ever wanted in a wife.

Rating: Story A-; Narration B-

The Bridegroom Wore Plaid was one of my favourite books of last year, so I was delighted when I discovered there were plans to release it in audio format. I’m a big fan of Grace Burrowes’ writing in general; I’ve enjoyed all her books I’ve read so far and stand in awe of the way she can make the emotion just leap off the page. She’s become one of my go-to authors for when I want a romance with a good dollop of angst on the way to the HEA.

Roger Hampton isn’t a narrator with whom I’m familiar, but a quick look through Audible reveals he’s narrated a number of titles with the word “Highland” in the title – which immediately told me that there was a good chance he’d be a dab hand with a Scottish accent. 😉

The story centres around the MacGregor family, and their struggles to make ends meet on their highland estate. Ian MacGregor is the eldest, and due to the disappearance of his older brother some seven years earlier, is about to be declared the Earl of Balfour – a title he doesn’t really want. But he’s not a man to sidestep his responsibilities and prepares to accept the inevitable. His family consists of his brothers Gil and Connor, his widowed sister Mary Frances, and her daughter Flora. Ian might be an earl-to-be, but the family is poor and needs to open the estate to guests every year in order to make enough money to see them through the year. Queen Victoria’s love of all things Scottish and the fact that her estate at Balmoral borders MacGregor lands means that they have no trouble attracting wealthy clients during the summer months, but this year’s visitors are different. Ian needs to marry money, and his guests are to include his prospective bride Eugenia (known as Genie) Daniels. The novel opens with Ian and his brothers meeting Genie and her party from the train and escorting them home.

The rest of the audio review can be found here at AudioGals.

Surrender to the Earl by Gayle Callen

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She wanted a favour, not a fiancé.

Audrey Blake’s impromptu plan – asking a visitor to help her take ownership of her rightful property – is unravelling in spectacular fashion. Robbed of her sight by a childhood fever, Audrey has been kept in virtual seclusion by her family. And now the enigmatic Robert Henslow, Earl of Knightsbridge, has complicated her scheme to gain independence, insisting they pretend to be engaged.

Duty brought Robert to Audrey’s doorstep. As for what makes him propose marriage… it might be guilt. Compassion. Or something far more urgent and unexpected. Their counterfeit union was supposed to be for Audrey’s benefit. Yet it’s Robert who yearns to prove to the intriguing Audrey how much they both have to gain by making it real – and convincing her to submit to the most blissful passion.

Rating: A-

Surrender to the Earl is a truly charming romance which has been lumbered with rather a clichéd title that I feel is actually quite misleading. While it’s true that the story that involves the heroine changing her mind about her determination never to remarry, there is no question of “surrender” or submission. Both hero and heroine discover new things about themselves and each other and have to put aside preconceptions, but perhaps something along those lines wouldn’t have made a snappy title.

That aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, which is the second in Gayle Callen’s Brides of Redemption series. I read and liked the first story, Return of the Viscount last year, so had high hopes for this one – and I wasn’t disappointed.

Audrey Blake ‘s husband was killed in India, in the same incident that killed the commanding officer of Viscount Blackthorne and his friends the Earl of Knightsbridge and the Duke of Rothford. Audrey didn’t have much of a marriage as her husband only married her so he could use her dowry to purchase his commission and left for India immediately after their wedding night. As a result, Audrey is still living under her father’s roof, and is desperate to escape. Not only is she widowed, she is blind – the result of a severe fever as a child – and her family thinks she is a useless invalid. Despite her blindness, however, Audrey is very adept at running the household, which is another reason her father is loath to let her leave so that she can live independently on her husband’s property.

When Robert Henslow, Earl of Knightsbridge comes to visit – albeit two years after her husband’s death – he asks her if there is anything he can do for her. He feels responsible for Martin Blake’s death, and makes the offer out of guilt. He is stunned when Audrey asks him to help her to escape from her family home and is reluctant to help at first, unable to see why she would wish to do such a thing or to think of a way he can take her away without her father’s permission.

Over the next few days, however, he begins to understand Audrey’s predicament. It becomes clear to him that she is frequently overlooked, relegated almost to the position of “poor relation” and regarded as an embarrassment by her brother and sister. Her father constantly belittles her and reminds her of the failure of her first marriage as a way of keeping her under his thumb. At a dinner-party, it is apparent that none of the guests have ever met Audrey before, despite the fact that she has lived there all her life; her father has kept her more or less shut away since the death of her mother some years earlier, and she was the only one who treated her blind daughter as a person rather than a blind person.

Robert quickly realises that Audrey is a very capable and courageous woman and begins to admire her fortitude and determination. He also realises that there is only one way in which he can help her to escape without exposing her to gossip – they must announce their engagement, and he can escort Audrey to her property which is quite close to his own estates. Once she is settled, they can quietly end the engagement and nobody will be any the wiser – and Audrey will finally have achieved her dream of living independently.

When they arrive at Rose Cottage, it’s immediately clear that all is not as it should be. Audrey and Robert assume that it is because the servants – cook/housekeeper, groundsman, footman, maid – have had a cushy time with no master or mistress and are reluctant to see it end, but it’s not long before Audrey realises that the constant ‘little’ errors – cold food, moved furniture – are designed to make her leave and that there must be something more to the staffs’ recalcitrance.

The slowly developing affection between Robert and Audrey was the highlight of the book for me, and was beautifully written. Even though they are not really engaged to be married, Robert is always solicitous and tender, and often playfully affectionate towards her. Audrey is rather more reserved; her memories of her husband’s treatment of her are never far away and she has vowed never to allow herself to trust a man again. But she hates that she is becoming more and more dependent on Robert – or rather, she thinks it’s dependency when it’s clear to the reader that it’s not: she misses him when he’s not around and wants to be with him, but is so prickly about her desire for independence and suspicious that he is motivated by pity for her situation and her blindness that she can’t see that he’s just as “dependent” on her for his happiness as she is on him.

I found both protagonists to be extremely likeable, even though I did find Audrey’s repeated and stubborn refusals of Robert’s genuine proposal rather annoying at times. Robert was a gorgeous beta hero; following an event which pulled him up short and made him realise at the age of twenty, that he was well on the way to becoming an autocrat like his father, he joined the army which he freely admits was the making of him. He has his hidden secrets, but it was rather refreshing to find a hero who didn’t quite need wild horses to drag them from him and who was able to own his mistakes and try to atone for them as best he could. His experiences have given him insight, developed his intuition and turned him into a patient, understanding man who will make Audrey a wonderful, loving husband if she will let him.

Interestingly, the character who grows most during the course of the novel is Audrey’s younger sister, Blythe. When we first meet her, she is self-centred and rather cruel to Audrey, but when she turns up at Rose Cottage in the latter half of the story, and begins to confess to just why she felt and acted the way she did, the sisters begin to rebuild their relationship. I’m not sure I completely bought into Blythe’s change of heart to start with, but when it became clear that she was motivated by a genuine desire to atone for her past behaviour, I began to enjoy watching them become friends and I liked the way that Blythe was not afraid to ask difficult questions or tell Audrey a few home-truths when necessary.

I admit to being a sucker for stories where the hero and heroine become friends before they are lovers (and to liking a “fake-engagement” plot), and Surrender to the Earl certainly delivers on that score. Audrey and Robert are a perfect fit – as friends they are like-minded and genuinely appreciative of each other and there was plenty of romantic and sexual tension in the air when their feelings for each other began to grow into something more.

I’ve read some complaints about the slow pacing in the book, but personally, I didn’t feel that at all. I was so engrossed in watching Robert and Audrey falling head-over-heels in love and enjoying their interactions that the fact that “nothing happened” didn’t bother me in the slightest.

For me, the fact that the developing romance was placed so firmly at the heart of the book was key to my enjoyment, and I’ll certainly be looking out for the next book in the series.

With thanks to Avon and Edelweiss for the review copy.