Dangerous in Diamonds (The Rarest Blooms #4) by Madeleine Hunter (audiobook) – Narrated by Kate Reading

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The Duke of Castleford has been so bad for so long that scandal can’t be bothered to rise up around him anymore. To alleviate the boredom of his privileged life, he occupies himself with drinking and whoring, not to mention the occasional duel. When something piques his interest, however, he has been known to emerge from his ennui and employ his considerable mental faculties to finding answers to the questions that fascinate him.

When Daphne Joyes rejects this notorious hedonist’s seduction, she assumes that he will forget about her and continue on his path to hell. Instead her beauty, grace and formidable composure captivate him, and she becomes one of those fascinations to him. That he intends to have her, and soon, is actually the least of the dangers that his pursuit of her presents. More troublesome is his interest in her past and her history, and the way he keeps poking his nose into the secrets behind the distant relative’s bequest that gave him ownership of the property where she lives.

Rating: B+

I haven’t read or listened to any of the other books in this series, but I picked this up in the recent Tantor Audio sale (gawd bless ‘em!) and was immediately hooked by the superb narration by Kate Reading.

The story is pretty much a variant of your “jaded-rake-meets-woman-who-finally-interests-him” plot, but what marks it out as a bit different is the inclusion of the historical detail around the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, plus Daphne’s network of “sisters”, women who have been through similar experiences to herself at the hands of unscrupulous men.

At the beginning of the story Tristan, the Duke of Castleford is surprised by the bequest of several plots of land he has received in the will of the Duke of Becksbridge, a distant relation. He doesn’t need the money or the land, and the late Duke’s accompanying missive is cryptic to say the least, but while Castleford might spend six days out of every seven drinking and whoring, he does tend to his estates – on Tuesdays – and by all accounts has a very shrewd head for business and management.

He decides to visit the closest of these packets of land, and finds himself at the “Rarest Blooms”, which is currently inhabited by Mrs Daphne Joyes, the widow of a soldier, and a younger, rather nervous woman named Katherine Johnson. The property houses Mrs Joyes’ flower growing business and is also a sort of refuge for women who need to escape from the eyes of the world (or worse things) and live in peace and anonymity for a while.

Castleford is immediately captivated by the beautiful and intelligent Mrs Joyes, and sets about trying to seduce her. As far as that element of the story goes, it’s not especially original, but it does have some delightful dialogue between the pair as they develop a friendship of sorts, and as Daphne begins to realise that there is more to the Duke than many people believe – or rather, than he allows many people to believe.

But Daphne is a mystery, and Castleford’s acute mind won’t leave it alone – he has to find out just who she is and why she is living alone, as well as working out why on earth he was left the properties in Becksbridge’s will which are all dotted around in different parts of England. He begins to piece the puzzle together slowly and it’s likely the reader/listener is a bit ahead of him, but Daphne’s story, when it is finally revealed, packs no less a punch for that.

I admit that I really liked Castleford as a character. He’s jaded and he’s a rake and makes no bones about admitting it, but he’s fiercely intelligent and honourable at the same time. He’s witty, has a great sense of humour, and he doesn’t lie to Daphne. He makes it clear to her that he wants her to become his mistress and that theirs will be a finite relationship, but he also shows her a lot of consideration, especially when he makes her a promise that most men would have found it impossible to fulfil.

The trouble is that it’s hard to believe that this intelligent, witty, kind man only manages to stay sober on one day each week. During the course of the book, we only see him after he has received the bequests and has become intrigued enough by Daphne and her situation to want to devote more time to delving into her past and the mystery that surrounds her, but it’s still difficult to believe that someone with his proclivities hasn’t drunk himself to death or gambled away the family fortune long before now!

Daphne is (obviously) his perfect mate. She can match him in intelligence, determination and wit, but she is not completely honest with him. I suppose this is understandable, given her history and Castleford’s reputation for insobriety and dissipation, but I did feel as though her insistence on not giving him her trust got a little wearying, especially after she’d given in to his blandishments and become his lover.

The sexual tension between the pair crackles from their first meeting. Daphne is adamant that she does not want to be seduced, but is unable to stop herself becoming more and more fascinated by Castleford, who is such an odd mixture of depravity and astuteness as well as someone she is pretty sure knows how to show a girl a good time! Even simple kisses raise the temperature and the love scenes, while not graphic, are very sensual.

There are some fascinating glimpses of the political situation of the day in the novel, too. England after the Napoleonic Wars was still suffering great hardships. There was widespread famine and chronic unemployment, and conditions were made even worse by the introduction of the first corn laws, which meant it was illegal to import cheap wheat, even when there were shortages. In the earlier part of the novel, we hear about the civil unrest that is spreading in the north of England and Castleford takes part in several discussions about what is happening and about what parliament should be doing in order to prevent disaster. When he follows Daphne to Failsworth (five miles outside Manchester), they both get to experience first-hand the effects of the meeting at St. Peter’s field and the subsequent military charge.

But the book is first and foremost a romance, and these events take place in the background so the progress of the central relationship is not slowed down in favour of a history lesson.

As with so many other books in my TBR mountain, this is a title I opted to listen to rather than read, and I’m so glad I made that choice, because Kate Reading’s narration was outstanding. Each of the characters in the book was voiced distinctly and there was never any confusion as to who was speaking. Not only were the male and female voices different – I think Ms Reading is one of a handful of female narrators who is able to lower the pitch of her voice sufficiently to sound reasonably convincing as a man! – but her portrayal of characters of the same sex was also very clearly delineated. I noticed as well that even when she was narrating what was in a character’s head she tended to speak using a tone similar to the one she used for that character’s speech, so that it was very clear when we were hearing Castleford’s thoughts or when we were hearing Daphne’s. I was so impressed with her delivery in this that I immediately headed over to Audible to see if I could find what other books Ms Reading has narrated. I’m pleased to say that she has worked on the Lauren Willig Pink Carnation series, several of which are already on my TBR pile, but it doesn’t look as though she has narrated many historical romances at all, which is a great loss to the genre, IMO.

In the end, I opted to give Dangerous in Diamonds a B grade. While I liked Castleford, it’s impossible not to be a little distracted by the inconsistencies in his character, and that, together with Daphne’s repeated refusals to trust him did unbalance things a little for me in terms of the story. But the narration is stellar, and I thought it more than made up for the things I found problematic. I haven’t listened to any of the other books in this series and I’m not sure I’ll be doing so any time soon. Had they been narrated by Kate Reading, I’d probably be glomming them right now, but the other three books use someone else I’m not familiar with, so I might wait a while before I pick any of them up.

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