Never Love a Scoundrel by Darcy Burke

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Vengeance is seductive…

Labeled a lunatic and a reprobate, Lord Jason Lockwood finds solace in debauchery outside the realm of Polite Society. Years after provoking Jason’s downfall, his bastard brother rises from the rookeries to emerge as the premier gentleman of the ton. Jason vows to uncover the supposedly reformed criminal’s secret motive and use it against him to exact revenge—even if it means using a beautiful young debutante whose only mistake is her relation to the woman who has ensured his family’s infamy.

But revenge is sweet

Lady Lydia Prewitt is everything a debutante should be: beautiful, dowried, and in possession of a sterling reputation. But life beneath the thumb of her malicious aunt is eroding Lydia’s faith in her peers and in herself. When the scandalous yet seductive Lord Lockwood solicits her help to gain entry into the best ballrooms, she jumps at the opportunity to be more than her aunt’s minion. But the revelation of his true purpose and the anger that lies beneath his scarred exterior draws her into his dark past. Intervention doesn’t come without a price—can she risk her own future to save his?

Rating: B

Never Love a Scoundrel is the fifth book in Ms Burke’s Secrets and Scandals series. I confess that I haven’t read any of the earlier books in the series, but even though some of the characters from them either appear or are referenced, I didn’t feel at a disadvantage, as the information we are given is sufficient for this particular story to work as a standalone.

Jason Lockwood lives on the fringes of society, a man suspected of insanity and known for debauchery. Years earlier, his mother had some sort of mental breakdown in public and the gossip is that her son is just as mentally unstable, a rumour given substance by his frequent bursts of temper. Some time after removing his mother from London and making sure she is well cared for, Jason began hosting what have become infamous “vice parties”, initially as a way of staving off loneliness and later because he believed he wasn’t worthy of better society.

Of course, these parties are regularly attended by members of the ton, many of whom would cut Jason dead if they met him in the street; such is the level of hypocrisy running rife in society.

On hearing that his half-brother Ethan Jagger – now going by the name of Ethan Locke – has suddenly appeared in society squiring around a young widow, Jason is both intrigued and more than annoyed. He and Ethan are not well disposed toward each other to say the least, having fought so violently at their last meeting that Jason was left with a horrible scar running down one side of his face. Ethan had previously made his living as a thief-taker, and Jason is sure he can be up to no good. He’s also angry that his half-brother has the entrée into the society that has shunned Jason himself.

Venturing out to see if he can ascertain Ethan’s purpose, Jason meets Miss Lydia Prewett, the great-niece of the scourge of the ton, the inveterate gossip Margaret Rutherford. Lydia has lived with her aunt for the past six seasons, but has yet to make a match, principally because she is seen by most of society as an extension of her poisonous aunt. Margaret uses Lydia to acquire and circulate gossip, and although Lydia is tired of it and would stop if she could, it’s either live with Margaret and abide by her rules, or be sent back to live with her father in the wilds of Northumberland – a father who takes no interest whatsoever in his daughter.

Jason and Lydia meet accidentally, and each is intrigued enough by the other to hope for a second meeting. Unlikely though this is (as Jason does not move about in polite circles), the pair do encounter each other once again, this time at the home of the dearest friend of Jason’s mother. For Jason has decided that, if he’s to discover what his half-brother is doing out in society, then he needs to be mixing in the same circles, something he has not done for years. Lydia offers to help to re-introduce him to society and suggests he host a “normal” party, with food, music and dancing as a way to prove to the ton that he is not so black as he has been painted.

But Aunt Margaret has other ideas. She has borne a grudge against the Lockwoods for years and although she has nothing against Jason personally, she hates him and his entire family and is determined to bring him down. I have to say that she’s rather a lip-smacking villainess who borders on the cartoonish – I wanted to boo and hiss whenever she appeared in the story!

But as she’s helping Jason to plan his re-entry into society, Lydia also engages to help Ethan to repair his relationship with his half-brother. I think their shift from hatred and distrust to a grudging respect and eventually to the beginnings of a filial affection was one of the best parts of the book, and it has whetted my appetite for the next in the series which will feature Ethan as the hero.

However, Ethan is being watched closely by Scotland Yard, and by Daniel, Viscount Carlyle (who was the hero of the previous book.) Carlyle senses that Ethan is trying to change his ways but has no proof; and when he and Jason stumble upon something which indicates Ethan may be behind a series of recent robberies, it looks as though Ethan’s days as a free man are numbered.

While Jason is struggling with his anger at being duped by his brother and his sense of betrayal, he is also struggling with his feelings for Lydia, which he has realised go beyond simple lust – which they’ve already explored *wink*.

I liked that Jason wasn’t one of those heroes who feared commitment. He has concerns about the effect his reputation might have on Lydia’s standing in society, but once he decides he wants to marry her, Jason sticks to his guns and proposes. The problem is Lydia. She wants to marry him, but starts worrying about how she will continue to live in society as the wife of a known reprobate. (I’d have said she should have started worrying about her reputation after she slept with him, to be honest!) She also starts thinking that maybe his proposal wasn’t serious, even though she doesn’t have any real reason for that suspicion as Jason has always been honest with her. It seems that Lydia has spent so much of her life being proper and wanting to fit in, that when the time comes for her to take control of her life, she fails, hesitating at a key moment which leads Jason to believe she doesn’t care for him. He, on the other hand, has bared his soul and believes he has made a complete fool of himself.

I haven’t read any of Ms Burke’s other books, but I would certainly consider doing so in the future. This one was well written and the characterisation was consistent – even Lydia’s vacillations over Jason’s proposal and her lack of assertiveness (annoying though they were) made sense given what we know about her situation. Although I have to say that Jason wasn’t so much a ‘scoundrel’ as he was a man who had been shunned by society through no fault of his own and had therefore decided not to give a damn about what anyone thought of him any more. Never Love a Scoundrel was an entertaining story, in which the two plot threads were woven together in a way that didn’t leave me feeling as though I’d read two different stories that had been mashed together. What could have been a fairly ordinary romance was turned into a more engaging and rounded story overall by the addition of the subplot about Ethan Jagger/Locke and by the way in which Ms Burke developed the relationship between the half-brothers.

A word of warning though – although Jason and Lydia do get their HEA in this story, the book ends on a cliffhanger which leads directly into the next book (for which there is a short teaser at the end).

The Art of Temptation by Genella de Grey

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After seven failed seasons, Valerie Hempstead decides to take her fate into her own hands, and a tour of the continent is just the thing. Accompanied by a female cousin, and the girl’s childhood companions–all of whom live fast and for the moment, Valerie is about to discover more about life than she anticipated.

Travis Elijah Colin Wade, the son of no one in particular, has just been handed a vast amount of money and a large country estate and, of all things, a bloody title. However, he’s not at all pleased about leaving his care-free bachelor days behind. Determined to spend some of his money and relax before assuming his duties for Queen and country, Travis goes abroad. Little does he know that he is about to be utterly swept away by the seduction of innocent surrender.

Rating: D-

I can’t believe I managed to finish this one. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the fact I was reading it for review, I probably wouldn’t have done.

I’m not going to waste a lot of time writing a full review, so here’s the bare bones.

1. The heroine (Valerie) is a well-brought up young lady living in the 1880s, at a time when women were protected to the point of suffocation by their relatives and chaperones etc.
She has not married after seven seasons and in order to escape her domineering mother, runs away to Paris to stay with a cousin she’s never met, who turns out to be a bit of a good-time girl. From Paris, Valerie, the cousin, cousin’s friend and couple of male hangers-on go to Venice and crash an exclusive party at which Val indulges in some drunken snogging and groping with a hot guy.

2. Back in Paris, cousin’s bitchy friend wants to ditch Val ASAP because, on a visit to the new club, the Moulin Rouge, Val got asked if she’d like to work there and bitch-face didn’t.

3. Cousin and friends bugger off on a trip to Africa, leaving Val’s belongings on the doorstep. Val has no alternative and heads off to the Moulin to begin her career as a burlesque dancer.

4. Because Val is tall, willowy and virginal it’s the posh stuff for her – the ballet. She has never trained, has never been a dancer of any kind and on day 2, she’s dancing on point.
I don’t think so. That takes years of practice.

5. She’s also performing a mini-striptease while dancing and struttin’ her stuff. See #1 to remind yourself who this girl is.

6. Val has the hots for the dishy doc who looks after the girls at the Moulin (and no, I don’t mean he “sees to” them – he is there for medical purposes only!) and is thus blind to the attentions of the hero when he turns up.

7. Dishy doc turns out to be engaged to childhood sweetheart at home. Val is devastated. For about five minutes, after which she realises that our hero was the one after all.

8. As for our hero. He’s 35, and his best friend calls him “Travie” (his name is Travis. Very 19th century England. NOT.)

9. He has inherited an Earldom completely out of the blue and wants nothing to do with it. He also seems to be living in fear of what services “Queen Vickie” (I kid you not – she is referred to as such) will require of him.
10. Like any brave, macho guy of 35, he runs away to Europe, gropes some girl wearing a kitty mask in Italy (and I suppose here I should at least applaud the author for keeping the number of “pussy” jokes to a minimum) and then mopes about a bit when he can’t find her the next day.

11. Turns up in Paris and quickly becomes besties with the dishy doc and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.

12. Sees Val on stage displaying her charms and immediately gets the hots for her. But *sadface* she only has eyes for the dishy doc.

13. But he’s in wuuuuve… and can’t imagine life without her at his side as his Countess.

Give me strength.

That’s enough. There was a twirly-moustachioed villain who did many villainy things apart from say “Muahahahahah!” whenever he turned up; lots of bitch-slapping at the Moulin Rouge, something about an auction for Val’s cherry and a plot to extort money from Val’s mum who has been searching for her.

There were loads of typos. Because you only get the best from me, here are two doozies.

The earl has a “MANNER house.”

Val comes from “Great BRITON.”

But wait. This book is generous because it gives you TWO for the price of ONE! Not only are there mistakes in the English, there are mistakes in the French as well! How generous.

My favourites. Trashy cousin (female) frequently calls Val “mon cher”. Val is a girl so it’s “ma chérie”.

The question “is it not?” in French = n’est-ce pas? NOT nes pa?

Oh, and usually, Mama is written – MAMA, and NOT M’ma.

The dialogue is a weird mixture of anachronisms and faux-19th century British; there is no depth to the characterisation, no relationship development and that, even if I were able to get past the utter implausibility of the set-up would be damning enough in itself. But added to the rest…

So there you go guys. Mission accomplished. I took one for the team and read this crap so YOU don’t have to.

Once Upon a Tower by Eloisa James

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Once upon a time…

A duke fell in love

Gowan Stoughton of Craigievar, Duke of Kinross, values order and self-control above all else. So when he meets a lady as serene as she is beautiful, he promptly asks for her hand in marriage.

With a lady

Edie—whose passionate temperament is the opposite of serene—had such a high fever at her own debut ball that she didn’t notice anyone, not even the notoriously elusive Duke of Kinross. When her father accepts his offer… she panics.

And when their marriage night isn’t all it could be, she pretends.

In a tower.

But Edie’s inability to hide her feelings makes pretending impossible, and when their marriage implodes, she retreats to a tower—locking Gowan out.

Now Gowan faces his greatest challenge. Neither commands nor reason work with his spirited young bride. How can he convince her to give him the keys to the tower…

When she already has the keys to his heart?

Rating: C

I think that Once Upon a Tower is something quite unlike most of the other historical romances I’ve ever read. In fact, I almost hesitate to call it a romance, even though the hero and heroine DO get their HEA and have to go through hell to get it. I can also see why the book has received mixed reviews because some of it makes for uncomfortable reading. That doesn’t mean that stories have to be comfortable to be enjoyable – far from it, but in Once Upon a Tower I think that some of the issues that Ms James has touched on are almost too … realistic to qualify as romance.

That isn’t necessarily a condemnation – it’s just my way of trying to explain my reasons for saying that in some ways, the book didn’t feel like a romance.

Rather, it’s a story about the pitfalls into which a young, inexperienced couple can easily fall when their relationship has no solid foundation other than a strong physical attraction and when they allow their expectations and attitudes towards their marriage to be informed by too many outside influences, past experiences and present examples. And because of that the story is – at its heart – an honest and timeless one.

Gowan Stoughton, Duke of Kinross, is twenty-two and inherited his title at the age of fourteen. He’s every inch the duke he was brought up to be, aware of his own consequence and what is due to him, but also incredibly mindful of his duty to the position and his responsibilities to those who depend on him. He’s a great believer in using every moment of every day – a major influence appearing to be his grandmother who spent her time running the ducal households, visiting tenants and filling her life with duty. Both his parents drank to excess and Gowan’s dedication to his role is as much to prove to himself and others that he is not like his father as it is to do with the fact that running a number of large estates and business concerns takes a lot of time. Gowan is a workaholic, and realising that one of his major duties is to ensure the succession, decides it’s time to find himself a wife. As he has to travel to Brighton on business, he decides to kill two birds with one stone and stop off in London to cast about him for a potential bride. Unusually for historical romance, Gowan is a virgin; he was betrothed in the cradle (to a lady who has since died) and believed it would dishonour both him and his fiancée if he were to take a mistress or to engage a courtesan. He has also been so busy setting to rights the estates his father almost ran into the ground that he hasn’t really had either the time or the inclination for dalliance.

But when he meets Lady Edith (Edie) Gilchrist for the first time, those inclinations change. She is the daughter of a good friend of his so it’s simply a matter of asking and receiving – and the morning after their meeting, they are engaged.

The thing is, he has fallen for Edie under a misconception. At the ball at which they met, Edie was unwell, and therefore spent most of the evening zoned out and gave the impression of being a very serene young lady who didn’t have very much to say for herself, whereas in reality she isn’t like that at all. Gowan has to leave the morning after the ball, so they don’t meet again for a while; although fortunately, when they do see each other again, each very much likes what they see and they’re both practically – to use the vernacular – gagging for it.
But what we learn about Edie during Gowan’s absence tells us already that things are going to be far from smooth sailing for the young couple. For one thing, Edie’s passion is the ‘cello. She’s a very talented musician and playing the instrument is practically the only thing in her life. She practices for five hours a day, and given Gowan’s work ethic and the work that is entailed in running a large household, it’s clear that there is going to be conflict ahead about that.

And then there is the fact that Edie’s father and step-mother are dreadfully unhappy in their marriage. At the root of the problem is the fact that Layla is unable to have children. She feels she has let her husband down and that he is no longer interested in her, so she behaves outrageously, taking up smoking cheroots and flirting with every man within a 50-mile radius. As a result, Edie’s father has become increasingly cold towards her which of course drives Layla to behave even more outrageously , and, being fairly close to her step-daughter in age, Layla treats Edie as a confidant rather than a daughter, and isn’t at all shy about talking about her marital difficulties.

Immediately after their wedding, Gowan returns to his usual pattern of existence; to his ledgers and his interminable discussions with stewards and solicitors, something which both astonishes and annoys Edie to no small degree, and I can’t say as I blame her. A bride of one day and she’s expected to sit in a carriage with her new husband and a bunch of strangers who occupy all his attention. Furthermore, it seems he never has a moment alone (apart from going to the bathroom!); he works solidly all day, apart from mealtimes, when he’s attended by a butler, a sommelier and several footmen – so that the only time he has for Edie is when they’re in bed. To her credit, she does point out this fact during their journey when she asks to speak to him privately – pointing out that ‘privately’ means without the servants within earshot. But Gowan has become so entrenched in his routines and his ways that he fails to see anything odd about spending the journey back to Scotland working when he has his new bride with him.

The biggest conflict in the story, though, is the one that is born in the marital bed. I thought the author’s depiction of first-time sex in this story was probably one of the most realistic I’ve ever read in a romantic novel. There are any number of well-endowed heroes who bring their virginal ladies to multiple orgasms during their first time together, and any number of virginal ladies who are able to accommodate their lusty stallions with a minimum amount of discomfort. Here, Ms James puts what may possibly be a more realistic spin on that whole “this is never going to work!” situation as Edie, while having been more than eager for Gowan’s lovemaking, actually finds it doesn’t work very well at all, and that intercourse with her hung-like-a-horse Scotsman is very painful. Believing that things won’t always feel like that, she is still optimistic about the next night – but when it’s just as bad, she resorts to faking it, having been previously told by a tipsy Layla- in a moment reminiscent of Meg Ryan’s famous “diner” scene in When Harry Met Sally – that sometimes it’s something a woman needs to do. The trouble is, once Edie has lied to Gowan in that way, she can’t stop, especially given that he tells her how important it is to him that she is finding the experience pleasurable as well as he. She knows it’s wrong, but can’t bear to disappoint him. Edie tries over the ensuing days to tell him the truth – but is thwarted at almost every turn by the fact that some servant or other is forever intruding upon them.

I think that Edie’s reticence was very realistic – even in our enlightened times, bedroom problems can be a difficult subject to broach, and we have a plethora of books, websites, sex-therapists and any number of options for help. So it makes sense that a sheltered, well-bred young woman in the Regency period would find the whole subject embarrassing and difficult to talk about, especially with the man involved whom she does not yet know very well.

After a few days, Gowan begins to sense that all is not well. While he believes that Edie is finding pleasure in his bed, he can’t help but realise that she is not as carried away by passion as he is, noticing that she is often “not there” when they’re in bed and wondering whether she’s running through scores in her head while he’s making love to her. He becomes angry with himself at his constant craving for her, thinking that she doesn’t feel for him with the same intensity he feels for her, and angry at what he sees as her self-possession around him. He’s walking around in a permanent state of seething lust, yet she is completely unaffected.

Or so he thinks, because of course, Edie has just the same thoughts as he does. She believes he is only willing to spend time with her in bed and has no idea that he can’t be in a room with her without wanting to throw her down and shag her senseless.

Things are already on the ropes as both Gowan and Edie are unable to talk to each other and resolve these misconceptions. Even worse, Gowan begins to believe that he can never compete with Edie’s true love – her ‘cello, as it’s only when she’s playing that he sees any real passion in her. The breaking point arrives when, having imbibed several glasses of champagne, Edie is finally able to let herself go sufficiently to achieve an orgasm. Naturally, Gowan notices the difference, having already realised that the experience of lovemaking hasn’t been anywhere near as earth-shattering for Edie as it has been for him – and the anger and frustration that have been building up inside him for days boil over. He is utterly devastated and completely humiliated, not least because he works out that Edie hasn’t kept their marital issues to herself and has confided in Layla, who, he thinks has probably told her husband, a very influential man in the circles in which Gowan moves.

It’s true he says a couple of harsh things to Edie at this point, but in my opinion, they’re completely deserved. She is distraught, trying to explain to him how awful she felt about lying to him, but too embarrassed to tell him how she really felt.

After he’s stormed out, having told Edie that he wonders now whether he ever really fell in love with her or with the image of the perfect bride he’d built up in his mind, Edie decides to move into the tower where she can practice to her heart’s content while she waits for her father to arrive to take her back to London.

In the weeks Gowan is away – having travelled to some of his distant estates – Edie somehow wins over the entire household of Craigievar and when Gowan returns, his staff all treat him like a leper! They believe he has used his wife ill and have taken her side, although I don’t know what she did to deserve their loyalty other than languish and play her ‘cello. Gowan has grown up with them and has treated them fairly all his life, yet they turn against him at a moment’s notice. I wouldn’t have blamed him if he’d sacked the lot of them!

I really didn’t like the ending. Gowan, for all his stuffiness, is a bit of a sweetie on the quiet, and has to endure even more humiliation at the hands of his in-laws when he returns with the intention of trying to save his marriage by having a long-overdue and frank conversation with his bride.

Gowan is thrown from his horse on the ride home, has a couple of broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder and possibly a fractured wrist, but he doesn’t want to lose any time on his thirty hour ride by resting up. When he reaches Craigievar, Layla tears into him over his treatment of Edie, accusing him of destroying her confidence and making her feel like a failure as a woman. He takes it all without protest until finally, driven to his own defence, he raises his voice to her, only to be set upon and punched in the face by Gilchrist. Bruised, broken and soundly berated, Gowan tries to talk to Edie, but she won’t admit him to her tower, so later (and here’s where that whole Rapunzel thing comes in) he risks life and limb to climb up to the window (a climb which we’ve been told has caused major injury and death to all the others who had tried) . It would have been a hard enough climb had he been in the picture of health, but with his injuries, it’s almost suicidal.

Of course, the pair are at last able to talk honestly, admit their insecurities, their culpability for the situation they’ve found themselves in – and at last have earsplitting, multi-orgasmic, hot monkey sex.

I’ve written a pretty long review here, which is odd given that I have very mixed feelings about the book. I think one of my major problems with the story stems from the fact that I really couldn’t empathise with Edie at all. I’m a musician, so I love books with musical heroes and heroines, but I couldn’t relate to this one. Gowan was far from perfect – his workaholism, his inability to see that he needed to adapt to the different rhythms of married life as much as did his bride, his rather unyielding demeanour – all served to make him come across as rather a dry stick at times. But he did genuinely love Edie and was grateful for his good fortune in finding a woman of her beauty, grace and –he’d thought – passion. He was the one who actually tried to adapt by changing his schedules so that she could fit in her ‘cello practice, while I didn’t really see Edie doing anything for him to make his life easier.

In terms of the ending, I’ve read novels sometimes where I’ve felt that the hero/heroine hasn’t grovelled quite enough for the things they’ve put their beloved through, but in this case I felt that the grovelling was far too one-sided. Gowan may well have left Craigevar in a fit of wounded-male pique, but the longer he was away, the more he realised how much he loved Edie and that he was prepared to do anything to get a second chance with her. But I don’t think he deserved the treatment he received at the hands of his staff, his in-laws and Edie herself (at first). It’s true that they both admitted their errors when they had their talk, but Gowan still did the bulk of the grovelling.

There’s a whole sub-plot I haven’t yet mentioned, which is to do with Gowan’s much younger half-sister, Susanna – but this review is long enough already, and to be honest, I felt as though it was superfluous.

Once Upon a Tower is a really difficult book to rate. I think it has a lot to recommend it in terms of its execution – Ms James is a very experienced writer, after all – and I think the concept was a good one.

BUT.

I can’t say that I felt I was fully engaged by the book. I never felt as though I’d been drawn in to the story, and I never really connected with either of the protagonists. There were places where I felt the story really dragged and I wasn’t left with that feeling of “oh no, it’s over” when I finished it.

This is one of those times when I’m going to rate the book according to how much I enjoyed it, even though I think it had more merit in terms of the subject matter than my rating would seem to indicate.

The Marrying Season by Candace Camp

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Genevieve Stafford, the younger sister of the Earl of Rawdon (A Summer Seduction), is an icy but beautiful aristocrat. Determined to make the sort of marital alliance expected of a woman of her station, she becomes engaged to the scion of another noble family. However, when Genevieve finds herself entangled in scandal, her fiancé breaks things off. Shamed, she has no recourse but to retreat to the family estate…until her brother’s friend, Sir Myles Thorwood, offers to marry Genevieve and salvage her reputation.

Genevieve expects to have a loveless marriage of convenience, but the handsome, charming Myles has other things in mind. As the two of them work to discover who engineered the scandal that could have ruined Genevieve’s life, Myles shows Genevieve just what it means to be man and wife. Genevieve finds it difficult to resist the passion Myles evokes in her, but can she risk losing her heart to a man she thinks sees their union as only a duty?

Rating: C

Genevieve Stafford has a reputation as an ice queen. Her behaviour and reputation are impeccable and she has been tutored by her formidable grandmother into being everything a proper young lady of good breeding should be. She has had plenty of admirers, but none of them have incited her interest and Genevieve herself has come to believe that she is cold and not made for love.

At her brother’s wedding (I believe his story was told in the previous book in the series), she is told the story of the Legend of St. Dwynwen, and how a maiden who prays at her shrine will soon find love. Genevieve scoffs – but, beginning to worry about the prospect of having to spend the rest of her life without a husband, sneaks off to the shrine and – hey presto! – her prayers are answered and she becomes betrothed to the handsome (albeit rather stuffy) Lord Dursford.

The action skips forward several months to another ball, but this one has disastrous consequences for Genevieve when she is all-but assaulted by a drunken guest; but this being the 1800s, it’s Genevieve who is judged to be at fault and her reputation is left in tatters. There’s only one course of action which will help to re-establish her in the eyes of society; she must be married, and quickly. Of course, the drunkard who groped her is not a suitable husband for her, but Sir Myles Thorwood, a long-time friend of her family, steps in and offers her his hand. Genevieve is most reluctant to accept, knowing he’s offering for her only out of duty and concern, but is quickly brought to see that she has no other option than to marry him.

Genevieve and Myles have known each other all their lives, and are friends – even though they are constantly bickering and sniping at each other. But it’s all good-natured for the most part, and for me, the couple who bickers together is the one that usually stays together, and I always enjoy a spot of light-hearted banter.

The first half of the book is really quite appealing. It wouldn’t win any prizes for originality, but Myles – in particular – is a very attractive character, and he sets out to woo his wife with a mixture of humour, attentiveness and charm. Genevieve is delighted to discover that her grandmother’s warning about the pain involved in marital duties was complete tosh, and is beginning to discover that she is not so much of an ice-maiden as she had feared.

But at around the half-way mark, the story suddenly veered off track, and what had begun as a charming friends-to-lovers/compromised-into-marriage romance (incidentally, two of my favourite tropes in the genre) turned into a mess of misunderstandings and a sometimes unpleasant battle of wills.

It all starts when Myles discovers that the reason Genevieve had been alone in the library on the night of the ball during which she was compromised was because she had received a note – purportedly from him – to meet him there. Myles’ reaction to the fact that she hadn’t mentioned it (why would she, if she thought he knew because he’d sent the note?) is completely over the top as he accuses her of thinking that he would be so careless with her reputation as to arrange a secret assignation. From then on, the temperature between them very quickly drops to below zero. In a fit of anger about the fact that Genevieve establishes a separate bedroom for herself in their townhouse – it isn’t the done thing for husbands and wives of the ton to share a bed, and Genevieve was always a stickler for propriety – Myles says some nasty things, accuses her of being cold, and storms off.

Genevieve is horrified, and starts to retreat into her shell of impeccable propriety in an attempt to stop herself from being hurt; she reminds herself that Myles only married her to save her reputation and thinks he doesn’t care for her.

Added into this is the fact that Genevieve continues to be the subject of scandal-sheet gossip. Someone is intent on ruining her reputation – but who? Myles and Genevieve’s brother Alec set out to find who it is – at which point Genevieve bawls them out for not letting her tag along and making decisions for her. I found that her attitude stretched my credibility a bit too far. On the one hand, she’s concerned about what is and isn’t done, but on the other, wants to go chasing off into the less salubrious parts of London on a man-hunt. Some of Genevieve’s other actions – like chasing a maid through the streets – don’t fit with her character as it’s been established. She also has this idea that Myles is insisting she “submit” to him by “giving up” her sense of self as Genevieve Stafford – but I have no idea why she should be thinking that. Myles is a pretty easy-going chap who just wants his wife to be a wife, and while he said some hurtful things in the heat of anger for which he tries repeatedly to apologise, Genevieve has thrown up her barriers and won’t let him in.

The dénouement, when it comes, happens pretty quickly, when the identity of the person who has been providing the scandal-sheet with gossip is identified (although it’s been fairly obvious who it is for some time), and with Myles and Genevieve declaring their love for each other on practically the last page.

Overall, I get the impression that there wasn’t enough material in The Marrying Season to sustain a full-length novel. The first half, as I’ve said, was charming, and had it been a novella that concentrated on the coming together of these two friends and turning them into lovers, it could have been quite a satisfying read. But the second half felt like so much padding.

The characterisation of the heroine was probably the strongest of all the characters. Most of the story is seen from her point-of-view, so the reader is able to discover that she is actually quite insecure and uses her icy exterior to protect herself from hurt. Myles is less well-developed, however. He’s pleasant enough – handsome, charming and everything you’d expect in a romantic hero, but as so little of the story is seen through his eyes, it’s harder to get inside his head. As a result, he comes across as little more than a congenial man who is miffed because his wife won’t sleep with him!

All in all, this isn’t a book I’d probably read again, although it was pleasant enough in parts to pass the time.

I Married the Duke by Katharine Ashe

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Three very different sisters beguile society with their beauty and charm, but only one of them must fulfill a prophecy: marry a prince. Who is the mystery Prince Charming, and which sister will be his bride?

On the way to marry a prince in a castle, a lady should never:

1. Bribe an infuriatingly arrogant and undeniably irresistible ship captain,
2. Let him kiss her senseless on a beach,
3. Battle thieves at his side,
and
4. Exchange wedding vows with him, even under the direst circumstances.

But daring, determined Arabella Caulfield isn’t just any lady. And Luc Westfall is no typical ship captain. He’s the new Duke of Lycombe, and to defeat a plot that could destroy his family he must have an heir. Now he knows just the woman for the job . . . and he’s not above seduction to turn this would-be princess into a duchess.

Rating: B+

I Married the Duke is the first in a trilogy subtitled “The Prince Catchers”, in which three sisters – Eleanor, Arabella and Ravenna – attempt to discover the truth about their family and find love along the way, and on the strength of this one, I’d say it promises to be a very enjoyable trio of stories.

This being the first book, it sets the scene and in the prologue, we meet the sisters as young girls who have gone to have their fortunes told at a local fair. They are orphans, the sole survivors of a shipwreck, and although an attempt was made to find relations to take them in, the search was unsuccessful and the girls ended up in a foundling home. From there, they were adopted by the Reverend Martin Caldwell who has given them a secure – albeit austere – upbringing.

The only thing the girls have of their mother’s is a gold signet ring inlaid with a large ruby, which the gypsy tells them belongs to a prince. A prince that one of them will wed.

This is the story of Arabella, the middle sister, who, when we meet her again some thirteen years later, has made her living as a very successful finishing governess, and is on her way to her new situation in the household of Prince Renier of Sensaire. Over the years, she has worked her way steadily through various households, moving through the ranks of society until she is able to find work in houses of the very highest rank, her eye still on the prize of netting a prince.

Renier requires his sister, Jacqueline, to be given some “town bronze” before she is launched into London society and has engaged Arabella’s services for that purpose. She is to travel to Saint Nazaire in southern Brittany and then on to the Château Saint Revée-des-Beaux where she will reside with the family and instruct the princess until they remove to London.

Unfortunately, Arabella has managed to miss the ship on which she was supposed to have sailed, and in desperation, approaches the compelling and enigmatic Captain Andrew of the Retribution to ask him if he will convey her to Saint Nazaire. He turns her down flat, believing her to be on the run and therefore trouble – but relents when he discovers her helping a trio of abandoned children.

Captain Andrew is, however, not all he seems. He is in fact Lucien Westfall, naval hero, Comte de Rallis, heir presumptive to a dukedom – and owner of the château to which Arabella is travelling. He joined the Navy as a youth in order to escape life under the guardianship of the cruel and vindictive Absalom Fletcher, and to protect his younger brother who has some sort of mental illness, the nature of which is never explicitly revealed. His naval career has been a distinguished one, but in forging it, he has left behind the trappings of his title(s) and is reluctant to assume the duties that such things entail.

Luc is drawn to Arabella from the start and finds amusement in trying to flirt with her and saying outrageous things to her. He senses that she is not telling him the whole truth – and also that she is desperately suppressing an attraction to him, the strength of which rivals his to her.

On board ship, Arabella makes the acquaintance of Mr. Miles, the Captain’s steward (and in reality, his valet) and Gavin Stewart, a brusque Scotsman with a twinkle in his eye who serves as both ship’s surgeon and chaplain. Both are clearly devoted to Luc, and Gavin especially isn’t above telling him when he’s being an idiot. I enjoyed their exchanges very much.

The sea voyage also gives Luc and Arabella the chance to interact and become better acquainted and for the sparks to well-and-truly fly as Arabella’s somewhat buttoned-up attitude towards him continues to incite Luc to flirt ever more obviously and outrageously with her.

Once the Retribution reaches its destination, the pace picks up considerably, as Arabella finally lets herself succumb to Lucien’s many charms, only to be immediately plunged into a nightmare of evil schemes and murder. An incident aboard ship had suggested that perhaps someone with a grudge was seeking to injure Luc, but when he is violently attacked and left for dead it’s clear that there is more at work than a grudge. The scene on the beach where Lucien is dying surrounded by his friends, and in which he implores Gavin to marry him to Arabella is quite affecting, and the depth of her grief at his loss lept off the page for me.

Arabella travels to the château alone to take up her post, subdued and broken-hearted for the man with whom she now realises she has fallen in love – only to meet, several weeks later, the mysterious – and recuperating – Comte de Rallis and to discover that she is a Comtesse.

Naturally she is astounded, and deeply conflicted. On the one hand, she is overwhelmed with relief to discover that Luc is alive, but on the other, he kept his true identity from her and let her grieve for weeks on end, so it’s not surprising that she is somewhat unreceptive to his overtures.

The rest of the story sees things move up a gear or two as Lucien and his friends seek to discover the identity of the person behind his attempted murder, or rather, to find the proof they need to expose him; and Lucien seeks to convince Arabella of the truth of his affection for her and to remain with him as his wife.

I found Arabella to be rather prickly and hard to like at times because she was so determined to hold herself aloof from Lucien and from everything he was offering her. That said though, her caution is justified; as a governess, she was frequently subject to unwanted advances and quickly acquired a distrust of men and their promises. As a child, she was the more rebellious of the three sisters and was frequently the subject of the Reverend Caldwell’s wrath for her disobedience, as well as his pronouncements that her flaming hair was an advertisement for her propensity to sin and his implications that the girls’ mother was probably a whore. Given those conditions, I suppose it’s not surprising that she would be wary of Lucien, even when her deepest instincts are telling her that he’s the man for her.

Like Arabella, Lucien is a care-giver, fiercely driven to protect those closest to him. He sent his younger brother away from their guardian’s house in order to protect him from abuse and then got away himself to join the Navy where he served with honour, ending up as the captain of the Victory. As this story begins, he learns of the death of his uncle, the Duke of Lycombe, and that he may well be the duke now, if the child carried by his aunt is a girl or is stillborn as her other babies have been. It is a title he will assume somewhat reluctantly as he has never been particularly interested in the running of a great estate and has so far chosen to ignore the information coming from the estates at Combe that Fletcher – the duchess’ brother – is running things into the ground so that he can enrich himself.

One of the things I enjoyed most about the book was seeing Luc transform himself from piratical sea-captain into the ducal scion he was always meant to be. He finds that he wants to go home to Combe with his wife and to do what he can for his tenants and dependents while the title is in abeyance, because if the dowager gives birth to a boy, Fletcher– now the Bishop of Barris – will undoubtedly continue to control the dukedom.

I found I Married the Duke to be a compelling read – I think I finished it in two sittings. It’s well written and tightly plotted, there’s a well-rounded and engaging set of secondary characters and the flirtatious banter between Luc and Arabella was superbly done and felt very natural – sometimes, it can feel forced, as if the author has to make an effort to maintain the humour and the ‘zing’, but that’s certainly not the case here. I found Lucien to be the more likeable of the two protagonists for the most part, possessed of humour and charm whereas Arabella was sometimes a little cold and too intent on maintaining her self-possession which made her come over as less than sympathetic.

But all in all, it was an excellent read and I’m really looking forward to reading the other books in the series.

Stranger in my Arms by Lisa Kleypas (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

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“Lady Hawksworth, your husband is not dead.”

With those words, Lara’s life turned upside down. Hunter, Earl of Hawksworth, had been lost at sea. Or so she’d been told. Their unhappy marriage, with its cold caresses and passionless kisses was over. But now a powerful, virile man stood before her, telling secrets only a husband could know, and vowing she would once again be his wife in every way. While Lara couldn’t deny that this man with the smouldering dark eyes resembled Hunter, he was attentive and loving in ways he never was before. Soon she desperately wanted to believe, with every beat of her heart, that this stranger was truly her husband. But had this rake reformed or was Lara being seduced by a cunning stranger?

Rating: C+ for the story and A for the narration

This is a take on The Return of Martin Guerre (which was also the inspiration for the film Sommersby), in which a widow is suddenly confronted with the reappearance of her dead husband. It’s been a while since I saw either film, but if I recall correctly in both cases – as in this book – the reader isn’t in on the secret as to whether the returning husband is, in fact, the man he says he is, or an imposter come to worm his way into his ‘wife’s’ affections and establish himself in the local society for nefarious means.

In each case, the hero is sufficiently attractive and the dead husband was sufficiently unpleasant so as to make the viewer/reader root for him and want him to get the girl and the life he wants rather than to care very much about whether he’s the man he says he is.

In Stranger in my Arms Lara, Lady Hawksworth has her ordered and swelf-sacrificing existence torn apart when she is told that a man calling himself Hunter Crossland, the Earl of Hawksworth has presented himself in London. Lara’s husband had been somewhat of a boor – over fond of drink, frequently unfaithful, cruel and a man who used his wife’s body with no gentleness or finesse. Upon his death, the earldom passed to a cousin, Arthur, and his grasping wife, both of whom have run the estates into the ground in the intervening years, and who continue to spend money like water with no thought for their responsibilities to the estate workers and tenants.

They evicted Lara from her home and sent her to live in a tiny, run-down cottage on the estate, saying it is sufficient for her needs. She does not complain, preferring to reside somewhere in privacy rather than to go to live with relatives. Also, living there means she can stay close to the village of Market Hills, where she expends much of her time and money on charitable works, most notably at the local orphanage.

When Hunter returns, he is sufficiently similar in looks to her husband that Lara is unsure whether he is truly Hunter or an imposter. (Although being this is a romance, he’s slimmer, more muscular, sexier and far more handsome than Lara remembers!) Added to that is a notable change in his manner towards Lara. Whereas before he’d had no care for her whatsoever, other than as a thing he possessed, Hunter is now most solicitous of her and although he desires her, is adamant that he will not force her to his bed as he had often done before.

Of course, things develop as one would expect. Lara begins to trust Hunter more as each day passes, as he proves himself to be a changed man in more ways than one. He shows a flair for business and land management that means he will soon be able to set their finances to rights, he takes an interest in the local community and, against his own inclinations, undertakes some tasks on Lara’s behalf when she takes in an orphan who had been living with his (now hanged) father in prison.

There’s nothing new in the story, but it’s a solid and enjoyable one for the most part. Hunter is a very attractive character indeed, kind, honourable and great in bed, just as one would expect from a romantic hero. Lara is harder to like however, as in the early part of the book she comes across as priggish and self-righteous. Her previous sexual experiences were far from pleasant, yet even though she enjoys Hunter’s kisses and having his hands on her, she is adamant that she will not sleep with him willingly, even going to far as to invite his former mistress to a party in the hope that he will resume his relationship with her so as to spare Lara the marital bed. There was one point, where Hunter, in desperation, tries to bargain for a night with her and she accuses him of being unable to think of anyone except himself that I almost wanted him to tell her she wasn’t worth the aggravation!

But that aside, the story was enjoyable, if rather predictable. There’s plenty of sexual tension crackling through the encounters between Lara and Hunter, and even though the outcome was hardly unexpected, there was still enough uncertainty as to how it would come about to keep me interested.

There’s also a secondary story concerning Lara’s sister Rachel, and the physical abuse she is suffering at the hands of her husband. I thought Rachel’s attitude was portrayed realistically, and the fact that she was her husband’s property was brought home with Hunter and Lara’s knowing that they would be unable to keep her away from her husband indefinitely.

I listened to the audiobook which was read by the incomparable Rosalyn Landor, and as usual, she doesn’t disappoint – in fact, turning what would probably have been an average read into something better. All her characterisations were excellent – she pays close attention to even the most minor characters, so that all the maids and men-servants sound different, and she is also very good when it comes to voicing young children. She was able to give Lara’s voice the required amount of prigishness and yet still convey the impression that she was gradually falling under Hunter’s spell. I very much liked her interpretation of Hunter and I thought she invested him with an underlying vulnerability, especially when it came to showing his frustrations with Lara (which weren’t just sexual ones!) and showed how, even when he was trying to be manipulative, it just wasn’t in him as far as she was concerned.

I can understand that some readers/listeners may have thought Hunter’s motives for seeking Lara out were somewhat stalkerish, but then, as I’ve discovered, sometimes one person’s stalker is another person’s passionate admirer, and in this case, I prefer the latter interpretation. I think I’d have liked a little more forays into Hunter’s mind and his motivations, but then that would have been difficult given that, like Lara, the reader is unsure as to his true identity until the reveal near the end of the book.

Overall, I thought Stranger in my Arms was an enjoyable and undemanding listen.

The Passion of the Purple Plumeria by Lauren Willig

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Colonel William Reid has returned home from India to retire near his children, who are safely stowed in an academy in Bath. Upon his return to the Isles, however, he finds that one of his daughters has vanished, along with one of her classmates.

Having served as second-in-command to the Pink Carnation, one of England’s most intrepid spies, it would be impossible for Gwendolyn Meadows to give up the intrigue of Paris for a quiet life in the English countryside—especially when she’s just overheard news of an alliance forming between Napoleon and an Ottoman Sultan. But, when the Pink Carnation’s little sister goes missing from her English boarding school, Gwen reluctantly returns home to investigate the girl’s disappearance.

Thrown together by circumstance, Gwen and William must cooperate to track down the young ladies before others with nefarious intent get their hands on them. But Gwen’s partnership with quick-tongued, roguish William may prove to be even more of an adventure for her than finding the lost girls…

Rating: A

I absolutely loved this book. I’m woefully behind on the Pink Carnation series, but I jumped at the chance to review this one, not least because it has rather a USP (Unique Selling Point) in the genre – namely that the hero and heroine are of more mature years (he’s fifty-four, she’s forty-five). That certainly wasn’t the only reason, however. Ms. Willig’s writing is intelligent and frequently humorous, her characters leap off the page and she spins a superb yarn.

For anyone not familiar with the series, most of the Pink Carnation novels follow a similar format : the modern-day story of American grad-student, Eloise Kelly, and her research into the network of nineteenth century British spies under the direction of the Pink Carnation, runs alongside the (fictional) historical events that make up the bulk of the narrative.

I can’t deny that the format has its frustrations. I’d get to a point in the story set in 1805 where I was desperate to find out what happens next – and suddenly it was 2004 and I had to take a quick break from the characters I was coming to love in order to catch up with what was going on in “the other” story. Fortunately, however, Ms. Willig never makes her readers wait too long to get back to the action.

In 2004, Eloise is moping about the fact that she will be returning to the US in two months. This is what she’s long planned to do, except that she’s now in a long-term relationship with Colin Selwick, a descendant of the families she has been researching. They are living at Selwick House in Sussex and Eloise’s research into the exploits of the Pink Carnation has stalled as she seems suddenly to have vanished from the face of the earth. There is no correspondence, there are no mentions of her in documents; so Eloise becomes sidetracked by the search for the Jewels of Berar, known to have disappeared during Wellington’s wars in India, and rumored to have been hidden at Selwick.

In 1805, the Pink Carnation – otherwise known as Miss Jane Wooliston – receives the news that her sister, Agnes, has disappeared from school in the company of a schoolmate, one Lizzie Reid. Jane and her companion, Miss Gwen Meadows, a formidably sharp-tongued spinster, are living in Paris from where Jane runs her network of agents. Gwen has appeared in a many of the previous books and has a fearsome reputation for speaking her mind and not caring what anybody thinks of her. She’s prickly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly, yet she cares deeply for Jane and is committed to their cause of messing with Napoleon as often as possible.

Jane believes it possible that Agnes may have been kidnapped by someone with a desire to neutralize the Pink Carnation, so she and Gwen return to England to discover what they can and try to find the girls.

Also recently arrived in England is Colonel William Reid, late of the East India Company and Lizzie’s father. He has no idea that his daughter has gone missing until he arrives at her school in Bath. He is distraught and guilt-stricken – he hasn’t seen Lizzie for ten years, when he set her and her older sister, Kat, on the boat to England in order to protect them from harm in India – and he feels terrible that he has let so many years pass before seeking her out. Despite his seeming neglect, however, William loves his children dearly. Believing his daughters to be safe and secure in England, he remained in India for longer than he had intended, making do with the infrequent correspondence that was all there was to be had between England and India at the time. It doesn’t speak especially well of him, it’s true, and yet he is not a man to be anything other than brutally honest with himself once he realizes he has failed in his duty towards them, and I doubt that anyone could have blamed him to any greater degree than he blamed himself for their respective situations.

While Gwen doesn’t take to William at first, it’s easy to see that it’s not because she actually dislikes him. Far from it. She’s unsettled by him – he doesn’t react to her by scurrying away with his tail between his legs as do so many men who have been on the receiving end of her scorn, but more than that, he pays attention toher rather than just suffering her company as the unfortunate consequence of wanting to associate with the beautiful Jane.

Grudgingly, Gwen agrees that they should work together in order to find the girls, and they depart Bath for Bristol, to see what they can find out about their disappearance. It gradually becomes clear that there is more to this than the abduction that Jane had feared, and I think that this is where the modern-day story of the search for the Jewels of Berar worked best. By keeping the jewels to the forefront of the reader’s mind every few chapters, Ms. Willig was able to hint at their importance without overshadowing the story of the search for the missing girls, the potential threats to Jane at the hands of the mysterious French spymaster “The Gardener,” and the romance that was developing between William and Gwen.

The sparks fly between them from the moment they meet, although Gwen tries to keep her distance with coolness and hauteur. But all the while, William is gradually wearing down her resistance, proving himself to be courageous and honorable as well as to have a wonderful sense of humor and no small degree of charm.

Their relationship was the absolute star-turn of the book and shows that it is perfectly possible to craft a truly charming and engaging romance from a more mature standpoint. Both protagonists bring a trolley-load of emotional baggage with them, but theirs is a story about second chances, and very well deserved they are. Gwen’s back-story is particularly heart wrenching, but goes a long way toward explaining how and why this vital and intelligent woman became a waspish old-maid, her true self hidden beneath a veneer of testiness. There’s one point towards the end of the book when William is watching Gwen with her friends and family at dinner, which I thought was wonderfully observed:

It was as though she had retreated into a plaster mold of herself, all the life, all the animation that had so captivated him, buried beneath a cold and brittle shell. That tremendous zest he had seen again and again diverted itself into haughty comments and cutting asides. And no one, no one in the room, seemed to find anything out of the ordinary in this. They smiled at one another and rolled their eyes as she cracked her wit at them, but not one of them noticed the pain beneath it.

To anyone having difficulty imagining a romantic hero is in his fifties – is there anyone out there who can deny the obvious attractions of, say, George Clooney or Robert Downey Jr.? William Reid is not only a very handsome man, he’s a terribly attractive character, too – determined and strong but with a sweetness and vulnerability about him which only serve to increase his appeal. He’s far from perfect; he’s guilt-ridden over what happened to his daughters and about the state of his relationships with his three sons, but as Gwen realizes, she’s never met anyone who cares so deeply for others.

The romance between Gwen and William is just one thread in a multi-faceted story which also features hints of a romantic relationship between Jane and her archenemy as well as the hunt for the jewels and the deepening emotions between Colin and Eloise in 2004. I thought it was a nicely humorous touch for each chapter to begin with a quote from Miss Gwen’s oft-mentioned gothic novel, The Convent of Orsino which eagle-eyed readers will recognize as a spoof of such stories as The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Castle of Otranto (and which, indeed Ms. Willig acknowledges as her inspirations in her author’s note). Each of the excerpts mirrors the action of the story, as the heroine, Plumeria and her companion, Sir Magnifico, seek to discover the whereabouts of his daughter, the lovely Amarantha.

I was thoroughly caught up in the story of Gwen and her William and didn’t want it to end, even though I wanted them to get their HEA. I know there are a couple more books to come in this wonderful series, and I sincerely hope this isn’t the last we’re going to see of this pair.