Never Kiss a Rake by Anne Stuart

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Anguished by death. Driven by revenge.

Bryony Russell and her two sisters are left destitute by the disgrace and unexpected death of their father, a wealthy shipping magnate. He left a cryptic note, and Bryony is determined to find the real villain and clear her father’s name. In disguise as a servant, Bryony infiltrates the home of her father’s business partner to find proof of his guilt…or innocence. It’s not just clues that Bryony finds, but temptation too…

Adrian Bruton, Earl of Kilmartyn, immediately suspects there is something not quite right about his new housekeeper. The brooding, irresistible rake plays along because he has his own guilty secrets, and his venal, scheming wife holds the key to them, trapping him in a hate-filled marriage. But against his will he’s fascinated by Bryony, seeing past the scars on her face to show her the beauty she never knew she had. Bryony must uncover the truth and attempt to preserve her father’s legacy, before things go too far and she falls in love with a man who might very well be her worst enemy.

Rating: B

Never Kiss a Rake is the first book in a new historical trilogy from Anne Stuart which features the three Russell sisters, Bryony, Maddy and Sophie.

Their father, a renowned and wealthy financier, has died suddenly and in mysterious circumstances, leaving them destitute. Based on the scrap of a note she has found, the eldest sister, Bryony, believes her father was murdered and that it is likely that one or more of his business partners was responsible.

Determined to find out the truth, Bryony decides that the best way to ferret out the information she needs is to infiltrate the households of these men – among whom are the privateer Captain Morgan and Adrian Bruton, Earl of Kilmartyn and to that end, she secures herself an interview in the Earl’s household, where there is a housekeeper’s position available.

She is interviewed by the beautiful and pampered Countess of Kilmartyn, who is about to dismiss her when her husband intervenes and Bryony is hired.

Kilmartyn is widely known to be a rake of the worst sort and seducer of beautiful women. His relationship with his wife is acrimonious to say the least – their mutual hatred is palpable. But Cecily has some dirt on Adrian which she is using to blackmail him and prevent his leaving her. She might not want him and in fact has a string of lovers – but she doesn’t want anyone else to have him, either. Kilmartyn is immediately intrigued by Bryony, sensing that she is not at all what she seems, and his conversation is liberally peppered with sexual innuendo, partly in an attempt to unsettle her into revealing her true purpose in his house, and partly because he really does want to take her to bed.

He’s one of those intensely masculine heroes that it could be easy to dislike because he’s so confident about his ability to seduce the woman he wants … and yet he’s ridiculously attractive. As a Goodreads friend commented to me – “ain’t no badder boy than an Anne Stuart bad-boy”, and I can certainly agree with that!

Bryony has spent the majority of her life living apart from society, believing herself to be highly unattractive because of the scars she bears as the result of a childhood illness. Her mother called her ugly and all but rejected her, so Bryony has grown up believing that no man could ever want her, the story put about in society being that she is a reclusive invalid. But in reality, her scars are nowhere near as bad as she thinks:

The scars on her face really were a trifle – he’d seen worse on aristocrats who’d suffered from a surfeit of spots when they were young.

and they don’t bother Kilmartyn in the least; he finds the fact that she has no idea as to how attractive she truly is makes her even more appealing.

The book bristles with sexual tension as Bryony battles her attraction to her gorgeous employer while trying to find evidence of his involvement of financial wrong-doing and her father’s murder – and simultaneously hoping to discover he had nothing to do with any of it.

But there are weaknesses, too. The identity of the villain is fairly obvious from the outset, although to be fair, we don’t discover the reasons for his actions, and I suspect these will not be revealed until the final book. I thought the final third of the book, in which Bryony and Kilmartyn begin – individually – to suspect that Cecily has been murdered was a little weak and not as tightly written as the rest of the story.

On the positive side, the two protagonists are well-drawn and engaging, even if I found Bryony’s inability to trust Adrian and believe that he did truly want her until the last possible minute became rather annoying. (Even when they’re finally in bed together, she tells him she doesn’t trust him – but makes love with him anyway.) Adrian is rather delicious, even though he does remind me of a few of Ms Stuart’s other historical heroes – but I can forgive that because of the way he is so desperate to protect Bryony even as he’s proclaiming himself to be an immoral bastard.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Never Kiss a Rake and am looking forward to reading the remaining books in the series. The pacing is good, the writing excellent and the sexually-charged banter between Bryony and Kilmartyn was a delight.

THE REVIEW BELOW APPEARED AT ALL ABOUT ROMANCE

Never Kiss a Rake is the first book in a new historical trilogy by Anne Stuart entitled Scandal at the House of Russell, and I enjoyed it very much. I freely admit that it had its weaknesses, and that the hero of this book bore more than a passing resemblance to some of Ms. Stuart’s other historical heroes, but to be perfectly honest, I was so caught up in the story that I didn’t really mind.

Bryony, Maddy, and Sophie Russell have been left destitute upon the sudden death of their father, a wealthy shipping magnate. He has been accused of embezzlement and causing the collapse of several banks, and Bryony has discovered a note written shortly before he died which suggests that he suspected his business partners were involved. Russell’s death was no accident, and Bryony is determined to find out who was responsible for the fraud and her father’s murder – and see justice done.

The note from Russell named two of his partners as suspects – a privateer named Captain Morgan, and Adrian Bruton, Earl of Kilmartyn – and Bryony has already formulated a plan. Because she has lived most of her life hidden away from society (more on that later), she will not be recognised by either of the men, so it will be a simple matter for her to infiltrate their households in the guise of a servant to gather information. In fact, she has already secured herself an interview for the position of housekeeper at Kilmartyn’s London residence.

Her sisters are none too sure about Bryony’s plan – but she is adamant. She has already made arrangements for them to go to stay with their former nanny, so she packs them off safely and heads off to start her investigations.

She is received by the beautiful and pampered Cecily, Countess of Kilmartyn, who is about to dismiss her when the Earl arrives and intervenes. Bryony is hired and immediately sets about setting the household to rights.

The Earl and Countess of Kilmartyn are a golden couple – who hate each other with a vengeance. Even though he is married to one of the acknowledged beauties of the age, Kilmartyn has a scandalous reputation as a womaniser, while she has a string of lovers. What she really wants is to bring her husband to heel – she is blackmailing him so that he cannot divorce her, and if she can’t have him, she doesn’t want anyone else to have him, either.

She is immediately suspicious of Kilmartyn’s motives for hiring Bryony, accusing him of wanting to seduce her. He shrugs this off, although it’s true that he was intrigued by his new housekeeper – just not for the reasons his wife believes. He has already deduced that ‘Mrs Greaves’ is not at all what she seems, and while he does find her desirable, he is more concerned with finding out what she is doing in his household.

From the very first, there is a strong undercurrent of attraction between Kilmartyn and Bryony. He delights in making suggestive comments – partly as a way to throw her off guard and partly because he is genuinely attracted to her and determined to seduce her – and devises ways in which he can get her to spend time with him, like insisting she join him for supper each night when he is at home, or that, as his countess is too delicate to be bothered with household matters, ‘Mrs Greaves’ should consult with him regularly.

Although she recognises his intention, Bryony is at a loss to explain why a man as beautiful as her employer would be interested in her. She regards herself as unattractive because her face bears pock-marks from the smallpox she had as a child. Her mother could hardly bear to look at her, told Bryony her looks were marred forever, and convinced of her ugliness, Bryony let herself be thought an invalid and lived away from society.

But Kilmartyn sees the truth – the marks are no worse than are borne by many others who suffered the same illness; he likes her intelligence, her audacity… and guesses at a passionate nature, something he is ever more keen to experience for himself. Bryony is knocked completely off balance by her feelings of desire and more for a man she knows she can never have – or rather, never keep; for his part, Kilmartyn is amazed to discover that he still has a few threads of honour left when it comes to Bryony, and that he has come to care for her as well as to want her in his bed.

When Cecily disappears, her rooms having been completely trashed, Bryony fears the worst. Even though she doesn’t want to believe the man she is growing to love could be capable of murder, she still has too many unanswered questions regarding her own situation for her to be able to be absolutely certain of his innocence.

While in some respects the story progressed quite predictably, I still found myself captivated because of the quality of the writing and the characterisation.The identity of the villain was fairly obvious, although his reasons for doing what he did were not revealed, and won’t be, I suspect, until the final book in the trilogy.

While Adrian wasn’t as much of a bad boy as some of Ms Stuart’s other bad-boy heroes, he was nonetheless deliciously sexy – and he spoke and thought like a man, something that Ms. Stuart does well, I think. There are frequently times when reading romance that a hero spouts something I could never believe a man would say or think, but I never felt like that here. I was slightly less enamoured of Bryony, particularly towards the end of the book when she can’t make up her mind whether or not to trust Kilmartyn – even when they’re finally in bed together, she tells him she doesn’t trust him, which is perhaps not the nicest kind of pillow talk!

The dénouement feels a little rushed, and the ending is somewhat inconclusive. Adrian and Bryony get their HEA of course, but there are still plot-threads dangling which I imagine will be addressed in subsequent books.

Despite its weaknesses, I nonetheless enjoyed Never Kiss a Rake and will definitely be looking out for the remaining books in the series in the coming months.

With thanks to Mortlake Romance and NetGalley for the review copy.

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