At the Duke’s Wedding (anthology) by Caroline Linden, Katharine Ashe, Miranda Neville and Maya Rodale

adw

As society gathers at Kingstag Castle for the wedding of the year, matrimony is in the air. But who will be the bride? With swoonworthy lords, witty ladies, eccentric relatives, a gaggle of free-spirited girls, not to mention the world’s best high perch phaeton, it’s a recipe for mayhem — and romance. Award winning, best-selling authors Katharine Ashe, Caroline Linden, Miranda Neville and Maya Rodale serve up delectable Regency fun and a sexy contemporary twist in this anthology of original novellas.
Four authors, four couples, four deliciously romantic surprises. When it comes to love, anything can happen…

Rating: B+ overall, with the individual stories rated thus: B; A-; B+ and B-

At the Duke’s Wedding is a set of linked novellas, each one written by a well-known author in the world of historical romance.

Each of the stories takes place in and around the two weeks leading up to the wedding of the eponymous Duke, and one of the things I particularly liked was the way in which each of the stories gives us glimpses here and there of the protagonists and events featured in the others, and how their actions are seen by the other characters.

I confess to having a favourite among the four, but I’ll talk about them in the order in which they appear.

In That Rogue Jack by Maya Rodale, our hero is Lord Jack Willoughby, a man so handsome and raffishly charming that he has inspired a brand of smelling salts! (Named after him because of the propensity toward swooning of the women on the receiving end of his gorgeous smile!). The trouble with Jack is that while he is far from stupid, he is easily distracted and well-known to have a very limited attention span – is he the first Regency hero to suffer from ADHD? – and as such, the Duke’s decision to entrust Jack with the transportation of the family wedding ring from London to Dorset is not thought to be a particularly wise one.

Miss Henrietta Black has known Jack since their younger days, and now resides at Kingstag Castle as companion to the elderly and eccentric Lady Sophronia. The soon-to-be dowager Duchess asks Henrietta to retrieve the ring and deliver it to her as soon as may be; a prospect which makes Henrietta’s heart sink. Knowing Jack as she does, she is sure something will have happened to the ring and she is going to have to be the one to bear the bad tidings.

Despite his good-looks, Jack is not vain. He knows he’s devastating, but deep-down wants to be good at something other than being gorgeous. It’s also clear that, in spite of his reputation for air-headedness, when Jack puts his mind to something, he can determinedly and single-mindedly pursue his goal. It’s also obvious from the outset that Hen (as Jack calls her) is more than fond of him, even though she is well aware of his shortcomings; and that although Jack thinks highly of her, he’s never really thought of her as “wooing material”. But he suddenly finds himself desirous of her good opinion – and more; and given that he has, in fact, misplaced the ring, the two are thrown together in search of it … and from there things progress as one might expect. The sexual tension between them is skilfully built and I loved their bickering and teasing as they became partners-in-crime through their search for the ring. Most importantly, Jack’s affection for Hen is shown to be genuine and deep-rooted as is the fact that her level-headedness makes her the perfect foil for him.

That Rogue Jack is the shortest of the four stories, and set the tone nicely for the anthology as a whole. I particularly enjoyed the establishment of the impromptu “gentlemen’s club” in the stables, as the men at the party used the excuse of viewing Jack’s famous phaeton – named Hippolyta – as a way of escaping the ladies! It starts out with a couple of them sneaking out a bottle of brandy, and before long, there are comfy chairs, card tables and a well-stocked bar out there!

My favourite of the four is the second story, by Miranda Neville – P.S – I love You, which is loosely based on the story of Cyrano de Bergerac. I’m rather a fan of epistolary romances, so the premise of this one, where the hero and heroine begin their relationship by getting to know each other through letters was one that attracted me immediately.

Frank Newnham and his cousin Christian, Lord Bruton, are both members of the Household Cavalry. Frank is handsome, carefree and popular with both sexes. Women find him attractive, men find him good company, a good sportsman and a thoroughly decent chap, and he is universally liked. By contrast, Christian is rather intimidating and aloof, his features marred by an ugly scar running the length of one cheek about which he is particularly sensitive.

Despite his popularity with the ladies, Frank has never been a real ladies’ man and when he tells Christian that he has fallen in love and received permission to write to the lady of his choice, he finds himself unable to think of a single thing to say to her. Knowing of Christian’s love of poetry and his greater skill with the written word, Frank persuades his cousin to help him; and Christian, treating it as somewhat of a joke, duly dictates the first letter.

Letters are exchanged regularly and their tone grows increasingly intimate until such time as Christian realises that what he is doing is no longer a joke and that he is in danger of falling in love with the lady himself.

He and Frank are distantly related to the Duke of Wessex and have been invited to the latter’s wedding; as has Miss Rosanne Lacy, who resides in Dorsetshire with her family. Rosanne and Frank are excited at the thought of seeing each other once again, and Frank hopes to secure her hand before the end of the house party.

Miss Lacy is intelligent, well-read and witty – and when they meet, Frank is tongue-tied once more. He begs Christian to help him again – but now he has had the opportunity to meet and converse with Rosanne, Christian realises the damage has been done: he is in love with his cousin’s intended. He is filled with guilt at his part in the deception, realising not only that he has behaved badly, but that Roseanne will be miserable should she marry Frank – and worse, he can’t do a thing about it.

Fortunately for all of them, however, Roseanne is a very intelligent young woman and soon realises that all is not as it seems. She is alarmed at the fact she is finding herself drawn much more to the dark and brooding Lord Bruton than to his cousin, and is naturally furious when she realises she has been deceived. But she does not allow her anger to prevent her from acknowledging that while the means may have been somewhat questionable, the deception has actually saved her from making a huge mistake – and once she has calmed down, she decides to go after the man she truly wants, knowing his sense of honour will not allow him to come to her.

I loved the way this romance was developed, how the letters between Roseanne and Christian became gradually more personal and deeply affectionate. Their regard for each other shone through their words and I felt that here was a couple that was truly meant to be.

If I were ranking all the stories, then the next one, When I Met My Duchess would be my second-favourite. Up until this point, we haven’t seen much of Gareth, Duke of Wessex or his intended bride, the lovely Miss Helen Grey. Gareth has chosen his future duchess very carefully and to his mind, Helen Grey embodies all the qualities required. She is beautiful, well-mannered, well-bred, has good taste and carries herself well. She is eminently suitable, and having decided he wanted to marry her, he wasted no time in sending his secretary to propose to her.

How could a girl resist such a romantic overture?

Or in Helen’s case, how could she possibly resist the blandishments of her cash-strapped, yet spendthrift parents, to marry a wealthy duke whose money will end all their financial worries?

It’s immediately obvious to the reader that that is Helen’s principal motivation for agreeing to the marriage, because from the moment we meet her, Helen is reserved in public and miserable in private. As well as her parents, she has been accompanied by her widowed sister, Mrs Cleopatra Burrows, whose presence is merely tolerated by their father because she is there at Helen’s request. Cleo eloped at seventeen with a young man who was in “trade”, and her parents had as little to do with her from that point – despite the fact that the money she was making from a successful business was keeping them out of debt.

Gareth has never been troubled by strong emotions, and is happy to keep it that way. But the minute he sets eyes on Cleo, he experiences a real coup de foudre and finds himself unable to stop himself from thinking about her or seeking her out.

I thought the relationships in this story were well written, particularly that between Helen and Cleo and between Cleo and her parents. That’s not to say the latter is at all pleasant – it isn’t – but the degree to which the Greys disdain their independent and somewhat free-spirited daughter, despite all she does for them is gut-wrenching to read.

Gareth makes for a very attractive hero as he struggles to reconcile own desires with what he owes to the dukedom and with his sense of honour. He and Cleo are obviously as perfect for each other as he and Helen are not, but he can see no way out of marrying her and making them both miserable – until Helen finally acts in line with her own desires and sets him and Cleo free to do as they both wish. The eagle-eyed reader will have spotted a tiny clue as to the way the wind is blowing very early on in the first chapter, so can be assured that Helen is going to get her HEA, too.

The final story seems rather an odd choice as something to include in an anthology of Regency romances. How Angela Got Her Rogue Back is a time-travel romance in which a 21st century American historian travels back to the 19th century in order to solve a mystery and, in the process, help a gorgeous earl to prevent the ruin of his family.

I’m a huge fan of Doctor Who and I love a bit of sci-fi. But I prefer to keep my time-travel stories separate from my romances, so this was the first time I’ve actually read a time-travel romance… and I’m not sure I’ll be rushing to read another one. I know reading historical romances often requires a degree of suspension of disbelief, but I’m not sure I can suspend it enough for the implausibilities inherent in the romance and the time travel. Add in that this particular story involves the heroine changing history, or even, as she says herself making it – and my head started spinning with all the paradoxical ideas that immediately sprang to mind. (That’s another thing about being a Doctor Who fan – most of us have spent a fair bit of time pondering paradoxes!)

The idea that Angela could pass herself off easily as a guest at the house party, and convince Trent so easily that she wasn’t mad but was from the twenty-first century were some of those credulity-stretching elements I couldn’t reconcile myself to. Having said that though, I did like the fact that Angela was able to express some of those things that we must all think at times about all those impossibly handsome, incredibly muscled, superbly well-endowed historical heroes we all love to read about 😉

For me, this was the least successful of the stories in the anthology. It was well written, and the conclusion was definitely emotionally satisfying, but it seemed like the cuckoo in the nest when set against the other stories in the collection.

I think that the shorter format worked very well for each of the stories in the anthology, as I felt it led the characters to act in a far more realistic manner than they may have done in a full-length novel. For example, had Roseanne and Bruton’s story been novel length, I suspect that there could have been a much more drawn out period of “How could he have deceived me like that – I hate him!”, and other misunderstandings before the couple got their HEA; whereas I think that as it is, Roseanne’s anger, followed by her rational consideration and realisation that whatever the means, she has actually found the love of her life – felt much more convincing and true to her character. I suspect there was also the potential for a lot more angst in the third story, with Gareth and Cleo agonising over the impropriety of their relationship, but again, I think that the story works very well as it is and doesn’t need to be any longer.

To sum up; At the Duke’s Wedding is a very enjoyable collection of well-written romances that can be read individually or at one go, as the mood strikes, and I have no hesitation in heartily recommending it.

Advertisements

Thief of Shadows (Maiden Lane #4) by Elizabeth Hoyt (Audiobook) – Narrated by Ashford MacNab

tof2

A MASKED MAN . . .
Winter Makepeace lives a double life. By day he’s the stoic headmaster of a home for foundling children. But the night brings out a darker side of Winter. As the moon rises, so does the Ghost of St. Giles-protector, judge, fugitive. When the Ghost, beaten and wounded, is rescued by a beautiful aristocrat, Winter has no idea that his two worlds are about to collide.
A DANGEROUS WOMAN . . .
Lady Isabel Beckinhall enjoys nothing more than a challenge. Yet when she’s asked to tutor the Home’s dour manager in the ways of society-flirtation, double-entendres, and scandalous liaisons-Isabel can’t help wondering why his eyes seem so familiar-and his lips so tempting.
A PASSION NEITHER COULD DENY
During the day Isabel and Winter engage in a battle of wills. At night their passions are revealed . . . But when little girls start disappearing from St. Giles, Winter must avenge them. For that he might have to sacrifice everything-the Home, Isabel . . . and his life.

Rating: B for content and B+ for narration

Unfortunately, I haven’t got time right now to write a full review, but perhaps I’ll get to it eventually.

I started listening to this when I was on holiday in August, (having listened to Notorious Pleasures and Scandalous Desires as well) but never got to finish it. As I’ve just got the most recent audio to review, I thought I’d go back and finish this one. I’d already decided to leave out book 5 (Lord of Darkness) because the narration was so dire, but I know what happens and who’s who in that book, so skipping ahead won’t be a problem.

Anyway. Back to this one. I liked it, but not quite as much as Wicked Intentions or Scandalous Desires, and that surprised me a bit, as I’ve liked Winter as a character in the previous stories and had suspicions that he’d turn out to be a repressed sex-god, which indeed, he did 😛

That said though, I did enjoy the way Ms Hoyt built the romance between him and Isabel. The aptly named Winter has frozen his heart and his emotions to such an extent that his desperation to ‘tame the beast’ within him has caused him to cut off his access to all his finer and warmer emotions, too; and Isabel, beneath her worldly exterior is insecure and feels unworthy of love because of her inability to bear children. The scene where she finally breaks down in Winter’s arms was superbly done, and I thought Ms Hoyt handled that aspect of the story in exactly the right way. In so many stories where the heroine is thought barren, she turns out not to be, but here, that’s not the case. Isabel doesn’t become miraculously pregnant at the end of the story, and the line about Winter pausing to grieve for the children he would never have was just beautiful.

Ashford MacNab’s narration is as engaging as ever. I do have reservations – her range in terms of pitch isn’t wide and her tone can sometimes veer towards the monotonous, but she has a way of delineating the characters using tone and accent that just works. I’ve enjoyed listening to her in these books and for me, she IS the voice of the Maiden Lane stories.

My Notorious Gentleman by Gaelen Foley

mng

Notorious and fearless, Lord Trevor Montgomery must confront his greatest challenge yet: marriage!

Shy, warm-hearted Miss Grace Kenwood knows she has no chance of tempting her new neighbor, Lord Trevor Montgomery. Every eligible beauty is swooning over the brooding former spy. Even though he once kissed her senseless, he can have no interest in someone like her. Yet somehow, the seductive rogue unleashes her own inner devil…

Every lady loves a hero, but Trevor has no interest in any of them— except for the refreshingly candid Grace. If he had a heart left, Grace might steal it. She insists he’s better than he thinks. He’s sure she’s absolutely wrong. Until danger threatens, and Trevor rediscovers how easy it is to be a hero…for the right lady.

Rating: B

My Notorious Gentleman is the sixth book in Ms Foley’s Inferno Club series, and is a well-written and well-characterised romance in which the handsome and battle-hardened war hero, Lord Trevor Montgomery, meets and falls for the local vicar’s daughter, Grace Kenwood.

I enjoyed reading it – but have to admit that I didn’t find it to be anything out of the ordinary. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mind formulaic when it’s done well, and this certainly was. Grace and Trevor were engaging, well-rounded characters and while there was a danger of Grace’s being rather too perfect, with her good works and determination to put everyone else first, I’m pleased to say that she had just enough imperfections to keep her on the right side of the “too good to be true” line.

Trevor is – or was – a member of the Inferno Club, which, as has been revealed in earlier books in the series, isn’t a club for men who wish to indulge in debauchery, but rather the cover for a group of crack spies and assassins who were trained since boyhood to serve the crown. This is the penultimate book in the series, so the war is over, and Trevor is struggling to adapt to civilian life. I liked that aspect of his character, and that Grace was able to see beneath the handsome, urbane surface to the man beneath who is unsure of his place in the world and who carries the weight of so many black deeds.

Naturally, such an exciting and attractive addition to local society excites the interest of the debutantes and their matchmaking mamas, the foremost of which are Lady Calpurnia Windlesham and her formidable mother. Callie unashamedly sets her cap at Trevor who couldn’t be more disinterested – he’s just been jilted by his beautiful, blonde, superficial fiancée and the last thing he wants is to become ensnared by an equally self-obsessed carbon copy of her.

Besides, he’s far more interested in quiet, unassuming Grace, who, at twenty-five believes herself to be firmly on the shelf and incapable of attracting the attentions of such a gorgeous man.

I enjoyed watching their friendship develop and blossom into more, and seeing Trevor find a new purpose in life as he came to realise that there was much he could do to help improve the lives of the local villagers. The romance was gentle and I particularly liked the fact that Trevor was as smitten with Grace as she was with him, right from their first meeting. She didn’t have to spend too much time pining uselessly, as he was fairly up-front about his interest in her, which was another bonus; although I did find her “a guy like that can’t possibly be interested in a girl like me” attitude to be a little wearing at times.

Another of the things I particularly liked about the novel was the portrait Ms Foley painted of the difficulties of rural life at the time, just after the Napoleonic wars. Not only was it a time of great hardship and scarcity because of the war, with many families devastated by the loss of fathers, sons and brothers, but in 1816, freak weather conditions combined with a volcanic eruption in the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia) had a wide-reaching effect across Europe which meant that summer never arrived and the temperatures throughout the year were much colder than average. As a result, harvests were poor or failed completely, only adding to the shortages that had already been occasioned by blockades and the other effects of war.

Ms Foley incorporates this detail into her book to good effect, as Trevor comes to realise that by buying the Grange, he now has a responsibility to the local people, and he and Grace work together to try to make preparations to help the villagers to mitigate the likely effects of the poor harvests and the approaching winter.

The one thing in the story that didn’t work for me was the final section in which an angry criminal gang from London descends on the village (seeking retribution for the actions of Grace’s friend, George), and proceeds to kidnap Trevor, Grace, and George and take them away so they can dispose of them without witnesses. I suppose this section was partly there to provide a bit of adventure and partly to remind us that for all his distaste for the things he was required to do during the war, Trevor is still capable of being a lean, mean killing machine who is prepared to get his hands dirty if he has to. But it happened so suddenly, and with so little build up that it didn’t fit with the overall tone of the rest of the story, which was a character-driven romance in which an emotionally scarred hero was able to set down roots and find someone who would see him as a person rather than as a collection of heroic – or, in his eyes, not so heroic – endeavours.

That quibble apart, I found Ms Foley’s writing to be immediately engaging, her characterisation consistent, and thought there was plenty of humour in the dialogue. The pacing was fairly slow, but I didn’t find that to be a problem, as it allowed the development of the romance to take centre stage. My Notorious Gentlemanwas a gentle, undemanding read, and I enjoyed it enough to want to read some of the other books in the series.

Saving Grace by Julie Garwood (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

sg

When Lady Johanna learned that she was a widow, she vowed she would never marry again. Only sixteen, already she possessed a strength of will that impressed all who looked past her golden-haired beauty. Yet when King John demanded that she remarry — and selected a bridegroom for her — it seemed she must acquiesce, until her beloved foster brother suggested she wed his friend, the handsome Scottish warrior Gabriel MacBain.

At first Johanna was shy, but as Gabriel tenderly revealed the splendid pleasures they would share, she came to suspect that she was falling in love with her gruff new husband. And it was soon apparent to the entire Highlands clan that their brusque, gallant laird had surrendered his heart completely. But now a desperate royal intrigue threatened to tear her from his side — and to destroy the man whose love meant more to her than she had ever dreamed!

Rating: A

I thought Saving Grace was a truly delightful story and a thoroughly engaging character-driven romance. I admit that, yes, it did have rather an anachronistic feel to it and that both Lady Johanna and her Laird were a little too modern in their sensibilities, but I was so drawn into the story that it really didn’t bother me.

Lady Johanna is a young English noblewoman who, at the beginning of the story, is only too relieved to discover that her older, abusive husband is dead. An heiress who lives under King John’s rule at a time of great unrest and uncertainty, she has no control over her fate and is summarily informed that she is now to be married to one of her late husband’s cronies.

While Johanna is dismayed at the prospect, she does not – cannot –rail against her fate. The disposal of her hand is at the king’s pleasure, and, as we discover later, John has his own nefarious reasons for needing Johanna married off to Baron Williams, another of his most loyal courtiers.

Fortunately, her brother, Nicholas, has other plans. Having been unable to help Johanna during her unhappy marriage, he has asked his sometime friend, Gabriel, Laird MacBain to marry her instead. In return, Gabriel will receive the Scottish lands held by her late husband; lands, which had previously belonged to the MacBains.

Gabriel has no objections. Even when Nicholas tells him that Johanna is barren, MacBain is unconcerned as he already has an heir – albeit an illegitimate one – and agrees to the marriage for the sake of the property it will bring him. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Johanna is beautiful but he is worried that she is too weak, both in body and spirit, to weather the harsh Scottish climate as well as cope with the duties involved in managing his household and holding her own amongst his warriors, workers, and dependants. All belong to two barely civil clans – the MacBains and the MacLaurins.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals, where I’ve given it an A for content and A for narration.

Once Upon a Tower by Eloisa James (audiobook) – Narrated by Susan Duerden

out

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?

My review of the print edition of this title can be found HERE.

Rating: C for content and C for narration

I found this rather a difficult book to rate, because it’s quite unlike most of the other historical romances I’ve read or listened to. At times, I almost forgot I was listening to a romance because there were so many uncomfortable moments that made it almost too realistic to be termed a romance.

That’s not to be taken as a damning criticism, however. I think that Ms. James has touched on something in Once Upon a Tower, which is actually very honest and, in many ways, timeless. She’s fashioned a story that details the pitfalls into which a young and inexperienced couple can easily fall when they enter into a relationship, which has no solid foundation other than a strong physical attraction, allowing their expectations and attitudes of life and relationships to be informed by too many outside influences.

Gowan Stroughton has been the Duke of Kinross since he was fourteen and is every inch the aristocrat. At twenty-two, he confidently manages several large estates, has a well-deserved reputation for financial acumen, and even acts as a consultant to the Bank of England. He fills his life with work and duty, partly because it’s how he was brought up and partly to escape the shadow of his late father, a drunken wastrel.

Lady Edith (Edie) Gilchrist is an extremely talented musician who, but for her sex, would have been a world-famous exponent of the cello. Lord Gilchrist is a friend of Gowan’s, so when the latter is struck with Edie’s beauty and serenity, it’s a mere formality for him to ask – and be granted – her hand in marriage.

Having obtained Gilchrist’s consent, Gavin has to leave London without seeing his betrothed again, as his presence is urgently required elsewhere. He is, however, very taken with Edie and finds himself, almost for the first time, being unable to completely direct his concentration where it needs to be.

This sets the tone for their relationship for much of the book. Gowan, a workaholic ruled by duty, is still a virgin and has never been troubled by such lustful thoughts; betrothed in the cradle, he believed it would have dishonored both him and his future bride had he taken mistresses or employed courtesans. When his fiancée died, he was content with his life as it was and never really had the time or inclination for dalliance.

When Gowan and Edie meet again several weeks later, it’s not long before they’re both ready to hit the nearest flat surface – although they manage to restrain themselves until the wedding, and I have to say, the sexual tension in that part of the story is pretty scorching.

It’s easy to forget that Gowan is barely more than a teenager himself, given that the majority of the heroes found in historical romances are older, experienced men of the world. Edie’s attractions hit him with full force. Suddenly he’s a walking erection – a seething mass of hormones and he isn’t too pleased about the distraction, especially when he begins to believe that she isn’t similarly affected. She is, of course. He’s the epitome of the brawny, handsome, Highland laird after all but both of them seem to be blind to the fact that the other is reduced to a pile of mush in his/her presence.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals, where I’ve given it a C for content and a C for narration.

Season for Scandal by Theresa Romain

sfs

Jane Tindall has never had money of her own or exceptional beauty. Her gifts are more subtle: a mind like an abacus, a talent for play-acting—and a daring taste for gambling. But all the daring in the world can’t help with the cards fixed against her.

And when Edmund Ware, Baron Kirkpatrick, unwittingly spoils her chance to win a fortune, her reputation is ruined too. Or so she thinks, until he suggests a surprising mode of escape: a hasty marriage. To him.

On the surface, their wedding would satisfy all the demands of proper society, but as the Yuletide approaches, secrets and scandals turn this proper marriage into a very improper affair.

Rating: B

Up until about three-quarters of the way through, this was going to be a 4.5 star read, possibly a DIK for AAR. But the last 20% or so didn’t live up to the early promise, so I’ve downgraded it a bit.

Season for Scandal grabbed me immediately and had me tearing up by about a quarter of the way through. The characterisation of the hero and heroine was excellent and the story was well-written with plenty of humour and wonderful dialogue along the way – but I’m sorry to say that the final twenty per cent or so didn’t live up to the promise of the rest of the story. The author had so beautifully captured the emotions and longings of two people who had such capacity for love but were unable (for different reasons) to express it, that the dénouement felt simultaneously rushed and lacking in momentum.

Jane Tindall is cousin to Alex Edgeware, Lord Xavier (hero of the previous book). She is possessed of neither beauty nor fortune, but she has a mind like a steel trap and a longing for independence and a life that is something “more” than the one that would seem to be laid out before her.

Jane has been in love with Edmund Ware, Lord Kirkpatrick, for years and when circumstances arise that threaten her social ruin and he steps in to offer her his hand in marriage, she has no choice but to accept, even though she knows her feelings are not returned.

But she is hopeful. Edmund is a kind and considerate man, and she thinks that perhaps love will grow from their friendship in time.

The problem, however, is that Edmund is kind and considerate to everyone. He dances with wallflowers, flirts with widows and does his best to make everyone he meets feel valued – and believes it will be enough to treat his wife in the same manner. But what nobody knows is that Edmund’s kindness to all and sundry masks deeply-rooted self-disgust and guilt, and that he sees his consideration and generosity as a way to atone for the past deeds that tore his family apart.

Edmund’s spur-of-the-moment proposal to Jane came of selfish reasons as well as a desire to help a woman in distress. He is haunted by his past, a past which is about to catch up with him in the form of a man named Turner who, Edmund has just learned, has recently returned to England after twenty-years spent in a penal colony. Being Edmund, his immediate instinct is to protect his mother and sisters, despite the fact that he has next to no contact with them at all, and in order to do that, he determines to secure his estates by producing an heir as quickly as possible.

The Marriage of Convenience is a favourite trope of mine, and I think that the author has put a slightly different spin on it which made the heroine’s longing for her husband’s affection especially poignant and heart-wrenching. On their wedding night, in the throes of passion, Jane blurts out her true feelings – which horrifies her new spouse. He had no idea that Jane was in love with him – he hadn’t wanted love, given that he is unable to return it.

Jane is mortified – both at Edmund’s reaction to her confession and her own carelessness in making it. She attempts to shrug it off, insisting that it doesn’t matter, that she doesn’t expect a return and that it won’t make any difference.

But she very quickly realises the error in that statement when she begins to see that Edmund behaves towards her in much the same way as he does to everyone – he’s kind, courteous and solicitous of her comfort, but in exactly the same way he is kind and courteous towards every other woman he meets, whether it’s in a ballroom, or on the street rescuing a blown-away bonnet. She quickly finds that Edmund’s insistence on giving her gifts, or in trying to do and say things that he thinks are what she wants – incredibly frustrating, because what she really wants is something of him, his time, his companionship, to be his significant other rather than just an other woman.

But Edmund locked away his “self” a long time ago, after the events that led to the death of his father and destroyed his family. Believing himself to have betrayed them all, Edmund has cultivated an air of dependability, ruthlessly controlling his emotions and hiding them beneath his outward veneer of composed affability. It’s clear that guilt is part of the reason for his desire to be kind to everyone he meets. He has separated himself from his mother and sisters because he believes it to be the best thing for them; and as he can’t help them in person, he helps them by proxy, in bestowing his attentions on others instead.

A hero possessed of a dark and dirty secret in his past who has voluntarily separated himself from his family is not an unknown character – type in romance. But here, Ms Romain has done something more than just present the reader with a tortured, self-sacrificing hero; she has also shown the negative side of Edmund’s ruthless self-control, and not just in the sense that it is causing his wife distress and heartbreak. Edmund the good Samaritan would have been rather a one-dimensional and somewhat unlikeable character, I think – nobody could be that good! Countering that is the fact that what Edmund sees as his “atonement” is actually a very selfish and convenient way of giving nothing of himself to anyone. Real feeling is too difficult and painful, so he has chosen to close himself off to it in favour of things that are easier to give – kind words and attentions to random strangers or minor acquaintances which cost him nothing.

While Jane is, for the most part, a more sympathetic character, she is not without her faults, either. Her impulsiveness and her determination, as she says, not to live a ‘small life’ initially blind her to the fact that Edmund’s emotional detachment is not some sort of passing phase – and when she realises that he isn’t able to be the husband she wants him to be, she leaves him, after a mere few weeks of marriage.

The fact that she could simply remove herself to her cousin’s house meant that it was easier for her to run away than to try to make something of their marriage or to attempt to understand her husband. It’s true that he did not seem willing to share his troubles with her, but it struck me that ultimately, it was Jane who opted to take the easy way out rather than stay around a little longer to see if she could find a way to get Edmund to open up to her.

Fortunately however, her action does precipitate a positive development in that after she has left, both she and Edmund start to think more deeply about their respective situations, and at last find that they are able to properly talk to each other. These ‘talks’ are not pleasant, as Jane tells Edmund:

“You’ve left your heart behind somewhere long ago, but you’ve never gone back to get it. You look for little pieces of it in everyone you meet. You make everyone love you, just a little. But what do you feel in return? Nothing, because you’re always looking for what’s next.”

– while he tells her that what she wants is some imagined, unreal version of himself who doesn’t exist.

The roiling emotions that Jane and Edmund were both working so hard to conceal came across beautifully on the page, especially in the way that neither of them wanted to hurt the other while having absolutely no idea about what they really wanted from each other. The things that hurt Jane so deeply were things that might, on the surface, seem fairly small things. Edmund didn’t beat her, he didn’t betray her with another woman or steal from her – instead it seemed he wanted to kill her with kindness, because it was all he was prepared to offer her.

Coming on the heels of such incredible emotional insight, I can’t help feeling that Ms Romain dropped the ball in the final section of the book, which felt almost commonplace by comparison. Edmund decides he has no alternative but to confess his ‘sins’ to Jane and they concoct a plan to force Turner abroad once more, this time never to return. And I couldn’t help thinking: “if he’d done this a couple of hundred pages ago, neither of them needed to have been made so miserable”. Which, of course, would have led to a much shorter book.

In the end, it wasn’t about one of the protagonists ‘giving in’ to the other, or finally being prepared to do what it took to salvage things between them – and I felt that fact set this story apart from many other romances with similar storylines. Both characters had to grow as people before they could grow together as lovers. Edmund finally realises that his life hasn’t really been his for the past twenty years and knows he needs to tell Jane the truth, even if it means she will never return to him. But he tells her because it’s the right thing to do, not because he thinks it will bring her back; and because he has faced the truth about his selfishness in not wanting her to love him because love was too difficult for him to deal with.

Despite my reservations about the ending, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Season for Scandal and would definitely recommend it if you’re looking for a book filled with warmth, humour and with just enough angst to tug at the heartstrings.

Lady of Passion by Freda Lightfoot

lop

Beautiful and talented actress, poet and fashion icon, Mary Robinson was one of the most famous women of her time – yet she died virtually penniless, her reputation in ruins. For Mary was destined always to be betrayed by the men she loved – her father, her husband and, most seriously, by the Prince of Wales, later George IV, for whom Mary gave up her career, her husband and her independence, only to be cruelly abandoned. This is her enthralling story: a tale of ambition, passion, scandal and heartbreak.

Rating: C+

Lady of Passion is a brief, but fairly comprehensive account of the life of Mary Robinson, one of the mistresses of George, Prince of Wales (later George IV). I know little about her, other than of her relationship with George and that he became enamoured of her when she was playing the role of Perdita in The Winter’s Tale. What I hadn’t known was that in her later years, she became well known as a poet and author – in fact, she had written poetry all her life and the publication of the odd volume here and there in fact helped to keep her financially solvent.

While in many ways she appears to have been dreadfully naïve – mostly about the men in her life – she was witty and intelligent, counting a number of political and literary figures among her friends – people such as David Garrick, Joshua Reynolds, Richard Sheridan, the Duchess of Devonshire and Charles James Fox. Even though Mary is principally known for having been the mistress of a prince and a handful of other men, she appears to have been a woman of independent spirit (given the way her men treated her, I think she had little alternative!), and in fact struck up a friendship with Mary Wollstonecraft, the famous advocate of women’s rights in the 1790s.

Mary’s life wasn’t an easy one. Her father abandoned her and her mother when she was quite young, and while not destitute, they found it difficult to make ends meet. Barely out of girlhood, Mary was already attracting male attention and at the age of fifteen, and with her mother’s encouragement, she gave up her dream of a career on the stage and married Thomas Robinson, a young lawyer with good prospects.

Unfortunately however, Robinson proved to be dissolute and faithless, frequenting the gambling tables, taking a string of mistresses, and ultimately landing them in debtor’s prison.

Despite her husband’s infidelities, Mary never strayed, even though she was never short of men offering to act as her protector. It wasn’t until she attracted the interest of the young Prince of Wales (at seventeen, he was about five years her junior) that Mary finally fell in love and was convinced to break her marriage vows.
Their relationship was not long-lived, partly due to the pressure brought to bear on George by his father, and partly, I would imagine, through George’s own inclination. When their affair ended, Mary, having given up her stage career, was left with little alternative but to find herself another protector.

Mary’s life seems to have been one of high peaks and low troughs. Blissfully happy with her Prince, she was devastated when he abandoned her; having lived well beyond her means, she had to flee to the continent to escape her creditors, and when she returned three years later, she had been all but forgotten. Even though she was regarded as a demimondaine (a woman whose sexual promiscuity means she is not respectable in the eyes of good society), Mary did not take many lovers, and was faithful to those she did. When she finally met the man she described as the love of her life some years later, their fifteen-year relationship was a tempestuous one during which Mary had a traumatic miscarriage which seems to have brought on the rheumatism that afflicted her until her death.

One of the things that struck me as rather ironic was the fact that the press back in the 1780s seems to have acted in a very similar manner to today! As a famous actress, celebrated beauty and former royal mistress, Mary was often the target of unpleasant gossip in the news-sheets, and in the book, she frequently laments her regular inclusion in them, especially considering that the stories about her are untrue. Plus ça change, indeed.
In Lady of Passion, Mary comes across as an odd mixture of the naïve and the knowing. For an intelligent woman, she certainly made some bad decisions when it came to the men in her life, most of whom betrayed her with other women and were content to be financially dependent upon her. What that says about the men of that time, I’m not sure; perhaps Mary was a victim of her own circumstances – her beauty, her lack of fortune and a father-figure seem almost to have given her little choice as to the direction her life would take – or perhaps she suffered because of her own poor choices.

Whatever the case, hers is a compelling story. However, I do have reservations about the book which prevented me from rating it more highly; things which are to do with the execution rather than the content.

This is a matter of personal preference, I know, but I am not fond of historical fiction written in the first person. I find the viewpoint is often too limited, the style too simplistic and that it frequently leads to clunky exposition of the “as you know, Bob” variety, where information is inserted into conversations or thoughts in a very unrealistic manner because there is no other way to convey it to the reader.

But a review is always going to be subjective and as such, I recognise that others may not share my tastes. Were I rating the book for content alone, I would probably have given it 4 stars. Lady of Passion was easy to read and I got through it in two or three sittings. The story moves quickly – sometimes too quickly as I felt that there were times things were glossed over, but it did hold my interest, and I enjoyed reading it.