Sins of a Wicked Princess by Anna Randol (audiobook) – narrated by Veronica Paulton

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Ian Maddox, aka the Wraith, is happy to leave his life as a spy— as soon as he discovers who’s been trying to kill his friends. All clues lead him to the bedroom of an exiled princess. Yet Princess Juliana isn’t the simpering royal he expects, and this irresistible beauty agrees to give him the information he seeks…for a price.

Princess Juliana has never cowered—not even as she fled her burning castle in the midst of a rebellion—so she won’t tremble before the darkly charismatic man who appears in her bedchamber and holds a knife to her throat. Instead, she bargains with the infamous spy to help her retrieve sensitive documents and restore her kingdom. But Juliana quickly finds that Ian is no humble servant, and she never imagines that lessons in thievery will lead to schooling in seduction.

Rating: B for content and B+ for narration

I’ve been waiting to read or listen to this story since I read Sins of a Ruthless Rogue (Book 2 in Ms Randol’s Sinners Trio) last Spring. Ian Maddox, aka The Wraith, appeared as a secondary character in that story and immediately caught my attention with his snarky mouth and cocky attitude. I’m a sucker for a smart guy with an equally smart mouth and have been eagerly awaiting his story which is the final book in Anna Randol’s trilogy of stories of espionage and romance.

Ian Maddox is one of a group of crack British spies known as “the Trio”, all of whom had been rescued from the gallows in exchange for putting their exceptional skills to use for the Crown during the Napoleonic wars. Ian’s particular talents have to do with retrieval – if there’s something he wants, he gets it, no matter what he has to do. He’s quick and light on his feet and can find ways in and out of all manner of places without people even knowing he’s there. Blink – and you’ll miss him.

When I started listening to Sins of a Wicked Princess, I was delighted to meet Ian again. He’s just as I remembered him – super confident, irreverent, witty, sexy, and flirtatious, and new-to-me narrator Veronica Paulton’s performance definitely brought out those characteristics very well indeed.

At the beginning of the series, the war is over and the Trio is released from their service and disbanded. Ian is certainly not averse to getting his life back, but before he “retires” he wants to do one last thing – discover the identity of the traitor who ordered their deaths. His investigations lead him to suspect the betrayal came from someone in the London home of the exiled Princess Juliana of Lenoria, a small European kingdom which is the object of dispute by the Spanish and the French.

Not being one to beat about the bush, Ian sneaks into Juliana’s chamber one night and confronts her with his suspicions. She has no idea who he is or what he is talking about, and Ian, who can recognise the truth when he hears it, has to reluctantly accept her protestations of innocence.

Shortly after this, Juliana is apprised of a plot to depose her in favour of her younger brother, Gregory, who has allowed himself to be dazzled by the promises of an extremely powerful British peer. In finding out about this plan, Juliana also discovers that Gregory was the one who ordered the deaths of the Trio. She recognises that her brother does not wish her harm, but that he has been duped by the Duke of Sommet, who is now blackmailing him to ensure his continued cooperation.

Juliana can think of only one person who can help her retrieve these sensitive documents and asks Ian to teach her the skills she will need to steal them from Sommet. In return, she will tell him what she knows about the Duke’s involvement in the treason against her country and the order to kill him and his friends.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Rake’s Midnight Kiss by Anna Campbell (audiobook) – narrated by Antony Ferguson

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Brilliant scholar Genevieve Barrett’s secret identity as the author of her father’s articles is her greatest deception—until her father’s handsome new student arrives on their doorstep. Genevieve recognizes him as the masked intruder who earlier tried to steal a priceless gem from their home. Keeping the seductive stranger’s identity hidden is a risk, but she’s got secrets of her own to keep.

Sir Richard Harmsworth fakes a rakish facade to show society that he doesn’t care about his bastard status. Yet haunted by his unknown father’s identity, Richard believes the Harmsworth Jewel will prove he’s the rightful heir. Intent on seducing the stone away from its owner, Richard finds himself face-to-face with a beauty more breathtaking than any jewel. But even as she steals Richard’s heart, Genevieve will be in greater danger than her coveted treasure . . .

Rating: B- for content and C for narration

I had a hard time rating this as an audiobook. I really liked the print edition and graded it B+ at All About Romance, but as an audio, it doesn’t rate as highly.

I read and enjoyed A Rake’s Midnight Kiss early in 2013 and was very much looking forward to revisiting it in audio format. I’d already listened to the previous book in the series (a href=https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13512914.Seven_Nights_in_a_Rogue_s_Bed>Seven Nights in a Rogue’s Bed) and will admit to having reservations about Mr. Ferguson’s narration, principally due to one particular vocal tick that got on my nerves after an hour or so. But I like to follow series and see if the performers develop and make changes to their interpretations from book to book, and I’m pleased to report the absence of the particular quirk that had so annoyed me before.

The hero of this story is Sir Richard Harmsworth, whom we met briefly in the previous book. Like his friends, Jonas Merrick and Camden Rothermere (hero of the next book), Richard has lived all his life dealing with slurs about his parentage. Although he is technically legitimate as his mother was married to Sir Lester Harmsworth at the time of his birth, Richard is not actually Sir Lester’s son, and everyone in society knows it. Even as a boy, he had to bear the taunts of his schoolmates, and as he grew into adulthood, he developed an ironclad defence mechanism, cultivating an even-temperedness and urbanity so that society believes him to be lazy and unconcerned about little more than his tailoring. Of course, having a thick skin doesn’t mean that the insults don’t sting, and when, on one particular evening, he is pushed beyond his limit, Richard vows to find the famous Harmsworth Jewel, an ancient artefact passed through the generations and always in the possession of the true heir to the Harmsworth name.

After searching for six months, Richard discovers the jewel is in the possession of Miss Geneveive Barrett, the daughter of a renowned medieval historian. She was left the jewel by Richard’s aunt, and has refused his offers to purchase it, so Richard hatches a scheme to pass himself off as a dilettante scholar by the name of Christopher Evans who wishes to study with Genevieve’s father. He thinks he will be able to persuade her to sell the jewel, or alternatively, seduce it out of her – but he has reckoned without the lady’s determination and tenacity.

The sparks begin to fly from the moment the pair set eyes on each other. Genevieve is immediately suspicious of the handsome charmer who is determined to flirt with her, and tries everything she can think of to put him off. In her innocence, she doesn’t realise that her put-downs and obvious displeasure in Mr. Evans’ company have exactly the opposite effect on that gentleman and only make him even more determined to succeed in his quest.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Luckiest Lady in London by Sherry Thomas

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Felix Rivendale, the Marquess of Wrenworth, is The Ideal Gentleman, a man all men want to be and all women want to possess. Felix himself almost believes this golden image. But underneath is a damaged soul soothed only by public adulation.

Louisa Cantwell needs to marry well to support her sisters. She does not, however, want Lord Wrenworth—though he seems inexplicably interested in her. She mistrusts his outward perfection and the praise he garners everywhere he goes.But when he is the only man to propose at the end of the London season, she reluctantly accepts.

Louisa does not understand her husband’s mysterious purposes, but she cannot deny the pleasure her body takes in his touch. Nor can she deny the pull this magnetic man exerts upon her. But does she dare to fall in love with a man so full of dark secrets, anyone of which could devastate her, if she were to get any closer?

Rating: A+

I’m a huge fan of Sherry Thomas’ writing, and of the way she injects a degree of grit and realism into a genre that is so often seen through rose-coloured lenses and softened around the edges. Her characters are, for the most part, rich, titled and good-looking, but it’s what’s underneath the surface veneer that really marks her books out as something special for me. Their emotional lives and the way they react to the situations in which they find themselves feel natural, despite the heightened angst they’re often facing, and even though sometimes, those reactions are unpalatable or may at first seem unsatisfying, they nonetheless feel right and completely in character for the personalities she has created.

The hero – or anti-hero – of The Luckiest Lady in London is Felix Rivendale, Marquess of Wrenworth, who made a very brief appearance in Ms Thomas’ first book, Private Arrangements is known throughout society as The Ideal Gentleman; devastatingly handsome, devastatingly charming and just as devastatingly rich, he’s a paragon of virtue and decorum. Unfailingly polite, able to put even the most nervous at their ease, Felix is London’s most eligible bachelor – and is determined to hang on to his bachelor status until he’s at least forty-five, when he plans to marry a seventeen year-old débutante with big boobs and no brain who’ll worship the ground he walks on and pose no threat whatsoever to his heart.

Nobody around Felix has the slightest inkling that it’s all an act and that he’s about the farthest thing from an Ideal Gentleman it’s possible to be. He’s unscrupulous, manipulative, and determined to get whatever he wants from life with no thought for anyone else’s comfort but his own; and he hides all of that beneath a charming, polished persona which is so well-established that even were anyone to discern the truth, any attempt to expose him would be given no credence whatsoever.

Felix is the product of a childhood which saw him used as an emotional football between his parents. His mother was forced to marry his father and resented it until her dying day, taking her revenge by being cold and distant, and by giving the elder Wrenworth to believe that Felix may not have been his. Thus, Felix grew up in an environment in which his father didn’t take much notice of him, and his mother only did so in order to annoy his father – and as soon as Felix was old enough to realise what was going on, he began to play the game himself. Following his parents’ early deaths, he determined never to allow himself to be put into a position of weakness by anyone, and certainly not to be put there by love.

Felix continues to cut a dash through London society – the men want to be him, the women just want him – never faltering and never failing to exploit every opportunity afforded him to get what he wants – until he meets Louisa Cantwell, a young woman of no particular beauty and no particular accomplishment.

At first, it seems that Louisa is like all the other young women Felix meets – stunned by his physical perfection and taken aback by the fact that The Ideal Gentleman, a man so far above her reach, should have taken notice of her at all. And to start with, she is just that. But just as he’s about to add her to his list of – if not bedpost notches, then at least, wannabe bedpost notches – and move on, he realizes that, incredibly, Louisa Cantwell has seen through his Ideal Gentleman persona and doesn’t at all like what she’s discovered lurking about underneath.

Naturally, this causes Felix no small degree of pique. But while there are any number of books in which the irresistibly gorgeous hero is so pissed off by the heroine’s disinterest in him that he starts to pursue her, what sets this book apart is that while Louisa is appalled at what she suspects is Felix’s true nature, she is also in the grip of a lust for him that’s so strong she can’t hide it from him. And he knows it. He knows she wants to run, screaming, from the room whenever they’re in one together, and he so loves knowing she wants him in spite of her dislike that he starts to seek her out and make excuses to be wherever she is.

Yet Louisa is also not all she seems to be. One of five daughters, she is determined to be the one who supports her mother and sisters (the youngest of whom is epileptic) by marrying well. She has just one chance – she is to be sponsored for a London season by one of her mother’s friends – and she has been preparing for years. For various reasons, her début is delayed, and she’s twenty-four by the time she makes her entrance into society. For the past eight years she has been carefully assimilating everything a young lady without fortune or accomplishment intent on finding herself a rich husband needs to know – how to flatter a gentleman with subtlety, how to show the correct degree of attention to his female relatives, and most of all, how to work out which potential husband is likely to be the most biddable.

And Felix knows this, too. He knows that Louisa’s amiability, her composure and deferential femininity are just as much of an act as his own, and does not scruple to let her know he’s found her out. I love romances in which the protagonists become friends before they become lovers and this idea of “two frauds together” provides the basis for the unlikely friendship that develops between them.
With Louisa, Felix is able to act more like his true self – opportunistic, devious and, it has to be said, deliciously naughty. And even though she knows she can’t trust him, Louisa can be more herself when she’s with Felix. I loved their shared sense of humour and their teasing, which is something which I was delighted to discover continues throughout the book.

Louisa is astonished when The Ideal Gentleman proposes marriage –but, having no other options, she accepts, in full awareness (she believes) of what she’s getting into. Felix may be Machiavellian, but he’s witty, intelligent and sexy and she thinks that as long as she doesn’t make the disastrous mistake of telling him she’s in love with him, they should be able to do fairly well. It doesn’t hurt that they’ve been desperate to rip each other’s clothes off and shag themselves witless since setting eyes on one another, and Louisa is certainly looking forward more than eagerly to getting Felix into bed and doing all the naughty things she’s imagined and that he’s hinted at.

I should say at this point that although Felix and Louisa have a lot of sex – and I mean A LOT – the book is not a bonk-fest, and I think that was the right way to go. Even though they’re burning up with lust, they don’t even kiss until after they’re married, which means that the level of sexual tension between them feels like a pressure cooker ready to explode. The sex scenes are not overly explicit, but they’re no less hot and steamy for that. I think that pages and pages of detailed horizontal Olympics would have become boring after a while and would certainly have been detrimental to the story overall.

Naturally, the course of true love does not run smooth. At first, Felix is unnerved by the force of his desire for Louisa and decides that he needs to keep away from her if he’s to avoid becoming completely in thrall to her. This leads him to act like a complete bastard, it’s true – but it’s also true that he quickly realises he’s behaved like a complete bastard and tries to make amends.

That’s another one of the things I really liked about the book. The conflicts between the couple are entirely of their own making – but so are the resolutions. Felix and Louisa both make mistakes – but they’re grown-up enough to admit them and to take the steps needed to fix things.

As is the case with the other books I’ve read by this author, what really sets her stories apart from the crowd is the depth and complexity of the characterisation. Felix may be an underhand cad in many ways, but the things that make him The Ideal Gentleman are not completely fabricated. Beneath it all, he’s a genuinely kind and charming man and despite his parents’ terrible example, he’s a romantic at heart. When he admits to himself that the accusations of selfishness Louisa has levelled at him are true, he is unwavering in his determination to do something that’s just for her; he fosters her interest in astronomy and meticulously plans lessons in maths and physics to further her understanding. His behaviour towards her mother and sisters is adorable and once he finally realises that what he had thought of an obsession with Louisa is actually a deep and abiding love, he’s terrified – but tells her how he feels anyway.

I’ve read some reviews saying that the resolution was rushed and that Louisa forgave Felix too easily for the deception he’d practiced on her, but I disagree. Going back to what I said at the beginning, Ms Thomas’ characters act in ways which feel right, even though at times, that may be somewhat frustrating to the reader. And here, I thought we got a perfect resolution. Both characters have to admit to faults and decide to do what’s needed to make their marriage work. I think what we see at the end of the book is just the beginning – and that what the author has done is to give the reader a glimpse of a relationship that is only going to get better.

The Luckiest Lady in London was a real treat from start to finish and if there are any fans of historical romance out there wondering whether or not to read it – all I can say is: it’s brilliant so stop wondering and get your hands of a copy as soon as possible.

Charming the Shrew by Laurin Wittig (audiobook) – Narrated by Ralph Lister

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Returning to the Scottish Highlands after a fierce battle with the English, Tayg Munro receives a hero’s welcome – and an ultimatum. To take his place as heir to the chiefdom, he must choose a wife or have one chosen for him. Furious and stalling for time, the brooding warrior volunteers for a mission that takes him deep into the Highlands, with no hint of the fateful encounter that awaits him….

Catriona MacLeod is known as the Shrew of Assynt, thanks to her razor-sharp tongue and her unwillingness to yield to her five brothers. When she learns that her eldest brother has promised her hand in marriage to a loathsome man, she flees into the Scottish wilderness, determined to seek the king’s intervention. There she reluctantly joins forces with a handsome traveler, unable to anticipate the treacherous plot that will soon embroil them – or the passion that will ignite between them.

Rating: B- for content and C+ for narration

The plot of Charming the Shrew certainly wouldn’t win any prizes for originality, but that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the audiobook about a hero-in-disguise and the intelligent and sharp-tongued woman with whom he is forced to undertake a wintry journey.

Tayg Munro is the heir to the chiefdom of his clan of Culrain. Having spent a year away fighting with King Robert (the Bruce), Tayg returns home to a hero’s welcome. He wants nothing more than to be left to his own devices for a while and to perhaps take advantage of the many invitations he receives from the willing women of the clan.

But that is not to be. Following the death of his brother, Tayg’s parents are, more than ever, concerned about ensuring the safety of the clan by seeing Tayg married and producing sons of his own. He is adamant that he is not ready to marry and his mother equally determined to find him a bride. His father tells him that he cannot assume his position and duties as his heir until Tayg has found himself a wife. Stalling for time, Tayg undertakes a mission for the King, thinking that the journey will give him an opportunity to escape his mother’s demands and afford him a chance to look for a wife on his own terms.

Catriona MacLeod is known far and wide as the “shrew of Assynt” because of her sharp tongue and quick temper. Her eldest brother is planning to force her into an unwanted marriage with the chief of a neighbouring clan, and she has nobody to turn to for help. Desperate, she runs away, intending to make her way to her aunt’s house and thence, perhaps, to a convent, as that may be the only way she can avoid marriage to a man she detests.

She meets Tayg (who has decided to travel in the guise of a wandering bard) by accident following her flight and, with severe weather settling in, she is forced to accept his help to find shelter and food. He discovers she’s unpleasant company, thinking she deserves her shrewish reputation, and hopes to be able to part ways with her as soon as possible.

He changes his mind when Catriona unwittingly tells him something which makes him realise that her brothers are plotting against the king and instead, decides to take her with him as proof of the plot and as a hostage. He tells her nothing of this; knowing he is travelling to meet with the king, she is happy to tag along, as she believes Robert may be able to find her a husband more to her liking. Perhaps someone like Tayg of Culrain, warrior and hero of whose bravery and prowess in battle songs are sung and tales are told throughout the Highlands.

One of the things I particularly enjoy about “road trip” stories is that the author can take plenty of time to develop her characters and their relationship without too much extraneous action or too many other characters crowding in, and Ms Witting has certainly made good use of the trope in this story. As they travel together, Tayg’s opinions about Catriona begin to change as he learns more about what has caused her to be so prickly and quick to anger; and she begins to see that perhaps her behaviour has not been as it should and so she tries hard to listen more and to think before she speaks.

The romance between them develops quite naturally and at a good pace. Tayg is not your normal super-alpha Highland chieftain; he’s charming and funny and – for the most part – accepts Catriona for what and who she is and is proud of her independence and determination.

Catriona is perhaps a little more of a stereotypical character, a woman who has suffered humiliation at the hands of those who should have protected her and has developed a hard shell as a way of protecting herself from finding herself in that situation again. But she is not too proud to change her ways or to admit to her feelings for her handsome young bard. I did have some issues with her behaviour towards the end of the novel, when she seemed to suddenly turn into an even more stereotypical romantic heroine who couldn’t make up her mind and was then determined to push the hero away because she wasn’t good enough for him, but other than that, I thought she was fairly likeable.

As I said at the beginning of this review, the plot isn’t especially original, but I’ve got nothing against an unoriginal storyline provided it’s well-told and well-written, as is the case here. Both protagonists are strongly and consistently characterised, and the author’s depiction of the Highland winter was very evocative.

Ralph Lister is a very experienced narrator, but I believe this book to be his first foray into the romance genre. I enjoyed his narration very much, although I did have a number of issues with his character portrayals.

He has a very pleasant, slightly husky baritone which is expressive and very pleasant to the ear. His narration was well-paced, his enunciation was clear and I enjoyed listening to him very much.

I did, however, have problems when it came to his interpretation of Catriona and the other female characters. He did raise the pitch of his voice to portray the heroine, but it seemed that almost everything she said, she shouted, even in the more romantic scenes. I don’t know if it was because sustaining the higher pitch was a strain or if it was a conscious acting choice, but in any case, it really didn’t work for me. I know that Catriona is supposed to sound “shrewish” – but that doesn’t mean that she shouts all the time.

Another issue was the one of accents. I know I frequently discuss the authenticity – or otherwise – of different British accents in the audiobooks I listen to, but it’s something that’s really important to me. If I’m supposed to be listening to a Scotsman and yet he sounds like an Irishman, I’m going to find it irritating and it will take me out of the story completely. I do realise that for some, this isn’t as important an issue as it is for me, but this is my review and so I’m going to mention it again!

As soon as the Scottish characters started speaking, I realised that I wasn’t going to be listening to a performance where the accents sounded either consistent or authentic. I can adjust my expectations for that and did so, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the Scottish accents throughout were distinctly “iffy” and sometimes a character would begin a sentence sounding Scottish and end it sounding Irish. There are definite similarities between those accents, but they’re also distinctly different, and there were more than a few occasions when that happened. I also thought that Mr Lister didn’t seem to have quite decided where to pitch Tayg, as much of the time, he sounded rather high-pitched, which didn’t really fit with the picture of the brawny Highland warrior the author had drawn. His portrayal of Tayg worked best when he kept his voice closer to his natural register, and used a softer tone than the harder-edged one he employed in conjunction with the higher pitch.

One last thing was that it sounded to me as though Mr Lister constantly mis-pronounced the heroine’s name as “Cat-ri-OH-na”, rather than “Catr-EE-o-na”, which is the way I’ve always thought the name was pronounced.

Despite those reservations, however, I did enjoy Charming the Shrew and would definitely consider listening to more of Mr Lister’s work. I think he’s an excellent reader, and welcome his addition to the ever-expanding stable of romance narrators – but I think he needs to re-think the vocalisations of his heroines in any future work in this genre.

Scandal in the Night by Elizabeth Essex

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The Spy Who Loved Her

Assuming a false identity as a prim and proper governess, the bold and beautiful Cat Rowan thinks she has finally escaped the wild misadventures of her past—and the wickedly handsome spy who seduced her in India. Imagine her surprise when her employer introduces his brother: the very same cad who destroyed her heart!

The One Who Got Away

The Honorable Thomas Jellicoe cannot believe his eyes when he sees his beloved Cat — the Scottish beauty who nearly jeopardized his mission in India. Disguised as a horse trader from the bazaars of the Punjab, the British spy risked his life for one night of passion in her arms. But here and now—breaking all rules of decorum—one heated kiss ignites a flurry of gunfire. For their enemies have followed them home. And love is the greatest danger of all…

Rating: A-

This is the first book by Elizabeth Essex I’ve read, and on the strength of it, will certainly be searching out more of her work. Scandal in the Night is part of a series, but works incredibly well as a standalone; and in it, Ms Essex has combined a sweeping and poignant romance with a thriller and peppered it with lots of interesting historical detail and – in the parts set in India – evocative descriptions of local colour and customs.

The opening chapter sees the Honourable Thomas Jellicoe, third son of the Earl of Sanderson, returning to England after a fifteen year absence. As a younger man, he was sent to India to work for the East India Company and was quickly identified as having the special talents needed to gather intelligence; so for the majority of his time there, he worked as a spy. As he says later in the book, to be most effective, a good spy should not attract attention and be able to hide in plain sight, which is exactly what Thomas does. He creates a new identity – that of successful horse breeder and trader Tanvir Singh, and immerses himself completely in his adopted customs and lifestyle.

His true identity is known to only two or three people, and for over a decade, Thomas performs his roles extremely successfully and is content. But that contentment is suddenly shattered when he sees a young, pale-skinned, red-haired woman in the Rani Bazzar one morning, and is instantly smitten. But it’s more than physical attraction. Knowing the woman must be British, Thomas finds himself thinking about home and family for the first time in a dozen years, and finds for the first time a feeling of being “apart”, the weight of his double life suddenly making its presence felt in a way it never has before. And he discovers, deep down, a feeling that perhaps the time is coming when he will want to leave India and return to England.

The young woman is Catriona Rowan, niece to the new resident commissioner of Saharanpur, Lord Summers, and governess to his young children. Thomas is enchanted by her striking looks and her delight in her surroundings and her curiosity, and is further delighted when he discovers the steely backbone that lurks beneath her outer softness. His mistake is in being so infatuated that he doesn’t pause to wonder how and why she acquired it.

When Thomas arrives, unannounced, at his brother’s estate, ready to be welcomed back into the bosom of his family, he is absolutely stunned to discover that the woman he has been searching for for the past two years has been employed as governess to his brother’s children. Catriona – now calling herself Anne Cates – is there, right in front of him, as completely dumbfounded to see Thomas as he is to see her. She had known him only as Tanvir Singh and, we later learn, thought he had abandoned her in India. Their reunion is anything but tender, and after a brief and very strained exchange under the curious eyes of Thomas’ brother and sister-in-law, Catriona runs, knowing it will not be long before her employers discover the truth: She is wanted for murder.

But as she runs, shots are fired, upping the stakes considerably and re-inforcing Catriona’s decision to leave. If, as Thomas suspects, the bullets were meant for her, then she cannot afford to stay and put at risk the lives of Thomas’ family.

This part of the story is thus about finding the would-be murderer and thwarting them. Events unfold over a mere day and a half, with the bulk of the book being taken up with Thomas and Cat’s remembrances of their time in India and how they fell in love. I like the use of flashback as a literary device, and it is handled very well here. The interludes are well placed and I never felt as though the flow of the story was interrupted.

In India, Thomas and Cat are inexorably drawn towards each other – Thomas knowing all the while that he is risking exposure because of course, a Sikh horse-trader could have nothing to do with a British memsahib. But her pull is so strong that even a seasoned spy like Thomas can’t stop himself from showing her more attention than he should, even as he tries to disguise his interest in her. I really enjoyed the way their romance was developed. It was clear from the outset that there was much more to it than physical attraction or insta-lust, and that here were two lonely people who were somehow two halves of the same whole. Thomas’ false identity prevents him from wooing Cat as he would were he “himself”, and Ms Essex has skilfully written a slow-burning and tender courtship with an underlying intensity which stems from Tanvir/Thomas’ very proper behaviour towards her. The author’s use of formal language is both appropriate and rather beautiful; Thomas’ disguise as Tanvir gives her the opportunity to embellish his speech in a way that feels simultaneously formal yet very sensuous.

Thomas is a man who knows what he wants, which is one of the things that I loved about him. He falls hard for Cat and doesn’t try to fight it, even though he knows that the only way to be with her is to turn his life upside down and leave India. Unlike many heroes in historical romance, Thomas isn’t a commitment-phobe, and he’s ready to make such a huge change and settle down, which adds greatly to his overall appeal.

Cat is a woman surrounded by secrets. Even at the age of twenty (when Thomas meets her for the first time) she is carrying a burden of guilt which led her to flee her homeland under a cloud and her return to England seems to have taken place under similar conditions. The British community in Saharanpur believes her to be responsible for a fire at the Summers’ residence which killed her aunt and uncle on the night before she left, and she knows that whoever is out to kill her is seeking to secure her silence about what really happened there.

The way the story plays out is well planned and very well executed. The two protagonists are strongly characterised – Thomas especially – and I particularly liked the way Ms Essex commented upon the political situation of the time, and the corrupt nature of the power enjoyed by the East India Company and its employees. Her depiction of the ex-patriot community as a bunch of discontented backstabbers felt completely right as the matrons disdained Catriona’s desire to soak up as much as she could of the local culture.

I found Scandal in the Night to be a very entertaining and well-written novel . I loved the setting and was impressed by the attention given by the author to the historical and political detail. The romance was tender and heartfelt and the thriller element worked well. I will admit that I wasn’t too enthusiastic about the dénouement, but by that point, I was so caught up in the story and with rooting for Cat and Thomas to finally get their HEA, that I was happy to watch things play out and turned the final page with that feeling of satisfaction that comes with reaching the end of a thoroughly enjoyable book.

Summer is for Lovers by Jennifer McQuiston (audiobook) – Narrated by Lana J. Weston

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His heart is unavailable.
Luckily, her interest lies in the rest of him…

Though she was just a girl when they first met, Caroline Tolbertson’s infatuation with David Cameron remains undimmed. Now fate has brought the handsome Scotsman back to Brighton for what promises to be an unforgettable summer. Soon, Caroline will have to choose a husband, but for now she is free to indulge her curiosity in things of a passionate nature.

That is, if David will agree to teach her.

Past mistakes have convinced David he’ll make a terrible husband, though he’ll gladly help the unconventional Caroline find a suitor. Unfortunately, she has something more scandalous in mind. As the contenders for her hand begin to line up, her future seems assured…provided David can do the honorable thing and let them have her.

When a spirited young woman is determined to break Society’s rules, all a gentleman can do is lend a hand…or more.

Rating: B- overall (B for content and C+ for narration

Summer Is for Lovers is an enjoyable, if predictable, story set at the seaside resort of Brighton in the mid-nineteenth century. Brighton is a nice change of scene for a British-set historical, as the majority of those are set in and around London. Even more unusual is the fact that the heroine, rather than being a wallflower, poor-relation, drab governess, or feisty debutante, is a young woman of athletic bent.

The book opens with twelve-year-old Caroline Tolbertson saving a young soldier from drowning in the sea off the Brighton coast. She’s younger and smaller but her skill in the water is prodigious and she is able to rescue him from the dangerous current. Even though he’s dripping wet and worse the wear for drink, he’s handsome, charming, witty, and rather sweetly self-deprecating about being rescued by a girl! And, of course, young Caroline tumbles head-over-heels for him.

Many years later, the two stumble across each other by the Brighton sea-front again. Now in his early thirties and resigned from the army, David Cameron (and how I wish the author had given her hero a different surname, because it was really distracting!) has travelled to the resort with his mother, who is very ill, in the hopes that a change of air will be beneficial to her health. The intervening years have not seen much change for Caroline, however, who is still unmarried at the advanced age of twenty-three, and residing in the town with her mother and sister.

One of the things that sets Summer Is for Lovers apart from most other historical romances is the fact that Caroline is a hugely talented swimmer. I don’t think I’ve come across a story in which the heroine is an athlete before, because, of course, at the time in which the book is set, for a young woman to be sporty in that way was frowned upon. In fact, it was frowned upon for a woman to be good at anything to a very high standard, whether it be music, art, or sport. Females were expected to have a long list of “accomplishments” but woe betide any woman who excelled in any field, because she could not be a “professional” anything. (Unless she earned her living on her back, but that’s not this story!)

She may be incredibly talented in the water, but on land, Caroline is a mass of insecurities. She knows that her physique is not at all in the currently accepted mode for beauty. She’s tall, lithe, long-legged, and small-breasted at a time when petite and curvaceous was the preferred body type. She dresses abominably and her hair – usually simply and ruthlessly tied back for swimming – is uncared for and messy. It doesn’t help matters that, shortly before she meets David again, she had foolishly allowed a young man to kiss her, who then proceeded to tell all his friends that kissing her had been like kissing a boy. Thus Caroline, already sensitive about her height, broad shoulders, and lack of curves, is made to feel even less feminine and more undesirable than she had already believed herself to be. The problem is that her family’s financial situation means that it’s time for her to find herself a husband and gossip about her lack of feminine charms is certainly not going to help Caroline to secure an offer.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Princess Charming by Beth Pattillo

princhar

A hero’s work is never done.

Haunted by his past, Nicholas St. Germain, Crown Prince of Santadorra, has a penchant for rescuing anyone in distress-damsels as well as hapless canines. He has vowed to avoid heroism of any kind, but then Lady Lucy Charming barrels into his life, trailing trouble in her wake.

Daughter of a Duke, Lady Lucy’s life is anything but charming. Forced into drudgery by her stepmother after the Duke’s death, Lady Lucy endures her lot while plotting rebellion. She foregoes the usual balls and Society’s marriage mart, leaving those pursuits to her desperate stepsisters. Instead, Lucy continues the clandestine and often dangerous work of her late father. But to be discovered aiding the reformation efforts could mean imprisonment for Lucy. Any man who thinks to rescue her from her dedication to the cause will find himself pulling a recalcitrant Lucy from one scrape after another. And when Lucy’s passion for reform places her in jeopardy, Nick finds that a dangerously enticing wager may be the only way to save them both.

When love requires the most daring rescue of all, what’s a hero to do?

Rating: C+

This was an interesting story which, although it had flaws, was nonetheless engaging and unusual enough to hold my attention. I admit, from looking at the title and the cover, I had thought I was probably in for a light, easy read which would perhaps be some sort of spin on the Cinderella story, or on some other fairy tale.

The latter did indeed prove to be the case, as our heroine, Lady Lucy Charming, daughter of the late Duke of Nottingham, is treated as an unpaid servant by her nasty step-mother and step-sisters. The story begins as Lucy encounters a young man she believes to be her neighbor’s gardener and accidentally knocks him down while she is trying to run away from a couple of thugs who are chasing her.

Although she says she doesn’t need any help, the gardener – who she has to admit is handsome enough to make her knees weak – insists on helping her to evade capture. It turns out that the men chasing her are employed by the government to track down enemies of the crown of which Lucy, a passionate advocate of social reform, is one.

Lucy’s late father had believed that a massive change in English society was the only way to prevent a revolution akin to the one that had taken place across the channel years earlier, and used his privileged position to work tirelessly to bring about that change. Following his supposed suicide, Lucy has continued to work with the reformers, even though she is well aware of the danger should she ever be caught helping members of the movement, or attending any of the many rallies and meetings that take place throughout the country.

We first encounter Nicholas St. Germain, Crown Prince of Santadorra (a fictional principality close to Spain and France) when he is just twelve years old and, with his mother and younger sister, fleeing the mob that has descended on the royal residence during a peasant uprising incited by revolutionaries from France. The king, his father, has sent them away into the mountains to escape, but before they can cross the border, the queen and Nick’s four-year-old sister are discovered and killed – and he is unable to help or save them.

As a result, the adult Nick carries a huge burden of guilt which manifests itself in a compulsion to help those in need, whether it be to rescue damsels in distress, or send the bulk of his quarterly allowance to a home for orphaned boys.

Both Lucy and Nick are laboring under misapprehensions as to the other’s true identity. Nick believes Lucy to be a scullery maid because of the way she dresses and she believes he’s a gardener. He discovers the truth before she does, however, and given the fact that his father is threatening to cut off his funds if he doesn’t find himself a wife soon, the fact that he’s very much smitten with Lucy – and because the daughter of a duke will be eminently acceptable as the wife of a Crown Prince – Nick determines to marry her.

She is, of course, the ideal candidate for the exercise of Nick’s protective instincts. She’s beautiful and in danger, so what’s a charming, handsome prince to do? Learning of her political activities, Nick determines that Lucy needs to be saved – not just from government thugs, but from herself, and, in order to get to spend more time with her, makes a wager. If she can convince him of the rightness of her cause, he will, upon accession to the throne of Santadorra, grant universal sufferage to all the men in the principality. If she is unable to convince him, she will have to marry him.

Lucy may well be similarly smitten, but discovering that her handsome gardener is in fact, a handsome prince produces a reaction opposite to the one that might have been expected. She’d have happily entertained the suit of the gardener, but she doesn’t want the life of privilege she would be accorded as a princess, and she doesn’t want to move out of the social orbit of her many like-minded friends and fellow reformers.

When the pair is caught in a heavy clinch by no less a person than Prinny himself, it seems that Nick is going to get his way after all. But Lucy is not so easily cornered and, much to Nick’s dismay, manages to wriggle out of a betrothal with him.

It’s at this point that the story started to become less convincing.

Lucy is in love with Nick, but refuses to consider a future with him because of her devotion to her cause. She isn’t willing to compromise one iota, and although Nick recognises that her views have merit, because of his own fears and insecurities, he is unwilling to admit it. His driving concern is to keep her safe, and in order to do that, he is willing to take some drastic and unpalatable actions. Given his history, these actions are completely understandable, but they are at best misguided and at worst, unforgivable.

I enjoy a good adversarial romance, and one of the most unusual things about this book is the fact that the conflict between the hero and heroine doesn’t come from their own insecurities or from some sort of Big Misunderstanding. The thing that drives them apart is Lucy’s political affiliation, which isn’t something I’ve come across in a romance novel before and while I found it to be refreshingly uncommon, it’s also problematic. Lucy is very deeply committed to her cause – it’s her whole life – and as a result, I found it really difficult to imagine her and Nick being able to live happily ever after. Even though Lucy fully understood the fears which prompted Nick’s actions, and, by the end of the book, had accepted that her life would have to change, the fervour with which she had espoused her beliefs was such that I felt she’d always be harbouring a small degree of resentment towards Nick for the way things turned out.

To sum up – I thought Princess Charming was a brave attempt to do something a little bit different … which didn’t quite work. The writing is fairly solid, Nick and Lucy are reasonably well-rounded and their actions fit their respective characters as established by the author. But by making Lucy such a passionate devotee of her cause, Ms Pattillo set the whole thing slightly off balance because it became impossible to imagine her putting her love for Nick above her love for social reform. Despite my reservations, I did enjoy the book, but the second half had a bittersweet feel about it which might not be for everyone.