Three Weeks with Lady X by Eloisa James

lady x

Having made a fortune, Thorn Dautry, the powerful bastard son of a duke, decides that he needs a wife. But to marry a lady, Thorn must acquire a gleaming, civilized façade, the specialty of Lady Xenobia India.

Exquisite, head-strong, and independent, India vows to make Thorn marriageable in just three weeks.

But neither Thorn nor India anticipate the forbidden passion that explodes between them.

Thorn will stop at nothing to make India his. Failure is not an option.

But there is only one thing that will make India his—the one thing Thorn can’t afford to lose…

His fierce and lawless heart.

Rating: A-

I’ve admitted to having been underwhelmed by Eloisa James’ last two or three books, but she’s still an author whose books I’ve never been able to not read when they come out. I’m happy to report that she’s back on top form with Three Weeks with Lady X, a continuation of her Desperate Duchesses series.

The plot is fairly simple, but what makes it such a terrific story is the depth to the characterization of the two principals, neither of whom turns out to be quite what they seem. The book is warm, funny and very sexy, with a great cast of secondary characters and a very well-written relationship between the hero and his friend, Lord Evander Brody, whom we will no doubt meet again in a future book.

Thorn (Tobias) Dautry is the eldest, illegitimate son of the Duke of Villiers (hero of A Duke of Her Own), and is very much a self-made man. Abandoned by his mother, Thorn was grew up in the London slums until he was found and rescued by his father from a gang of Mudlarks (children who were put to work foraging in the depths of the Thames). Despite the fact that his father is a duke, Thorn has made his own fortune, having an eye for investment and invention and a talent for turning a profit. But being rich as Croesus won’t buy Thorn respectability – not that he’s particularly concerned about being respectable for himself – but he wants children of his own one day and is determined to ensure their respectability and acceptance by society. The best way to do this will be for him to find himself the right kind of wife, a lady of good birth and breeding who will dote on her children and be docile and compliant in her marriage.

Thorn believes he has found the perfect candidate in Lady Laetitia Rainsford, a young woman of impeccable lineage whose father is in desperate need of the funds Thorn would provide as part of the marriage settlement. Laetitia is beautiful, quiet, kind, and adores children – but she is looked on by society, and even her own mother – as a simpleton because she never has much to say for herself.

These are not considerations that worry Thorn, however. He wants an uncomplicated marriage with a sweet, kind woman who will do exactly as she’s told. The problem is that Lady Rainsford is a real stickler for propriety and position – in short a total snob – and she is not at all keen on the idea of her daughter’s marrying a bastard, even if he’s the son of a duke and incredibly rich to boot.

Thorn has recently purchased a country estate – sight unseen – and decides that the best way to impress his prospective in-laws will be to invite them there. Unfortunately, the house is very run down, so Thorn’s stepmother asks a friend for help on his behalf.

Although Lady Xenobia India St. Claire is the daughter of a marquess, she had a less than conventional upbringing; she lost both parents in a tragic accident when she was quite young, and has had to make her own way in the world as a result. Unusually for a young woman at this time, she works for her living – as what I suppose we would call an interior designer. At the age of twenty-six, she has decided it’s time for her to ‘retire’ and find herself a husband, but before she can do so, India is asked by Eleanor, Duchess of Villiers to help her stepson to transform the rambling pile he’s purchased into something habitable that will also impress Lady Rainsford.

India is beautiful, intelligent and witty, and despite having had many proposals has accepted none of them. She has worked hard, determined to earn the dowry her parents never provided for her so that she can to choose a husband who will love her and be a good father to the children she craves, rather than have to marry for money. She likes the idea of a quiet, biddable spouse who will be happy to let her run the household, but agrees to take on this one last commission.

Two such independently minded personalities are bound to clash, and so they do, right off the bat. Thorn and India start with the verbal sparring straight away, and the chemistry between them just leaps off the page. India starts work on the house and writes to Thorn regularly to update him on her progress; the missives between them are often very funny, and provide real insight into the way their relationship is developing, showing a similar intelligence and a shared sense of humor, and revealing much as to their overall compatibility.

They develop a friendship of sorts – something which India has never really experienced before. Her parents were highly eccentric, often leaving her to fend for herself for days on end, and she has come to believe over the years that they never really cared about her. Because she is a woman with a profession, India has to be incredibly careful of her reputation, never doing anything that could cause the slightest bit of gossip and as a result of that, and her absorption in her work, she is lonely.

At first sight, Thorn is the epitome of the super-confident alpha-male. Ms. James’ description of him through India’s eyes at their first meeting puts him way above “swoonworthy” on the scale of hero-hotness:

He walked toward them with the effortless confidence of a man who is formidable in every respect, even though he wore no coat or cravat, just a white linen shirt and breeches that stretched over his thigh muscles. Stubble darkened his jaw, and his hair was neither pulled back in a neat queue nor covered by a wig.

He looked like a farm laborer.

Or a king.

But even he is revealed to have insecurities which relate to more than his illegitimacy.

Three Weeks with Lady X is certainly the best of Ms James’ more recent books, and, I think, one of her best ever. It captured my attention immediately and if I hadn’t had to get up early for work the next day, I’d have finished it in one sitting. The plot, as I’ve said, isn’t complicated or original, but the characterization is excellent and the romance is very well developed, both of which are things which far outweigh a predictable plot. I have to admit to a couple of minor niggles, however. I found Thorn’s ward, Rose, was rather tooprecocious, even though I loved the way his softer side was revealed through his care and concern for her. And I did think that the storyline veered off the rails a little towards the end when Thorn decided he had to prove to India that her parents did love her after all.

But those are minor reservations about a book which was otherwise an absolute delight.

Between the Devil and Ian Eversea by Julie Anne Long

bdie

She might look like an angel…

The moment orphaned American heiress Titania “Tansy” Danforth arrives on English shores she cuts a swath through Sussex, enslaving hearts and stealing beaux. She knows she’s destined for a spectacular titled marriage—but the only man who fascinates her couldn’t be more infamous…or less interested.

…but it takes a devil to know one…

A hardened veteran of war, inveterate rogue Ian Eversea keeps women enthralled, his heart guarded and his options open: why should he succumb to the shackles of marriage when devastating good looks and Eversea charm make seduction so easy?

…and Heaven has never been hotter.

When Ian is forced to call her on her game, he never dreams the unmasked Tansy—vulnerable, brave, achingly sensual—will tempt him beyond endurance. And fight as he will, this notorious bachelor who stood down enemies on a battlefield might finally surrender his heart…and be brought to his knees by love.

Rating: B

I haven’t read all the books in this series (so far) but I really enjoyed the one before this (It Happened One Midnight) and gave it an A-.

I was looking forward to a similar experience with Between the Devil and Ian Eversea, but unfortunately, I came away from it feeling a little disappointed.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book – I did. There is plenty of humour in the exchanges between the hero and heroine and between the hero and his numerous siblings, the principals are very attractive characters; it’s sexy and sweet and romantic, and all the secondary characters (who have presumably already featured in their own stories) are well drawn.

Tansy is an interesting and complex heroine, and I was impressed with the way Ms Long gradually peeled away the layers of her personality to reveal the truth of the emotionally bruised young woman beneath the shallow, flirtatious outer shell.

I was less convinced by Ian, however. He’s handsome, sexy and tortured by memories of his experiences in the war, but he wasn’t as well developed a character as Tansy, and isn’t one of those heroes that’s going to stick in my mind in the way some of them do.

I think that part of the reason for my disappointment with this book may be because I felt almost as though I had read two books that had been sandwiched together around the half-way point. For the first part of the book, Ian is very wary of Tansy – wary to the point of dislike – because he can see all too well what she’s up to, and Tansy, while she is absolutely knocked flat by Ian’s gorgeousness, is aware of his distrust of her. So they spend the first part of the story watching and circling each other and when they do meet, they are far from pleasant.

When things change, they change abruptly. The sudden détente comes as the result of a shared concern for a missing girl (who, luckily, is soon found unharmed) and after that, they begin to open up to each other and Ian finds himself telling Tansy things he’s never told anyone else and vice versa. While I was pleased that Ian and Tansy were at last warming up to each other, it felt almost as though the book had done a sudden handbrake turn and set off along a side-turning with little or no warning – hence what I said before about feeling as though two different books had been sandwiched together.

The pair certainly have had a difficult time of it, and I did enjoy the parallels Ms Long drew between their experiences and their reactions to them. I liked the fact that they were both honest enough with themselves to admit that some of the things they had seen in the other’s disposition also applied to them.

“I think you come at everyone before they can come after you, Tansy. You’re afraid to be – “ He stopped abruptly.
Vulnerable, she comnpleted silently in her head, astonished. Certain that’s what he meant.

And then later, there’s a point at which Ian realises that what Tansy had to deal with following the death of her parents and brother wasn’t too different to what he had to face when returning from war.

“And for quite some time it has felt like… I’ve been to school and learned everything there is to learn, and nothing has the power to surprise me anymore. Or scare me.”
[…]
He remembered returning… it was as if he’d used up every emotion he ever had, because he’d felt nearly everything there was to feel at such a pitch for so long that ordinary life felt rather flat and muted and painfully slow. He’d been willing to do nearly anything to feel something. And to forget.”

Both characters were likeable and almost refreshingly straightforward – inwardly. Of course, outwardly, they were just presenting a façade to the world – their coping mechanism – but the author got into both their heads sufficiently for the reader to know that there was much more to Tansy than a man-eating husband-hunter, and to Ian than an inveterate womaniser.

The ending felt rather rushed, too, and the resolution was just a little too convenient. I suppose one could argue that Ian’s actions speak to the depth of his feelings for Tansy, but I thought it was just a little too perfect.

Overall, I did like the book and will certainly be reading the next in the series – and also hope to find the time to read the earlier books I haven’t got around to yet. The writing and characterisation are excellent, I like Ms Long’s way with the humour and I think she’s built up a really superb set of familial relationships between her characters. Even though I’m not up to date with the series, I know that fans are eagerly awaiting Olivia and Lyon’s story (which I believe will be the next book but one), so I think it’s safe to say that there’s a bit of a shocker in store at the end of this one for everyone who’s waiting for the big reunion!

I have to confess that the cover model looks rather more mature than I imagine Tansy to be. Also – does anyone else think she looks like Kiri te Kanawa? I did a double-take the first time I saw it!

Scandalously Yours by Cara Elliott

scandalously

The eldest of the three Sloane sisters, Olivia is unafraid to question the boundaries of Society—even if it does frequently land her in trouble. Disdaining the glittery world of balls and courtship, Olivia prefers to spend her time writing fiery political essays under a pseudonym for London’s leading newspaper. But when her columns attract the attention of the oh-so-proper Earl of Wrexham, Olivia suddenly finds herself dancing on the razor’s edge of scandal. With the help of her sisters, she tries to stay one step ahead of trouble…

However, after a series of madcap misadventures, Wrexham, a former military hero who is fighting for social reform in Parliament, discovers Olivia’s secret. To her surprise, he proposes a temporary alliance to help win passage of his bill. Passion flares between them, but when a political enemy kidnaps the earl’s young son, they must make some dangerous decisions… and trust that love will conquer all.

Rating: B-

Scandalously Yours is the first in a trilogy of books about the three Sloane Sisters – Olivia, Anna and Caro – who are, the blurb tells us, proper young ladies with small dowries, who are encouraged to do little other than pursue eligible bachelors. Of course, our heroines accept no such thing, and each of them secretly indulges in their passion for – respectively – politics, novel-writing, and poetry, while putting up with their mother’s insistence that they flutter their eyelashes and simper at available young men.

The eldest sister, Olivia, will have nothing to do with the simpering, however. She is adventurous and determinedly outspoken with a gift for political rhetoric. Having acted as her late father’s secretary on an expedition to Greece, she is a rather more well-informed than many other young ladies her age, and yearns to do something with her life rather than just look decorative and pour tea. Olivia has decided that marrying well – or at all – is not for her as she no wish to find herself subject to a husband’s authority, so, much to her mother’s despair, she refuses to hide her “oddness”.

She is also, secretly, “The Beacon”, the anonymous author of newspaper editorials which highlight the plight of the less well off in society, and who is an advocate of reform.

In fact, it seems that all three girls are unconventional and free-thinking, although the other two hide it and Olivia doesn’t. Their father was a noted and well-travelled expert on primitive cultures and rituals; an unconventional man who did not believe that his daughters should be brought up in ignorance of everything but hat-trimming and needlepoint. He talked openly to the girls about his work and the artifacts and diagrams he had collected (many of them containing sexual images and references) and thus, all three are more clued up about men and sex than most young women of the times. Their conversation about pizzles (!) early on in the book was hilarious, although even given their broader education, they still seemed a little too comfortable discussing such things.

Our hero is John, Earl of Wrexham, a widower and former military officer with a ten-year-old son. Having returned from the war in order to take his seat in the Lords, he is also looking about him for a suitable wife and step-mother. He is referred to in society as “The Perfect Hero” – courageous, honest, honourable and well-mannered, he is a paragon of virtue. Unfortunately, all that honesty and virtue also serves to make him seem as though he has a stick up his arse much of the time, as he can seem too proper and unyielding.

John is not looking to marry for love and has determined to seek a wife who is well-born, well-behaved and conventional. He decides that Lady Serena Wells is the perfect choice – but the problem is that his son, Prescott (Scottie) doesn’t like her, nicknaming her “the Steel Corset” because of her stern and very proper manner.

In a scene which reminded me of the Banks children writing a letter advertising for a new nanny, Scottie puts together a list of his requirements for a wife for his father and a mother for himself and sends it to the Mayfair Gazette. Naturally, it becomes London’s latest on-dit and the paper is inundated with replies. But the ladies who respond are not what Scottie is looking for – apart from one “Lady Loose-Screw” who sounds like the perfect candidate, so he arranges to meet her.

Being only ten years old presents rather a problem, however, as his attempt to run off to London alone is foiled when his father catches up with him on the road. Fortunately, however, Wrexham needs to go to London anyway, so they journey there together.

In London, John meets Olivia and is surprised to discover that her political views run along very similar lines to his. He also discovers her secret identity as The Beacon and asks her to help him to refine and polish his speech, which she agrees to do, and soon they have developed a strong friendship.

As a former soldier, John is very concerned about the conditions being faced by soldiers returning from war. Work is hard to find, especially for those who have been injured serving their country, and he plans to use his maiden speech to highlight these issues and make a strong case for offering these men financial support by way of some sort of pension. Although he is an earl, he is not inured to a life of privilege and unlike some, is not primarily concerned with preserving his own level of comfort. This brings him into conflict with others of his station who are most definitely not like-minded and it is not long before the threats which have been made against him to try to bring him to heel are carried out and his son is kidnapped.

John and Olivia, with the help of the rakish Lord Davenport (who is clearly being set up as the hero of the next book) then undertake a madcap – and uncomfortable – dash across England in order to effect the boy’s rescue while trying (not always successfully) to keep their hands off each other.

I liked Olivia’s boldness and honesty, even though I felt it was sometimes just a tad too extreme for the time at which the novel is set. But I didn’t like the number of times I was reminded that her flouting of convention and outspokenness was why she had been nicknamed the “Hellion of High Street” by the tabbies of the ton. I got it the first time, thanks. While I like reading about heroines with minds of their own, to have one who, at this period in history, delights in going out of her way to be different was too difficult to swallow, especially as she had no money to speak of. Women had very few options back then – it was get married or nothing; and for the woman with little money, being unmarried often led to a very difficult existence à la Emma’s Miss Bates.

Wrexham was rather endearing, despite his stuffiness, and his desire to do the right thing for his son was a very attractive quality. It was also nice to read about a widower who had actually loved his wife, rather than one whose marriage had been little more than cordial and who had never been in love before. He was supportive of Olivia, never dismissive of her views and suggestions, and revealed himself to have a dry sense of humour – but I confess he did come across as a little on the bland side.

I enjoyed the way the relationship developed between the two, with them finding common interests and striking up (an admittedly charged) friendship before they became lovers, a friendship they managed to maintain even after Olivia had somewhat cavalierly brushed aside Wrexham’s proposal following an afternoon’s passionate interlude. (I normally roll my eyes at that point in a novel – when the hero proposes to the heroine after they’ve hit the sack and she turns him down; but here, I felt Olivia’s character had been so well set up that the rejection made sense given all she had previously said about not wanting to be subject to a man’s authority.) However, their working partnership, both before and after they did the horizontal mambo was well written and was one of the highlights of the book.

Scandalously Yours is a promising start to a new series. It’s an easy, undemanding read, the characters are likeabIe and the writing is intelligent and often humorous. The secondary characters – Anna, Caro, Davenport and Scottie – are all well drawn and engaging, and the author’s incorporation of elements of the political situation at the time provides an interesting backdrop to the romance, and is also key to a number of the plot developments. Overall, however, I couldn’t quite ignore the issues I had with the characterization of the two principals. That said, I’d certainly recommend the book to those who like their romance laced with a dose of history, and I may pick up the next book in the series as I have the feeling that Davenport has the makings of a rather delicious hero.

The Maid of Milan by Beverley Eikli

Cover_MaidOfMilan

Adelaide Leeson wants to prove herself worthy of her husband, a man of noble aspirations who married her when she was at her lowest ebb.

Lord Tristan Leeson is a model of diplomacy and self-control, even curbing the fiery impulses of his youth to preserve the calm relations deemed essential by his mother-in-law to preserve his wife s health.

A visit from his boyhood friend, feted poet Lord James Dewhurst, author of the sensational Maid of Milan, persuades Tristan that leaving the countryside behind for a London season will be in everyone’s interests.

But as Tristan’s political career rises, and Adelaide revels in society’s adulation, the secrets of the past are uncovered. And there’s a high price to pay for a life of deception.

Rating: C

At the age of seventeen, Adelaide Henley – beautiful, vivacious and determined to sample all the delights life had to offer – had an affair with an older, unhappily married man while living in Milan with her mother and diplomat father.

When Adelaide and her lover were discovered, they were swiftly parted and she was taken back to England utterly distraught, often to the detriment of her physical health. In order to explain Adelaide’s lack of virginity to a potential suitor, her overbearing mother concocted a story. On their voyage back to England, their ship had been set upon by pirates and brigands and Adelaide had been raped, a fact which not only explained Adelaide’s “impure” state, but also accounted for her wariness of men, and the fragile state of her emotions and her health.

When the story opens, Adelaide has been married to Tristan, Lord Leeson for the past three years. A fairly young widower, he had fallen in love at first sight, and has been a kind, considerate and attentive husband, usually taking his cue from her mother as to the state of her health and determined not to press his physical attentions upon her any more than is necessary. It’s difficult for him, of course, for his wife is young and beautiful, but he exercises restraint during their weekly conjugal activities so as not to overtax her strength. Over the course of the past year or so, however, Adelaide has realised not only that she has fallen in love with her husband, but that she desires him and wants to be more of a wife to him – both in the bedroom and out of it. But Mrs Henley has convinced her that, should she give her husband the slightest hint as to her sinfully passionate nature, he will become suspicious and wonder at the difference between the meek, ailing girl he married and the suddenly enthusiastic sexual partner in his bed.

Adelaide allows her mother’s blandishments and fears to continue to influence her – until finally she decides it’s time for her to take back control of her life, and show her husband the truth of her feelings for him.
Adding to Adelaide’s confusion is the sudden reappearance of Lord James Dewhurst, her former lover, who is now a celebrated author. Although she is absolutely steadfast in her love for Tristan and wants nothing more to do with James, matters are complicated by the fact that James is one of Tristan’s oldest friends. Having decided that Adelaide is finally well enough for him to take his seat in the Lords and embark on the political career he wants, Tristan has removed to London for the Season, and asks James if he will mind escorting Adelaide to the odd function here and there, when Tristan is unable to attend. Although James is newly betrothed, he is still in love with Adelaide and is naturally only too eager to agree.

Adelaide becomes the toast of the town, and finally feels like herself again. Tristan is enchanted by her all over again, and their physical relationship only gets better as Adelaide proves herself to be an eager participant in their lovemaking. But in the meantime, Adelaide’s – or rather, her mother’s – lies begin to spin out of control, and when she receives an anonymous missive insisting “I know all”, it knocks her back completely. Adelaide suffers a relapse brought on by guilt and an excess of anxiety rather than, as her mother insists, too much gaiety and enthusiastic sex!

The novel is quite complex, with a number of different threads running alongside the story of Tristan and Adelaide’s troubled marriage; such as the relationship between James and his fiancée, the doubts sewn by Tristan’s meddlesome former mistress and the rivalry between James and another writer.

While there were elements I found rather frustrating – most notably Adelaide’s inability to stand up to her mother, and Tristan’s continual insistence on James squiring Addy around when he wasn’t available – I found myself really drawn into the story, which was quite the page-turner. I reviewed an earlier book by this author (A Little Deception) and remember a similar experience – the story was quite compelling even though I did have a few issues with certain areas of the plot and characterisation. I also remember that the villain in that story was an especially well-drawn and forceful character. In this book, there isn’t a villain in quite the same mode – Mrs Henley is selfish and self-righteous, and James is selfish and egotistical – but Mrs Henley’s machinations (both the ones stated explicitly and those I suspected) kept me on tenterhooks, wondering what on earth she was going to attempt next, and how poor Adelaide – and poor Tristan, who seemed to me as much of a victim in this as his wife – were going to be able to cope with the next setback or revelation.

Then, at about two-thirds of the way book, something happened which, I confess, I found very distasteful. It’s difficult to say too much without spoilers; suffice to say it’s something which I am sure that many readers will find unpalatable. In fact, I felt as though I’d been slapped in the face when I read it, and I’m afraid I found it impossible to recapture my earlier enthusiasm for the novel. Perhaps a metaphorical slap is what Ms Eikli intended. In fact, I think that Adelaide is acting more or less in character, and, given the circumstances into which she has been forced time and time again, what she does may not be all that unlikely. But that still didn’t make it easy to regain any sympathy for her, and in fact, it was another day or so before I could bring myself to finish the book.

The author does make it clear that Adelaide’s actions have devastating consequences and that she is almost destroyed by what happened. She knows she does not deserve Tristan’s love or his forgiveness and fully expects and intends to spend the rest of her life alone. But at its heart, The Maid of Milan is a romance, and Adelaide cannot be left to atone for her mistakes by losing the man she loves forever.

Because of the serious reservation I’ve expressed above about the plot, this proved a very difficult book to rate. I had confidently expected to be writing a 4 or 4.5 star review, but now find myself unable to rate it so highly. Reviewing is a very subjective thing, of course, and I have to admit that, had I not been reviewing this book for a blog tour (and had I not previously enjoyed another of Ms Eikli’s books) I may not have finished it.

But I recognise that not everyone has my tastes, and that to base my entire review on one particular plot point is not completely fair, because the book has much to recommend it. The storyline itself is quite compelling in the early stages, as the reader witnesses Adelaide’s gradual re-awakening and her struggles to break free of her mother’s lies and schemes. Then there is Tristan, who is an absolute sweetie and only wants to do the best for his wife. There are numerous secondary characters and plotlines which make the whole thing very intriguing as misunderstandings and plot twists pile on top of one another, making the reader wonder how on earth these two people who really do love each other are ever going to make a life together.

As a consequence, I can’t help feeling that the incident to which I’ve alluded was unnecessary. Tristan and Adelaide already have so many problems to surmount; so many secrets and lies to untangle that this event felt like death-knell to their relationship. I didn’t see how they could recover from it, and also felt that Tristan blamed himself far too much for the turn of events, so that when he eventually asks for forgiveness from Adelaide, I wanted to howl that she should be the one doing the grovelling.

In conclusion, all I can say is that The Maid of Milan is certainly not your run-of-the-mill historical romance, and that if you’re looking for something different, it may well be the book for you. The story is quite gripping and well written, and I thought the author did an excellent job in showing the emotional consequences of keeping so many secrets. But on a purely personal level, I was unable to get past my dislike of that one particular plot point I’ve mentioned, and am sorry to say that it did spoil my enjoyment of the book overall.

Love is Blind by Lynsay Sands

loveblind

THERE’S MANY A SLIP…

He’d been warned that Lady Clarissa Crambray was dangerous. Stomping on toes and burning piffles, the chestnut haired beauty was clearly a force with which to be reckoned. But for Adrian Montfort, Earl of Mowbray, veteran of the Napoleonic wars, this was just the challenge he needed. He could handle one woman and her “unfortunate past”. Could any woman handle him?

‘TWIXT THE CHIT & HIS LIPS

Lady Clarissa Crambray wanted a husband, but maybe not as much as her mother wanted tone for her. Really! Doffing her spectacles might make a girl prettier, but how would she see? She’d already caused enough mayhem to earn a rather horrible nickname. Yet, as all other suitors seemed to shy away in terror, there came a man to lead her to the dance floor. A dark, handsome blur of a man.

Rating: B-

My principal reason for picking up this book was that I needed to read something by a “new-to-me author” for this month’s Multi-Blog TBR challenge. I’ve had this one on the pile of paperbacks by the bed for a while, and, being visually challenged myself, liked the idea behind the story.

Reading Love is Blind was like indulging in a guilty pleasure. I’m usually a bit of a stickler when it comes to historical romance, as I do like there to be a reasonable amount of – if not actual history, then at least historical accuracy in the books I read. But occasionally, I find myself being able to relax my usual requirements a bit, go with the flow and read something for the hell of it. That said, even with a “wallpaper historical” like this one, there still have to be a number of redeeming features in order for me to enjoy it, and fortunately that was the case here.

Although there’s nothing in the book to suggest when it is set, references to certain styles of clothing and events place it firmly in the early part of the 19th century. But there’s a very modern feel to much of the dialogue; and the use of a number of anachronistic expressions, not least of which is “okay”, do stick out like the proverbial sore thumbs. But the thing is, I found the two principal characters to be rather charming, I liked the story – even though parts of it were a bit daft – and the underlying theme of two people whose insecurities have held them back from living their lives and finding love. The book is pure mental candyfloss, but in a good way – light, fluffy and fun, but fortunately not sweet enough to rot one’s teeth!

I am also blind as a bat without my glasses and have been for thirty years or more. While I may not be quite as bad as Clarissa, (the heroine of this book) when it comes to falling over and bumping into things, and I can manage to find my way around the house without needing an escort, I still sympathised with her enormously when she was without her spectacles and unable to see anything clearly.

Lady Clarissa Cambray is currently “doing the Season” in London under the chaperonage of her step-mother, Lydia, who is, not to put too fine a point on it, a total bitch. She has forbidden Clarissa – who is very short-sighted – to wear her spectacles in public because (she says) they make her look ugly and she will never attract a man while she wears them. Clarissa actually believes this – and while she is miserable because she can’t to see very much, she doesn’t attempt to contradict Lydia or to get herself another pair of specs.

Adrian Montfort, Earl of Mowbray, has been living a reclusive existence for the past ten years, following his return from the Peninsula horribly scarred. Formerly regarded as one of the handsomest men of the ton, Adrian returned to society after the war only to discover that the scar marring his features had made him so unattractive as to make young women swoon in horror. Fortunately, however, he’s the hero, so it’s a good bet that the scar isn’t really all that bad and that he’s just as gorgeous with it as he was without it.

On a rare visit to the capital, Adrian attends a ball with his cousin, Reggie, who warns him off Clarissa when he expresses an interest. Reggie tells him how clumsy Clarissa is, and how vain for not wanting to wear her glasses, but Adrian isn’t convinced, seeing a wistfulness in the young woman that others appear to have missed. He also thinks that her “blindness” will work in his favour, because it means she will not be able to see his face clearly enough to be horrified by his scar.

So Adrian approaches Clarissa, talks to her and dances with her. They enjoy each other’s company and there’s an immediate rapport between them, although I thought that Clarissa was rather too candid for a young lady of that time. That said, her unaffectedness is one of the things about her that Adrian finds most endearing.

In any case, they are both very much attracted to each other and are eager to meet again, which, with a little help from Adrian’s mother and sister, they manage to do.

Strangely, despite Lydia’s continual moaning at Clarissa about how she will never attract a man while wearing her glasses, she is not at all pleased to discover of the budding attachment between her step-daughter and a wealthy earl, and does her damndest to prevent their seeing each other again.

During the course of their few meetings, Adrian has become aware that Clarissa has been subject to rather a large number of accidents while she has been deprived of her spectacles. She’s fallen down the stairs and been pushed into the path of an on-coming carriage, to name but two incidents, and when he discovers that someone has quite possibly tried to do her physical harm in her own back garden, becomes convinced that someone is targeting her – although he can’t, for the life of him, figure out why.

Another “mishap” results in the pair being caught in a compromising situation – although Adrian finds himself all too pleased to offer marriage to the lady, and they are altar-bound shortly afterwards.

Once married, the fact that they can’t keep their hands off one another doesn’t serve to convince either of them that the other will love them regardless of whether they’re sporting an ugly scar or pair of spectacles. An over-obvious and unguarded remark made by Adrian’s mother serves to make Clarissa think he will be crippled with disgust when he sees her with her glasses on, and he struggles with guilt at the fact that he is prepared to let her go for a little longer without being able to see clearly if it means she can’t see his face properly.

Love is Blind isn’t complicated or overly-angsty and it rattles along at a good pace. The mystery side of the plot is well done and I didn’t guess the identity of the villain of the piece until quite late on. But as I’ve said before, I’m not a great reader of mysteries, so I often miss the subtler clues! Clarissa and Adrian were cute both individually and together, and they were really what made the book so enjoyable, in spite of the anachronisms and the silliness of the main plot. The chemistry between them was terrific, there was plenty of humour and the whole thing was a piece of good-natured fluff, which isn’t as easy to pull off as one might think.

Unlacing Lady Thea by Louise Allen

ladythea

A journey into pleasure…

The night before dissolute Lord Denham is about to embark on his grand tour, he meets an unexpected complication. In boy’s clothes that barely conceal her delectable curves, his childhood friend Lady Althea Curtiss—desperate to escape an arranged marriage—arrives, demanding free passage!

Rhys accepts his unlikely traveling companion with great reluctance—the scandal is sure to blow up in his face—until he finds there is far more intimate territory Lady Thea is curious to explore. Soon he realizes that he is in danger of awakening not only Thea’s sensuality, but also his own long-buried heart….

Rating: B

Unlacing Lady Thea is a truly charming road-trip story featuring two well-drawn and engaging protagonists who had known each other as children, but drifted apart following the hero’s aborted wedding. Long-standing friends who fall for each other is a trope I particularly enjoy, which obviously predisposed me in the book’s favour; but when, in the opening pages, the drunken hero strikes up a conversation with the kitchen cat and utters the immortal line:

“A gentleman does not wash his balls in the study.”

I knew I was in for a fun read.

Rhys Denham, Earl of Palgrave is twenty-eight, and, after being jilted at the alter six years before, has made the most of his bachelorhood. He’s got a bit of a reputation with the ladies (there aren’t many heroes in historical romance who haven’t!) but is also a responsible landowner, and a supporter of reform who takes his duties as a member of the government seriously. He has decided that it’s time he settled down and being of the opinion that emotional entanglements such as that crazy little thing called love are needlessly messy, has made a list of the attributes he wants in a wife. Because he plans to honour his marriage vows, he wants to find himself a woman who attracts him, but he doesn’t want one who will “live in his pocket” or protest about the idea of their leading more or less separate lives. Before he starts his search, however, he’s decided he deserves a bit of a break and has organized himself a year-long tour of Europe, given that Napoleon is now under lock and key and travel on the continent is possible again for the first time in years. The trouble is, he’s been having second thoughts, both about being away for so long, and about what he’s planning to do when he gets back – hence the drinking binge the night before his departure.

When his old friend, Lady Althea Curtiss turns up on his doorstep completely out of the blue, asking to travel with him as far as Venice, Rhys is stunned by both her presence (they haven’t seen much of each other in the past six years) and by the impropriety of her request. Thea has left her father’s roof because he is so desperate to be rid of her that he is going to force her to marry some old duffer. Her money is tied up in trust, but can be released on the say-so of two out of her three trustees, and having gained the agreement of one, she now needs to seek permission from a second, her godmother, who currently resides in Venice. Thea knows she is plain and ordinary, but believes she deserves better than to fall into the hands of a fortune-hunter and is determined to make her own way in the world – and for that, she needs money. Spinsters of independent means had more options open to them than those with no money, so Thea can be sure of a place in society if she remains unmarried.

Being more than three sheets to the wind, Rhys reluctantly agrees to let Thea accompany him, knowing that if he doesn’t, she will likely carry out her threat to hire herself a courier and travel on her own.

He insists she makes herself as invisible as possible when they’re in public, in order to try to avoid the scandal which would break should it be known they are travelling together and not related. Knowing this to be sound judgement, Thea nonetheless bristles at Rhys’ high-handed manner. This adult version of her old friend, she soon discovers, can be overbearing, autocratic and even a bit scary, things she finds just as shocking as the fact she can’t help but notice that he’s grown up, filled out and is gorgeous.

But while Rhys notices that plain, gangly, all-elbows-and-knees Thea has rounded out nicely, he can’t immediately connect the physical reality of her with the tomboy he’d grown up with – and when he finds that his body is way ahead of his brain, he’s both incredulous and disgusted with himself. Yet he can’t ignore the vivacious young woman Thea has become, no matter how much he wants to.

Thea is a truly wonderful heroine. She is no-nonsense, funny and intelligent, often knowing exactly the right thing to say to get herself out of a difficult corner. She’s one of those characters who embraces life, prepared for both the potential for joy and the risk of heartbreak. She’s practical, but a romantic at heart. Even though she’d been disappointed by a suitor who – it turned out – her father had practically bribed to marry her, Thea believes in true love and is adamant that finding a man who truly loves her is the only reason she will ever marry.

Rhys and Thea are perfect for each other, something which is clear right from their first scenes together. There’s a terrific chemistry between them, they are comfortable with each other (apart from when they’re in the grip of almost uncontrollable lust!), and their interactions show a true depth of affection and understanding, born of long-standing acquaintance. Rhys is handsome, charming and a little bit naughty – although I did want to slap him once or twice for the length of time it took him to actually see Thea. Even though he finds himself physically aware of her womanly curves straight away, he dismisses it as mere lust and determines to ignore it, because of course, he can’t possibly feel like that about his tree-climbing, frog-hunting, childhood companion. Besides, she deserves love and he doesn’t want emotional entanglements.

But when he does finally see her, the consequences are explosive: I think Louise Allen has written one of the sexiest M&B Historicals I’ve ever read! At the same time, she has developed and maintained a strong emotional connection between the hero and heroine which endures even when they’re both treading carefully around each other, afraid to reveal their true feelings.

I liked the fact that Thea doesn’t suddenly turn into a beauty once she buys herself some nice frocks and has her hair decently styled. She ‘s never going to be pretty, but Rhys gradually comes to find her zest for life and her strength of character devastatingly attractive and to see that his “ordinary” friend has turned into an extraordinary young woman.

Unlacing Lady Thea is a very well written and engaging romance in which the central relationship captivated me from the outset. It’s a quick, but emotionally satisfying read, full of humor and sensuality, and I finished it with a big smile on my face.

Lady in Blue by Lynn Kerstan

lib

Bryn, the Earl of Caradoc, uses his wit and arrogance to hide memories of the whispers surrounding his father’s painful, lingering, and scandalous death from a rake’s disease. He longs to meet the woman he can love for the rest of his life, but she has not yet crossed his path. Determined to shield himself from his father’s fate, he chooses virgins as his mistresses, rewarding them with handsome sums.

Clare Easton, the orphaned daughter of a vicar, has two young brothers to raise and very few choices. Indeed, to provide them a good education, she has only herself to sell. Strong-willed, smart, and adaptable, she survived a sadistic stepmother and has the scars to prove it. For a good cause, she is strong enough to weather the loss of her reputation in the embrace of a handsome aristocrat.

And yet . . . neither Clare nor Bryn is prepared for the sparks of desire or the passionate battle of wills that engulf them from the moment they meet. Determined to make her his willing lover, he spends days unlocking the doors between them-but finds himself losing ground as she advances inside his secret vaults as well.
For Bryn, whose world is shuttered in narrow hues, Hell itself is falling in love with a commoner who refuses to stay with him when their contract ends. He is determined to keep Clare in his life, but he cannot put her at risk when he becomes the target of a killer. Nor can she bring herself to abandon the man she has come to love, whatever the danger to herself.

Rating: A-

There are more and more older titles being put back into circulation as authors and publishers republish their back catalogues electronically, and I certainly enjoy being able to access such titles easily and without having to search used-book shops for dog-eared copies or pay a fortune in postage for those hard-to-find books I can only find overseas. When reading, it’s interesting to see how such novels stand up several years on; for example, I recently listened to an audiobook version of a book published in the late 90s which I felt hadn’t stood the test of time, and I’m sure we have all revisited books we loved ten, twenty years ago that now leave us scratching our heads wondering why we liked them so much.

Fortunately, Lady in Blue is very much not that sort of book. I haven’t read it before, but I’ve read a number of reissued titles by this particular author, and have thoroughly enjoyed them all. This was no exception, and in fact, exceeded my expectations. I was gripped right from the opening pages, and found it to be one of those books I absolutely hated having to put down to do mundane things like eat and empty the washing machine!

The opening is harrowing without being graphic as we are introduced to fifteen-year-old Bryn Talgarth who is caring for his terminally ill father, the Earl of Caradoc. Caradoc has never been a stable figure in his son’s life, having frequently been absent in the pursuit of his dissolute lifestyle. Three years previously, however, he returned home to Rivers End, the family estate on the Welsh borders, the syphilis he had previously hidden now at an advanced stage. Bryn does the best he can, employing a couple of servants by day – but he is his father’s sole carer at night, and given the nature of the illness, Bryn never knows whether the earl will be docile or abusive. I was hooked completely by this point – the writing is very atmospheric and darkly pervasive, and I was eager to see where the story would go following Caradoc’s death.

We then jump forward twenty years to London, where Bryn is now a very wealthy man of thirty-five. After burying his father, he sold everything he could, except River’s End, and used the proceeds to buy himself the education he never had, and then to buy a stake in a shipping company.

His intelligence and natural flair for business amassed him a great fortune by the age of twenty-eight and he is now one of the wealthiest men in the country.

His father’s final words to him were “Do what you want” and Bryn has pretty much done just that. His final promise to the dying earl was that he would restore the family fortunes (which he has done), restore the family home, marry, and set up his nursery to continue the Caradoc line – all of which he has so far neglected to do.

Bryn has not spent the intervening years living chastely, although his horror of ending up like his father means that he seeks long-term mistresses who come to him as virgins. His long-standing friendship with a well-known madam has ensured him a ready supply of such young women, but Madame Florette has chosen the worst possible time, from Bryn’s point of view, to announce her retirement. His most recent mistress has just left him, and he does not trust anyone else to be able to find him another woman who will meet his most important requirement.

Madame Flo points out that it’s past time for Bryn to find himself a wife, and that if he chooses from the latest batch of debutantes on offer, he’ll have no trouble finding himself an untouched bride. But he is still reluctant to marry, even though he knows he must, and soon. As a parting ‘gift’, Flo agrees to introduce him to one last virginal candidate – a young woman named Clare, who may agree to be his mistress for the sum of ten-thousand pounds.

Used to having everything he wants drop into his lap, Bryn is not best pleased to hear that Clare may not choose to become his mistress, but even so, is intrigued enough to want to meet her.

Their first meeting does not go well. Clare is very poised and self-possessed and Bryn, still smarting at the thought that she may have the audacity to refuse him, treats her in a very demeaning way. But she needs the money desperately and this is the only way she can think of to acquire such a large sum, so she does not allow him to see her dislike.

The story that follows is rather different from your run-of-the-mill “I need lots of money to support my family so I will sell my body” story. I mean, yes, that’s the basic premise, but from their initial meetings – when Bryn comes across as a heartless bastard – Clare finds the prospect of sleeping with him extremely distasteful, despite the fact that he’s a very attractive man. But Bryn quickly realizes he’s acted like an overbearing idiot and begins to try to make amends. He also makes it clear to Clare that he wants more from her than sex. She’d assumed that she’d spend a night with him and then leave with her ten thousand guineas (the price went up after she met him and decided he was an arrogant arsehole!). But Bryn wants an actual relationship – he wants someone he can talk to and enjoy spending time with as well as someone he can take to bed whenever he wants to, and the more she comes to know him, Clare realizes that she could actually come to enjoy his company.

I really enjoyed the way their relationship developed. Clare is keeping secrets from the start – she won’t tell Bryn her real name or anything much about herself, and for the most part, he accepts that. Bryn finds the first real happiness he’s known when he’s with her, and as she begins to relax and allow herself to enjoy being with him, Bryn begins to unbend a little, and tries hard to be less demanding and to curb his arrogance. There’s a wonderful line early on in the book about the fact that although Bryn had to grow up quickly due to having to care for his father, he’s still immature in many ways; and the way he tries so hard to make up for his mistakes and strives to be a better man for Clare really highlights that facet of his character. He’s generous and considerate towards her – realizing she is nervous about having sex with him, he decides to wait until she’s ready, even though he’s practically climbing the walls!

Their relationship is not without its problems, but for the most part, Clare is the perfect foil for Bryn, able to take him down a peg or two verbally when he gets too high-handed.

I also have to give Ms Kerstan extra marks for the scene in which Bryn’s knowledgeable housekeeper sits Clare down and takes her through an array of the available methods of contraception. Such things are often not referred to in historical romances, or mentioned only obliquely, and I found it not only interesting, but realistic, as women in Clare’s situation had to prevent pregnancy in order to keep their positions.

Things are further complicated when the unpleasant Giles Landry sets his sights on Bryn as a son-in-law. Elizabeth Landry is a pleasant and intelligent young woman, and given that Bryn knows he must marry someone of good birth, he thinks he might as well marry Elizabeth as anyone. Even though it’s fairly obvious to the reader that he has already fallen head-over-heels in love, he doesn’t realize it and is still doggedly determined to follow through on his plan to make a marriage of convenience in order to beget his heirs, while continuing to spend most of his time with Clare. Men of Bryn’s class didn’t marry their mistresses, so that possibility doesn’t even occur to him, until an almost fatal incident opens his eyes.

Lady in Blue was a fabulous read from start to finish and I was really sorry when it ended. The writing is warm and intelligent; there is a lot of humor, and the relationships between Bryn and his friends – Robert, Isabella and Claude – were very well written and there’s a real sense of shared history and camaraderie between them. Bryn and Clare are two prickly people who find it difficult to trust, and I liked the friendship that grew between them as much as I enjoyed the romance. Clare is a mystery to begin with, but gradually the layers are peeled away, and we learn how conflicted she is about her chosen path and her growing feelings for Bryn. And Bryn. . .well, he starts out seeming to be cold, arrogant and selfish, but is nothing of the kind. His immaturity shows in those moments he loses his temper when things don’t go his way, but underneath, he is a kind and considerate man who wants to love and be loved in return.

If I have a criticism, it’s that the ending of the story was a little rushed, but it didn’t spoil my enjoyment at all. This book is definitely going into my “keeper” collection.