When the Duke Was Wicked by Lorraine Heath (audiobook) – narrated by Helen Lloyd

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Lady Grace Mabry’s ample inheritance has made it impossible for her to tell whether a suitor is in love with her— or enamored of her riches. Who better to distinguish beau from blackguard than her notorious childhood friend, the Duke of Lovingdon?

With no interest in marriage, Lovingdon has long lived only for pleasure. He sees little harm in helping Grace find a proper match. He simply has to teach the lovely innocent all the ploys a scoundrel uses to gain a woman’s favor— by demonstrating his wicked ways. But as lessons lead to torrid passion and Grace becomes ensnared in another man’s marriage plot, Lovingdon must wage a desperate gamble: Open his heart fully—or risk losing the woman he adores . . .

Rating: D+ for narration, B+ for content

When the Duke Was Wicked is the first book in a new series from Lorraine Heath in which the principal characters are the offspring of those in her earlier Scoundrels of St. James books.

Lady Grace Mabury is beautiful, intelligent, generous of spirit and at the age of nineteen, the most sought-after debutante in London. But she wants to be sure that she is being courted for the right reasons, that the man she will eventually marry loves her for herself rather than for the substantial dowry her father will bestow upon her.

But how is a girl to find out such a thing? Grace thinks she has the answer to that when she turns to her childhood friend, Henry, Duke of Lovingdon for help. She reasons that, as someone who has experienced true love, he is ideally qualified to be able to tell Grace what to look for. But Lovingdon has been a widower for two years and was so devastated by the deaths of his wife and young daughter that he has withdrawn from polite society and instead spends his time gambling, drinking and shagging his way around town in an attempt to dull the pain of his loss. Even though he cares for Grace, he has finished with love in all its forms and turns her down flat.

But she is not one to be easily deterred, and decides that if Lovingdon won’t help her, then she’ll work things out for herself. But when he hears that Grace seems to favour one or two of her clutch of suitors, Lovingdon finds himself unable to maintain his disinterest and decides that perhaps a word or two in her ear now and then won’t mean he’s committed to help her – he’s just giving her the odd pointer.

Of course, Lovingdon’s pointers quickly turn into demonstrations; a man who truly loves Grace will make her toes curl with his kisses, seek out opportunities to touch her, focus entirely on her when she speaks to him, know her favourite flower and will make her feel beautiful and desired.

Even though he has finally realised that the tree-climbing, frog-catching girl he knew has grown into a beautiful woman, and even though he admits that he desires her, Lovingdon remains adamant that he is not prepared to open himself up to the pain of loss again. He does love Grace – but not in the way she wants or deserves to be loved, and maintains that he is not the man for her, despite the fact that his actions prove otherwise, over and over again.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

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It Takes a Scandal by Caroline Linden

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Sometimes It Takes a Scandal…

Abigail Weston has everything: beauty, wit, and one of the largest dowries in England. Her parents hope she’ll wed an earl. Abigail hopes for a man who wants her desperately and passionately. But the money seems to blind every man she meets—except one.

Sebastian Vane has nothing. He came home from war with a shattered leg to find his father mad and his inheritance gone. He’s not a fit suitor for anyone, let alone an heiress. But Abigail lights up his world like a comet, bright and beautiful and able to see him instead of his ruined reputation. And it might end happily ever after…

To Reveal Your Heart’s Desire

…Until Benedict Lennox begins courting Abigail. Ben is everything Sebastian isn’t—wealthy, charming, heir to an earl. Sebastian won’t give up the only girl he’s ever loved without a fight, but Abigail must choose between the penniless gentleman who moves her heart, and the suitor who is everything her parents want.

Rating: A-

Caroline Linden follows up one of my favourite books of last year, Love and Other Scandals with another beautifully written, character-driven romance which, while loosely linked to the earlier book, is very different in tone. In it, we become reacquainted with Abigail and Penelope Weston, and, of course, privy to more of the sexual exploits of the scandalous and mysterious Lady Constance, purveyor of smut to well-bred and curious young ladies in her equally scandalous publication, 50 Ways to Sin.

It’s always quite refreshing when characters in novels come from stable, loving backgrounds, and it’s obvious that Abigail and her siblings come from just that sort of family. Her parents clearly adore each other and want the best for her, and at the beginning of the story have moved from London to Richmond for the summer. Mr. Weston makes no secret of the fact that he hopes that having a house in such an excellent locale will enable his daughters to make matches which will elevate their social status – because while the family is very rich, Mr. Weston is a “Cit”, someone who has made his money rather than being born into it, which means that the family can never gain entry to the highest echelons of society – unless they marry into it.

Abigail and Penelope are close, but very different in temperament, reminding me a little of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Penelope wants excitement and adventure, whereas Abigail is of a quieter disposition, quite happy with her own company and a good book.

Not long after they have moved into Richmond, Abigail meets their neighbour, Mr. Sebastian Vane, a handsome but strangely reticent young man to whom she feels strongly drawn. The attraction is mutual – even stronger on his side, perhaps – but Sebastian, knowing he has nothing to offer this lovely young woman, resolves to keep his distance.

Sebastian is the book’s heart – a lovely beta hero who has maintained his dignity in the face of ridicule and censure. Returned from the war with a debilitating injury to his leg, he discovered that his father’s mind was failing him and that in his weakened state he had sold off huge tracts of his land for next to nothing, leaving them barely solvent. One night not long after his return, Sebastian’s father disappears, never to be seen again. Rumours quickly circulate that Sebastian has murdered him; that he is just as mad as his father and, when a large sum of money disappears from the home of Lord Stratford – a neighbour and father of Sebastian’s boyhood friend – that Sebastian is a thief.

With no way of proving his innocence, and very little to live on, Sebastian withdraws from society, more or less content to live as he must – frugally, and solitarily. But meeting Abigail changes all that in an instant. He doesn’t want to fall in love – but he can’t help himself. He knows that if he is to win his lady, he is going to have to eschew his reclusive existence, something Abigail senses is difficult for him, and which she values accordingly.

Abigail and Sebastian make a perfect couple. Her liveliness is a lovely counterpoint to his reserve, and the way she gradually draws him out of his shell is lovely to watch. I will admit to a weakness for a brooding, wounded, wronged hero – so I adored Sebastian, but one of his most attractive qualities is that he never gives in to self-pity or behaves outrageously as a way of thumbing his nose at the local inhabitants. He’s always a perfect gentleman, exuding a quiet confidence which is very attractive.

Ms. Linden develops the romance beautifully, showing the deepening emotional connection between the couple through their interactions and their ability to understand each other in an instinctual way. Now, that is my kind of romance. There’s a gentle humour to many of their exchanges, together with a great deal of tenderness, and a delicious, simmering sexual tension.

When Sebastian’s one-time friend, Benedict Lennox, Lord Atherton, returns home and is immediately smitten with Abigail, Sebastian realises that he must try, once more, to clear his name and restore his reputation if he is to have any real chance of winning her. The mystery over the disappearance of his father and the stolen money is wrapped up neatly (perhaps a little too neatly) and in such a way as not to overshadow the romance or disrupt the flow of the story.

It Takes a Scandal is a beautifully written and charming romance which features an absolutely gorgeous hero cast from a slightly different mould to so many of the other romantic heroes around today. The characterisation of the two principals is excellent and the cast of secondary characters is well-developed, too, especially Abigail’s sister, Penelope, who is gradually revealed to have a greater depth to her personality than I had at first thought. I enjoyed the book immensely and have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone who enjoys a heartfelt, emotionally satisfying and sensual romance.

It Takes Two to Tangle by Theresa Romain

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Wooing the Wrong Woman…

Henry Middlebrook is back from fighting Napoleon, ready to re-enter London society where he left it. Wounded and battle weary, he decides that the right wife is all he needs. Selecting the most desirable lady in the ton, Henry turns to her best friend and companion to help him with his suit…

Is a Terrible Mistake…

Young and beautiful, war widow Frances Whittier is no stranger to social intrigue. She finds Henry Middlebrook courageous and manly, unlike the foppish aristocrats she is used to, and is inspired to exercise her considerable wit on his behalf. But she may be too clever for her own good, and Frances discovers that she has set in motion a complicated train of events that’s only going to break her own heart…

Rating: A

It Takes Two to Tangle is the first in a new series by this author, and is a wonderfully crafted, character-driven romance in which two intelligent, kind, and emotionally fragile people find each other amid the round of parties, balls, and shallow people that make up the ton and the circuit of society events.

Henry Middleton is twenty-six and has returned from the Napoleonic wars crippled, having completely lost the use of his right arm. While trying to put a brave face on things, he is daily reminded of things he is no longer able to do – little things like hold a knife and fork, or a cup and saucer and be able to actually drink the tea, or carry flowers to a lady’s house and knock on the door without dropping or crushing them.

Worst of all, before the war he was an aspiring artist, but being right-handed means he can no longer paint or write. He is temporarily residing with his older brother (Jem) and sister-in-law, who love him very much, and who are so grateful to have him home in (almost) one piece, that they fail to see the changes that have taken place within him. They encourage him to try to pick up where he left off and return to his former place in society, and that includes finding himself a suitable wife from amongst the ladies of the ton.

For Henry, though, finding himself the right wife is about more than just ensuring himself some long-term happiness and companionship. There’s also the sense that he wants to show the world that he’s just as much of a man with one arm as he was with two; a determination which is understandable, given his circumstances, but which, by the end of the book, he has come to see is misguided.

His sister-in-law, Emily, has singled out the reigning beauty of the ton, Lady Caroline Stratton, as the perfect match for Henry. A widow of some nine years, Caroline is amusing, rich and very popular – and the strategist in Henry knows he will need an edge if he is to be able to win her. So he asks her companion – who is her cousin – Mrs Frances Whittier for some advice. Frances is also a widow, having lost her husband in the early days of the war, but unlike Caroline, she has no money of her own, having been disowned by her father (a baronet) when she married a mere innkeeper’s son against his wishes. Frances and Henry hit it off immediately – she’s clever and witty, and very attuned to him, sensing that he’s having trouble adjusting to civilian life.

It’s clear, too, that Frances is very attracted to Henry, but while he enjoys her conversation – in fact, the air between them fairly crackles during their low-key but flirtatious exchanges – he is focused on Caroline, having decided that she is exactly the woman to ease his path back into society. Of course, Frances – and the reader – can already see that Henry is more attracted to the idea of Caroline than to Caroline herself, but Frances agrees to help him because, as she later says, she just wants him to be happier.

There’s already an element of Cyrano de Bergerac about the story, which is further reinforced when Frances writes Henry a letter telling him how much she’d enjoyed their conversation and is looking forward to furthering their friendship. It wasn’t the done thing for a lady – even a widow – to write to an unmarried gentleman, so she signed the letter “A Friend”. All the clues as to her identity are right there, on paper, but Henry is so wrapped up in his determination to court Caro that he can’t see what’s under his nose, and immediately assumes the letter is from her. But he has no way to answer her letter. Although he’s begun to try to write and paint with his left hand, he has not been very successful so far, and doesn’t want to ask Jem or Emily to write his reply. Then he remembers Frances’ offer of friendship – and asks her if she will aid him in finding a way to compose and write a short, but appropriately worded response. Stunned by Henry’s assumption, she tries to correct him – but when he tells her how much it has bolstered his confidence to have received the letter from Caro, Frances finds she can’t disillusion him, agrees to help, and the correspondence continues.

Fortunately, the mistaken identity part of the storyline is not allowed to drag on for too long, and even though Henry still believes the letters to have been written by Caro, he also comes to the realisation that she is not the woman for him.

At several points throughout the story, Frances is on the point of telling Henry the truth about the letters, but does not do so for a variety of reasons – which of course makes it even worse when he does eventually find out. Frances is a very intriguing and sympathetic character, a woman who keeps her passionate, somewhat impulsive nature hidden beneath the prim dresses and self-effacing demeanour of the good companion. While Frances despairs of her willingness to throw caution to the winds for love, I found it to be rather an admirable trait; even though she is mindful of her past transgressions, she still believes enough in love to risk making another mistake.

Henry and Frances are likeable, well-rounded characters who complement each other perfectly in the way they each bring out the best in the other. Both have flaws, both can be hurtful and petty, but those things make them both seem all the more real. The romance between them is a slow burn but is beautifully developed and the love scenes are sensual, while maintaining a sense of realism by not completely ignoring the problems arising from the fact that Henry has only one working arm.

The familial relationships between Henry, Jem and Emily are also superbly written. The book opens with a wonderfully warm and witty exchange between Emily and Henry, and there is a truly beautiful moment towards the end between Jem and Henry when Jem finally sees exactly what his brother must have gone through during the war and what is facing him now.

At its heart, It Takes Two to Tangle is a story about acceptance, moving on and finding the strength to accept one’s limitations without allowing them to rule one’s life. It was an absolute pleasure to read, and I have no qualms about recommending it very highly indeed.

A Week to be Wicked by Tessa Dare (audiobook) – narrated by Carolyn Morris

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When a devilish lord and a bluestocking set off on the road to ruin . . . time is not on their side.

Minerva Highwood, one of Spindle Cove’s confirmed spinsters, needs to be in Scotland.

Colin Sandhurst, Lord Payne, a rake of the first order, needs to be . . . anywhere but Spindle Cove.

These unlikely partners have one week:

to fake an elopement
to convince family and friends they’re “in love”
to outrun armed robbers
to survive their worst nightmares
to travel four hundred miles without killing each other

All while sharing a very small carriage by day and an even smaller bed by night.

What they don’t have time for is their growing attraction. Much less wild passion. And heaven forbid they spend precious hours baring their hearts and souls.

Suddenly one week seems like exactly enough time to find a world of trouble. And maybe . . . just maybe . . . everlasting love.

Rating: A- for narration, A for content

This is easily one of my favourite audiobooks of 2014 – if not THE favourite. (So far).

Although recommended often by friends who read historical romance, I had yet to read this one and when the chance came up to review the new audio edition, I grabbed it eagerly.

I’m so very glad I did, because the story is every bit as good as I’d been told. And narrator Carolyn Morris’ talent for bringing out the humour, as well her sensitive interpretations of some of the more intense parts of the story, only added to my overall enjoyment.

In a nutshell, A Week to be Wicked is a “rake-meets-wallflower” story but to leave it at that would do the book a serious injustice. It’s beautifully balanced and well-paced and is by turns funny, poignant, and sexy. I came away from listening on a real high and completely unable to think about what I wanted to listen to next because I was unwilling to let go of Colin and Minerva and this fabulous story.

Minerva Highwood is twenty-one, bespectacled, bookish and, she believes, completely unprepossessing. Even her own mother despairs of Minerva’s marital prospects, and takes solace instead in the fact that her beautiful oldest daughter, Diana, will no doubt attract a rich, titled husband – one like Colin Sandhurst, Viscount Payne who is currently rusticating at Spindle Cove.

Colin is stuck there until his next birthday when he will finally come into his inheritance. He’s broke and his cousin Bram, who is currently controlling the purse-strings, insists he remain there until that date. The only other way to obtain funds is marriage and, knowing this, Minerva is worried that Colin – a notorious womaniser – has his eye on Diana.

Minerva may be quiet and unassuming, but when it comes to protecting her loved ones, she is fearless and utterly determined to prevent such a marriage. Late one night, she marches up to Colin’s door to confront him and offer an alternative source of funds. If he will escort her to Edinburgh for the symposium at the Royal Geological Society of Scotland, she will give him the five hundred guineas prize money she expects to earn for the presentation she intends to make. She goes on to suggest that they stage an elopement and then return unmarried, saying things didn’t work out.

Once Colin has stopped laughing and has recovered from the shock, he attempts to get Minerva to think of what that would do to her reputation but she is undaunted. She doesn’t relish the thought of the scandal that will attach itself to her, but she would rather be cut off by society than be as she is now – forever in the background and living on the very outside edges of it.

Minerva hasn’t reckoned on the fact that this particular reprobate does in fact have some scruples. Colin might be an inveterate womaniser but he nonetheless abides by his own rules when it comes to his love life.

“I’m a lover of women, yes … And yes, I seem to break everything I touch. But thus far I’ve succeeded in keeping the two proclivities separate, you see. I sleep with women and I ruin things, but I’ve never yet ruined an innocent woman.”

Frustrated, but undeterred by Colin’s refusal to help her, Minerva continues to try to find a way to persuade him. Eventually, they find themselves on the road to Scotland.

What follows is a disastrous road trip in which practically everything that could go wrong does go wrong. They lose most of their money, get held up at gunpoint, pose as missionaries and long-lost royalty, and find themselves in a number of other ridiculous and dangerous situations. It’s fast and furious and often very funny as Colin, who is possessed of an almost indecent amount of charisma, spins yarn after mischievous yarn to the people they meet along the way. He does none of it out of a desire to deceive or harm – it’s rather to show Minerva some fun and to make the people around them smile. And when things turn serious and Minerva feels like giving up, Colin won’t let her. He pushes her and goads her because he’s realised that she needs to break out of the shell she’s been living in for so long and learn how to have fun.

Colin is without a doubt one of the most gorgeous, mixed-up heroes ever to make it into print and audio. He’s right up there with Sebastian St. Vincent (Lisa Kleypas’ Devil in Winter), at the top of my list of favourite bad-boy screw-ups. He’s a charming rogue – always ready with a quip or a suggestive comment – but underneath he’s beset by the feeling that he’s not good enough and can’t shake the feeling that he will always ruin whatever he touches and destroy the things he loves.

Minerva has spent most of her life in the shadow of her beautiful elder sister, and is more interested in academic pursuits than in pursuing men. She doesn’t conform to society’s idea of what a young lady should be; she’s withdrawn and awkward in company – especially around men – and even her mother describes her as hopeless. Her passion in life is geology, and she wants nothing more than to be taken seriously in her field of expertise. A number of her papers have been papers published as M.R Highwood and she sees her attendance at the symposium as a way to make her mark in life.

As their journey progresses, Colin and Minerva develop a mutual respect for each other, as well as being able to explore their growing attraction. The love scenes are romantic as well as very sexy. Colin is, of course, generous and attentive in bed and, even more importantly, both characters were still very much “themselves” during those scenes.

I’ve listened to a few of Carolyn Morris’ narrations over the past couple of months, and I have to say that I think this is her best yet. Her voice is pleasantly mellow and while she doesn’t adopt a much lower pitch to portray the male characters, she has a way of altering her timbre and adding a degree of resonance which leaves the listener in no doubt as to gender. Her performance of Colin was a real stand out for me – she captured his insouciance, charm, and wit perfectly, and also made him sound ridiculously sexy at appropriate moments. She made subtle changes to her interpretation of Minerva as the story progressed, showing how Minerva was gaining in confidence and finding her true self. Her narration also successfully included a few different regional accents to portray some of the secondary characters and the way she chose to voice Minerva, the seductress and dangerous assassin, was a hoot!

Ms. Morris has a real talent for bringing out the humour in the stories she narrates, and of course here, there was a lot for her to work with. There are so many fabulous lines and exchanges that it’s impossible to pick a favourite, but here’s one from the first chapter that sets the tone very well:

“Come in, if you mean to.” He winced at a blast of frost-tipped wind. “I’m shutting the door, either way.”

She stepped forward. The door closed behind her with a heavy, finite sound. Minerva swallowed hard.

“I must say, Melinda. This is rather a surprise.”

“My name’s Minerva.”

“Yes, of course.” He cocked his head. “I didn’t recognize your face without the book in front of it.”

… “I’ll admit,” he said, “this is hardly the first time I’ve answered the door in the middle of night and found a woman waiting on the other side. But you’re certainly the least expected one yet.” He sent her lower half an assessing look. “And the most muddy.”

She ruefully surveyed her mud-caked boots and bedraggled hem. A midnight seductress she was not. “This isn’tthat kind of visit.”

“Give me a moment to absorb the disappointment.”

“I’d rather give you a moment to dress.”

Her narration in the more serious and romantic moments is also extremely good. Ms. Morris’ narration is note-perfect and she allows the words space in which to breathe and thoroughly settle in the listener’s mind.

For fans of romance, A Week to be Wicked has everything – a gorgeous hero, a beautifully developed central relationship, a huge dollop of sexual tension between the leads, and sensual love scenes. Add to that the humour and the sparkling dialogue, the tenderness and moments of true poignancy, and you’ve got a story that lives in the memory long after you’ve finished reading or listening to it.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to A Week to Be Wicked and I know it’s an audiobook I’ll be revisiting often.

The Weaver Takes a Wife by Sheri Cobb-South

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Haughty Lady Helen Radney is one of Regency England’s most beautiful women and the daughter of a duke, but her sharp tongue has frightened away most of her suitors. When her father gambles away his fortune, the duke’s only chance for recouping his losses lies in marrying off Lady Helen to any man wealthy enough to take a bride with nothing to recommend her but a lovely face and an eight-hundred-year-old pedigree.

Enter Mr. Ethan Brundy, once an illegitimate workhouse orphan, now owner of a Lancashire textile mill and one of England’s richest men. When he glimpses Lady Helen at Covent Garden Theatre, he is instantly smitten and vows to marry her.

But this commonest of commoners will have his work cut out for him if he hopes to win the heart of his aristocratic bride…

Rating: B

This thoroughly charming Regency Romance, originally published in 1999 and now re-issued in digital formats, features a type of hero rarely found in historical romance. Mr Ethan Brundy isn’t titled, he isn’t a gentleman or a snappy dresser and while not unattractive, is no well-muscled Adonis. The one thing he does have in common with many an aristocratic hero, however, is that he’s incredibly wealthy.

The owner of a cotton mill and various other businesses in the north of England, Ethan is on a rare visit to London in the company of a couple of friends, when he espies the most beautiful woman he has ever seen and immediately determines to marry her.

His friends try to warn him off. Lady Helen Radney, daughter of the Duke of Reddington might be beautiful, but she is widely known for her shrewish disposition and her ability to wound an unwanted suitor at twenty paces with her sharp tongue.

But Ethan is well and truly smitten, and won’t be deterred. He discovers that the duke’s finances are in dire straits, and offers to pay him a large sum of money in exchange for Helen’s hand in marriage. Unsurprisingly, the lady herself is appalled – by Ethan’s working-class accent, his ill-fitting clothes and most of all, his lowly origins – and makes it abundantly clear that while she has no alternative but to obey her father’s instruction and marry him, she dislikes him intensely and has no intention of being an affectionate spouse.

The story follows a predictable course, it’s true, but what makes The Weaver Takes a Wife so enjoyable is the characterisation, the way the author develops the central relationship and most of all, Ethan himself, who is a truly captivating hero.

Ethan is a self-made man, a workhouse boy who, having shown an aptitude for the work to which he was assigned, was subsequently adopted by his employer who had no son of his own. Ethan learned the business, took the man’s last name – having none of his own – and eventually inherited his ‘father’s’ mills and other businesses. He refuses to be cowed by the haughty disdain of the members of the ton and one of the most attractive things about him is that he is a man who knows who he is and is comfortable in his own skin.

Helen is proud and cold, and has no intention of being anything else toward her husband, but can’t help being surprised by his kindness and generosity. Still, the idea of her coming to feel anything for her husband looks unlikely at best. When, on their wedding day, her bridegroom tells her that it would please him were she to call him Ethan, she replies –

”I wonder, Mr Brundy what makes you think pleasing you must be an object with me?”

– and takes every opportunity she can to slight him. Her progress from scornful bride to loving wife is accomplished beautifully as she comes to see what the reader has seen from the outset – that her husband is a true diamond in the rough – and that she (like the reader) wouldn’t want him any other way.

The Weaver Takes a Wife is a delight from start to finish; a real feel-good, pick-me-up read and one I’m sure I’ll be revisiting in future.

The Rejected Suitor by Theresa McCarthy (audiobook) – narrated by Pearl Hewitt

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Lady Emily Clearbrook secretly loved Jared, the Earl of Stonebridge, but one day, he left her without a word. Now, years later, Emily’s four brawny brothers have decided she needs to marry. With no idea about Emily’s past love, the Clearbrook brothers ask their friend, Lord Stonebridge, to guard Lady Emily from unfit suitors until they find her a proper husband. With his dangerous past, the last thing Stonebridge needs is to be watchdog to Lady Emily. But he certainly cannot tell her brothers that the person Emily needs the most protection from is himself!

Rating: B- for narration, D for content

The Rejected Suitor was originally published in 2004, and I regret to say that I don’t think it has aged well. The story revolves around the on-off romance between Lady Emily Clearbrook and Jared Ashton, Lord Stonebridge, who had fallen in love three years earlier, but were unable to marry because her father refused to grant them permission. Following that, Jared had quickly married another woman and taken up a post in India, breaking Emily’s heart in the process.

In the year since his return from India as a widower, Jared has been working undercover for the British government, his sooper-sekrit identity known only to a select few – including Emily’s eldest brother, who has worked alongside him. And unbeknownst to both her brother and Jared, Emily has a sooper-sekrit identity of her own, assumed when she began to work for Whitehall, too, to dull the pain caused by Jared’s abrupt defection and departure.

This isn’t a spy story, however – and more’s the pity, because then it might have been more interesting.

The book opens as Lady Emily’s four brothers inform her that they will shortly be choosing her a husband, much to her dismay. She is headstrong, beautiful and rich, and they want to make sure she doesn’t end up in the clutches of some unscrupulous fortune hunter. Her eldest brother, Roderick, Duke of Elbourne, is dictatorial (to put it mildly) and acts as though he has a stick up his arse for most of the book. And the others aren’t much better. Almost the entire first chapter – about twenty-five minutes long – consists of the five of them having the following conversation:

“You must marry the man we choose.”

“No!”

“Yes!”

“Daddy said I could choose my own husband.”

“Our father has been dead for three years, we’re your guardians now, and you do what we say.”

“No. And you’re all idiots.”

“How dare you, you inferior female!”

As he and his brothers are about to remove to London, the duke decrees that Emily should go to stay at the country home of Agatha Appleby, a friend of the family. But they need someone there to keep an eye on her. How about Agatha’s nephew, the newly minted Earl of Stonebridge (Jared)? He’s staying with his aunt, and is the ideal person to keep an eye on Emily! (*rolls eyes*)

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

What the Groom Wants by Jade Lee

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An honest love…

Radley Lyncott has been in love with Wendy Drew as long as he can remember. When he went to sea, she was too young to court. Now that he’s returned to take up his Welsh title, he is appalled to find that debt has ruined the Drew family, and—even worse—Wendy is being courted by another man.

Or a dangerous attraction?

Family comes first for seamstress Wendy Drew, who is forced to settle her brother’s debt by working nights at a notorious gambling den. But her double-life hasn’t gone unnoticed—she has captivated none other than Demon Damon, a nefarious rake who understands Wendy’s darkest desires and is hell bent on luring her into his arms

Rating: C-

What the Groom Wants is the fourth book in Ms Lee’s Bridal Favours series, which contains three other full length novels and four novellas. I mention that because there is clearly a lot of backstory covered in those books which is referred to in this latest one and I often felt as though I’d missed something when reading it as I haven’t read any of the others in the series.

Radley Lyncott has spent most of the last decade at sea, but throughout all that time, has carried a torch for his best friend’s sister, Wendy Drew. When he returns from his latest voyage, he decides it’s finally time for him to declare himself and court her. But his life is about to change radically. Radley has long known that he is distantly related to an aristocratic family; his grandfather was a duke’s son who was disowned when he took a wife of which his father did not approve. But a sudden and contagious illness has wiped out almost the entire family which leaves Radley to inherit the dukedom of Bucklynde.

Wendy – a name which, incidentally, seems not to been introduced until the 1880s – has a number of qualities which make her an unusual heroine in the genre. She’s tough, pragmatic, and can actually be quite ruthless and manipulative when she has to be. A seamstress and part-owner of a very successful dress shop, Wendy also has to work at a gambling hell in the evenings in order to pay off debts incurred by her younger brother. She is determined to protect her mother and brothers from the hell’s owner, Damon Porter – often referred to as Demon Damon – who, it seems, is thoroughly deserving of that particular soubriquet. He’s devious, ruthless, and cruel and will stop at nothing to get what he wants, which is Wendy in his bed.

What develops is a kind of love/hate-triangle between Wendy, Radley and Damon, all of whom grew up together. While she knows Damon is evil personified and thoroughly dislikes him, Wendy can’t help but be fascinated by him and reluctantly sexually attracted to him. You know how they always say that the villain gets the best lines? Well, he might not have got those here, but when it came to the male-hawtness stakes, Damon outdoes Radley most of the time. Radley’s a beta hero who frequently comes across as ineffectual, and seems to bumble from one crisis to another – and there were times I couldn’t help wondering what on earth Wendy saw in him!

He was at his best in those parts of the story which dealt with his resentment at having to leave his chosen career and his bewilderment at all the social conventions which go along with such a lofty position. His bafflement was quite endearing, and when he stood his ground and refused to bow to meaningless conventions I thought that he had the makings of a decent hero; but time and again, he didn’t live up to expectations, and when it came to the final showdown, it was left to Wendy to save the day.

The not-very-heroic hero was one of a number of issues I had with the book, not least of which was the fact that there wasn’t much actual romance in it.

Radley has worshipped Wendy from afar for ten years, which might seem romantic, until you add in the fact that Wendy has hardly thought of him at all during that time. Given that, on the night of his return to England, Radley seeks her out and tells her he wants to court her, I’d have expected the novel to chart the development of their relationship, and to watch Wendy fall in love with the man who’s adored her for so long.

But no. The action of the book takes place over a short time period (less than a week) and as soon as Radley has announced his intentions, it’s more or less a given that Wendy and Radley are in love. In fact, by the end of the second day, they’re hitting the sheets and engaging in a passionate night of “everything but”! But there’s no relationship development at all and no romantic or sexual tension between them. The sex scenes themselves are well-written, but I didn’t feel there was any real emotional connection between the characters.

In fact, the word “romance” applied to this book is something of a misnomer, as it is principally the story of Wendy’s struggle to break free from Demon Damon’s unhealthy obsession with her.

Needless to say, she does find a way – quite a spectacular one, in fact – but the book’s ending was full of so much WTFery that I finished it wondering what the hell I’d just read. I wish I could explain without spoilers, because it really is one of those things that’s so bad, it’s almost good!

Oh – and one more minor issue. Why on earth did Radley chose to nickname Wendy “Wind”? For one thing, Wendy is only two syllables, so why bother? There’s a convoluted explanation of why he thinks of her as “Wind”, but I’m afraid I just found it silly. Perhaps it’s because of a strange British preoccupation with fart jokes, but the words “Come for me, Wind!” at key moments made me burst out laughing!

On a more sombre note, there are also a couple of things in the story which some readers might find distressing – the frequent reference to the disfigurement of one of the secondary characters, for example, and the scene in which Damon corners Wendy and they discuss the merits – or otherwise – of pain. We’re not into BDSM territory or anything like that, but it’s not the sort of thing one usually comes across in an historical romance.

Overall, What the Groom Wants works best when viewed as a kind of thriller with romantic elements, because it is most definitely lacking in the romance department. The first half was promising – the problems faced by the hero and heroine after his unexpected acquisition of a dukedom seemed a good foundation for a romance, but book didn’t really explore those issues in any depth. By the second half the story had become overly complicated and the ending was a ridiculous mess.

Incidentally, there are a couple of things I refer to in that review but was not specific because we try to avoid spoilers. I have, however, included details at my Goodreads review under spoiler tags, should you wish to read them.