Noble Intentions by Katie MacAllister (audiobook) – narrated by Alison Larkin

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Noble Britton suffered greatly at the hands of his first wife, and he refuses to fall into the same trap again. This time he intends to marry a quiet, biddable woman who will not draw attention to herself or cause scandal. Gillian Leigh’s honest manner and spontaneous laughter attract him immediately. It matters little that she is accident-prone; he can provide the structure necessary to guide her.

But unconventional to the tips of her half-American toes, his new bride turns the tables on him, wreaking havoc on his orderly life. Perpetually one step behind his beguiling spouse, Noble suffers a banged-up head, a black eye, and a broken nose before he realizes Gillian has healed his soul and proven that their union is no heedless tumble, but the swoon of true love.

Rating: A- for narration, B for content

Noble Intentions is Book 1 in Katie MacAllister’s Noble Series with an original print publication date of 2005. It’s very much a “wallpaper” historical in that there isn’t an especially strong sense of time or place about it, other than in references to styles of dress and the odd convention of the day. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, depending on one’s mood and listening preferences. I generally prefer to have a reasonable amount of historical accuracy in the historical romances I read and listen to, and I like those which include historical detail as part of the plot, but I’m also not averse to a piece of well-done romantic fluff, in which category Noble Intentions firmly belongs.

The heroine, Gillian Leigh, is half-English and half-American, and lives in London with her cousin’s family – I’m not sure why. Gillian possesses those traits which seem to be held by every American heroine I’ve read about in historical romance in that she is outspoken (having a sad propensity for voicing her most inappropriate thoughts aloud) and has a disregard for the proprieties with the sort of open natured good-heartedness not often displayed by her English counterparts. She is also severely accident-prone to such a degree I couldn’t help asking myself how she’d managed to live to the ripe old age of twenty-five!

Her tall, red-haired, Amazonian figure catches the eye of Noble Britton, Earl of Weston nicknamed “The Black Earl”, partly because he always wears black, but mostly because he is believed to have murdered his first wife. His standing in society is precarious but he is incredibly rich, which means that all but the highest sticklers will tolerate him. At the beginning of the story, Noble is on the lookout for a second wife, a well-born young woman of good birth and even temperament who will do as she’s told, give him heirs, and be a good mother to his young – but illegitimate – son, Nick.

Noble is captivated by Gillian, even though he already knows she is not a biddable young woman and determines to marry her without delay. For her part, Gillian has been attracted to The Black Earl since their first meeting, but is realistic enough to know that a gorgeous, wealthy Earl can look for much more in marriage than a modestly dowered American nobody. So when Noble asks for her hand, she cannot believe her good fortune.

They marry quickly, and Noble whisks Gillian away to his country estate. Following a passionate and more than satisfactory wedding night on both their parts, Gillian is astonished next morning when she discovers that Noble has returned immediately to London. She has no intention of being the sort of wife who sits meekly by waiting for her husband’s attentions, so, accompanied by Nick, she follows him. And being Gillian, she brings accident, injury, and misunderstanding with her, proceeds to thoroughly disrupt Noble’s ordered existence, gain the love and loyalty of his servants, and, more importantly, of both Nick and Noble.

The characterisation isn’t particularly deep, but that’s to be expected in a book which is, at its heart, a slapstick comedy. Gillian’s propensity for saying the wrong thing or causing chaos made it difficult to see her as a believable character and, while Noble is all the things one expects a romantic hero to be – handsome, sexy and a little bit dangerous, he rarely rises above the two-dimensional.

Noble Intentions is full of whacky humour which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, because there were a few occasions I felt the author was just trying TOO HARD to be funny. When it IS funny, however, it’s very funny, and I did find myself giggling a few times. When it doesn’t work, though, I found myself muttering “get on with it”, because the punchline or the elephant in the room was visible a mile off and waiting for it to arrive or be noticed was incredibly frustrating.

I’ve listened to a number of audiobooks narrated by Alison Larkin and each time, have felt that there’s something missing, something which isn’t quite gelling and which is preventing her from making my list of top romance narrators. One of my principal criticisms of her performances has been that her male characters haven’t always sounded masculine enough, but in everything else – such as her ability to differentiate between characters and to maintain a variety of different accents – she is very good. I’ve been hard pressed to put my finger on exactly what it is about her narrations that hasn’t quite worked, because, taken as a whole, they have never been as good as the individual parts.

I haven’t been able to grade any of her narrations higher than a B, so far, but at last, I’ve listened to Ms. Larkin narrate something in which her many skills are displayed to best advantage. From the first time I listened to her, I’ve thought that her real talent is for the narration of light romantic comedy, and with Noble Intentions she proves that, without a doubt. Her timing is excellent, her character portrayals are all distinct (and there are quite a lot of secondary characters for her to get to grips with), and, even though her American accent slips from time to time, her portrayal of Gillian perfectly captures the character’s breezy, uncomplicated nature. Her portrayal of Noble, too, is very good. Ms. Larkin seems to be employing a slightly deeper pitch for her heroes now, and she does that to good effect here, while exhibiting Noble’s almost permanent state of affectionate exasperation and his eventual, fatalistic acceptance that, with Gillian, he’s never going to have the ordered existence he thought he’d wanted.

If you’re looking for a deep and meaningful, character driven romance, then Noble Intentions probably isn’t the audiobook for you. If, however, you’re in the mood for a laugh which clips along at a fast pace with plenty of funny dialogue, a couple of dogs with digestive problems, a piratical butler, three identical footmen who have to be numbered, and a heroine with a propensity for putting her foot in her mouth, then I think you need look no further.

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Silk is for Seduction by Loretta Chase (audiobook) – narrated by Kate Reading

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Brilliant and ambitious dressmaker Marcelline Noirot s London’s rising star. And who better to benefit from her talent than the worst-dressed lady in the ton, the Duke of Clevedon’s intended bride? Winning the future duchess’ patronage means prestige and fortune for Marcelline and her sisters. To get to the lady, though, Marcelline must win over Clevedon, whose standards are as high as his morals are…not.

The prize seems well worth the risk–but this time Marcelline’s met her match. Clevedon can design a seduction as irresistible as her dresses; and what begins as a flicker of desire between two of the most passionately stubborn charmers in London soon ignites into a delicious inferno…and a blazing scandal.

And now both their futures hang by an exquisite thread of silk…

Rating: A+ for narration, B+ for content

Kate Reading’s narration of Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels is an audio triumph, an absolutely perfect meshing of one of the best historical romances with a nuanced and note-perfect performance by a highly talented narrator. Naturally, seeing that Ms. Reading had been engaged to narrate the audiobook versions of Ms. Chase’s latest Dressmakers series was reason to celebrate; although let’s face it, Lord of Scoundrels is bound to be a tough act to follow.

Ms. Reading has absolutely fulfilled – if not exceeded – expectations with yet another extremely enjoyable and accomplished performance, although I have to say that I don’t think Silk is for Seduction is as strong a novel as Lord of Scoundrels. It does, however, contain some of Loretta Chase’s hallmarks: an independent-minded, strong-willed heroine, an aristocratic, alpha-hero who is able to match her in intelligence and equal her in stubbornness, a lot of dry wit and sharp-tongued banter, and sexual tension you could cut with a knife.

Marcelline Noirot and her two sisters run a successful dressmaking business in London and are determined to become the MOST successful dressmaking business in London by increasing their roster of high-ranking clientele. Marcelline knows that if she can acquire the soon-to-be Duchess of Clevedon as a client, Noirot’s will eclipse all its competitors, and with that aim, she travels to Paris to ensnare not the lady, but her fiancé. After all, once married, it is he who will be paying the bills.

The Duke of Clevedon embarked on a Grand Tour three years ago but remained in Paris at its end, instead of returning home to England. There, he spends most of his time carousing with his friends and bedding beautiful women. Despite the latter, he has an “understanding” with his best friend’s sister, Lady Clara Fairfax, whom he has known since childhood. He genuinely plans to marry her, just – not yet.

Marcelline is both devious and relentless in her pursuit of Clevedon. She makes it very clear to him early on that she is seeking him out for the size of his wallet rather than the size of any of his other appendages. Despite not being a conventional beauty, she is a woman who oozes self-confidence and sex-appeal, who knows full well the effect that can be achieved by good carriage and the relatively simple matter of wearing the right, beautifully made clothes. Clevedon is well-and-truly hooked from the first moment he lays eyes on her.

Yet Marcelline finds it difficult to maintain her imperturbable exterior and her focus. Having seen Cleveden very occasionally in the past, she’s aware he’s an attractive man, but up close, he’s drop-dead gorgeous, matches her barb for barb, and she senses in him a kindred spirit.

He was a predator. So was she.

For the first time in years, she finds herself in lust and in danger of allowing it to distract her. She has bitten off more than she can chew. Cleveden continues to make his presence felt in Marcelline’s life and against her will and her better judgement, she finds herself coming to depend on him.

It’s difficult to make a sympathetic hero of a man who spends ninety percent of a book planning to marry (and insisting that he loves) a woman other than the heroine. But even so, for the most part, he is an attractive hero – sexy, witty and self-assured. Fortunately, the true nature of Clevedon’s feelings for Lady Clara is apparent to the listener and to Lady Clara long before it is to the man himself, which helps to redeem him somewhat. He is, however, often in danger of being overshadowed as a character by Marcelline who is utterly compelling, even if, at first, she is difficult to like.

She’s tough, ruthless, manipulative, mercenary, and single-mindedly focused on her goal of expanding her business, all qualities which are undoubtedly necessary in order to become and remain successful in a competitive field. She is also devoted to her two younger sisters, who help her to run the business, and Lucie, her six-year-old daughter who is quite a handful! She can seem cold, but as we get to know her better, we begin to peek beneath the façade to see a woman required to be strong and forceful most of her life to assure that her dependents are provided for. Despite the fact that she loves her occupation and excels at it, she would nonetheless like someone to lean on occasionally.

At first, I did wonder what – other than his beautiful face and fit body – Marcelline actually saw in Cleveden. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – we are all susceptible to a pretty face, after all! And then I realised that Ms. Chase was allowing the listener to become acquainted with him at the same pace as Marcelline. At first, she’s stunned by his looks and the sheer masculine physicality of him. As she gets to know him better, she is alternately seduced and repelled by his arrogance and then falls utterly in love with the man he never allows anyone to see – the one who understands the needs of a traumatized little girl and her mother’s need for a real home.

The story as a whole is complex and I’ve barely touched the surface here. I especially enjoyed the portrait Ms. Chase paints of what it takes for a woman to be successful in business, emphasizing the importance of reputation and successfully controlling the direction of society gossip when possible. The writing is excellent, full of beautiful, sensual prose and sharp, witty banter. The air between the protagonists fairly sizzles every time they are together. The supporting characters are all well drawn, the romance is skilfully developed, and the characterisations (Marcelline, in particular) are superb.

Kate Reading’s performance is simply outstanding. Her breadth of range in terms of pitch and timbre is impressive and is used to great effect across the wide variety of characters who people the story, from little Lucie to a scheming competitor. Her portrayal of Marcelline is superbly nuanced, as befits a character of such complexity, and Clevedon is given a beautiful, deep huskiness which suits him perfectly. Ms. Reading handles the quick-fire dialogue between the two principals very well, having a wonderfully deadpan style of delivery for Clevedon and a similarly poker-faced style for Marcelline with just a hint of suggestiveness beneath. Her natural, contralto voice is very pleasing to the ear and her narration is clear and well-paced.

I’m eagerly looking forward to listening to the other books in the Dressmakers series.

Dark Persuasion by Vicki Hopkins (audiobook) – Narrated by Lorna Bennett

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Charlotte Gray couldn’t believe that anyone in high society would care to introduce her to potential suitors. After all, a cruel accident left her blind at the age of eight. However, Lady and Lord Rochester, her aristocratic neighbors, have taken a peculiar interest in her welfare and offer to hold a debutante ball in her honor.

Inexperienced in the ways of men and vulnerable to a fault, Charlotte begins to traverse the unfamiliar world of courtship. To her surprise, two brothers become rivals for her affections. One she favors because of his gregarious and flattering ways. The other she spurns due to his unappealing demeanor and desperate attempt to win her heart.

Pressured by her family and brokenhearted over the risqué conduct of her first choice, Charlotte is persuaded to accept Patrick Rochester’s proposal of marriage instead. Her surrender introduces her into the world of passion at the artful hands of a mysterious man. When the dark and alluring husband finally conquers her heart, a shocking secret about his true identity unfolds. As a result, Charlotte learns that love can be blind for everyone-even her.

Rating: C for narration, C for content

While Dark Persuasion has an interesting premise and the potential to explore some of the darker emotions – guilt, jealousy, obsession – the book never overcomes a number of failures in its execution. It’s not a very “romantic” romance, and there is practically no chemistry between the leads. The characterisation of the hero lacks depth, and I found the heroine difficult to like, largely due to her treatment of the hero.

Charlotte Grey was blinded at the age of eight as the result of an unthinking, cruel act by a boy four years her senior. Ten years later, she meets two brothers at her come-out ball, Patrick and Rupert Rochester, who are as different from each other as chalk from cheese. Patrick is a quiet and rather serious young man, while Rupert is a cruel, conscienceless rake who wants nothing more than to irritate and best his brother in whatever he does.

So when Rupert sees Patrick taking an interest in Charlotte, he determines to seduce her. Never having been the subject of male attention before, Charlotte is easily taken in by Rupert’s gregarious and flirtatious manner, and instantly prefers him to his brother. In spite of her sister’s urge to be cautious, Charlotte is in the grip of her first infatuation, and dismisses Patrick as dull and humourless.

When Rupert shows his true colours, it’s left to Patrick to pick up the pieces. He loves Charlotte and wants to marry her so he can take care of her, but he shrinks from telling her the truth about the cause of her blindness. Instead, he confesses to her father, who afterwards gives Patrick his permission to ask Charlotte for her hand. She accepts his proposal, telling him bluntly that she does not love him and that she is only giving him her assent because she knows she is unlikely to receive another such offer.

I had a hard time determining just what Patrick saw in Charlotte other than her pretty face, and the fact of his desire to atone for his childhood brutality. One minute, he is seeing her for the first time in ten years, and the next, he is desperately in love with her, and there is no sense of an evolution of feeling. Patrick is very underwritten; we see him as a boy and then as a young man, but there is no real explanation as to how or why he changed from that irresponsible boy to the honourable man he is now.

I also didn’t care much for Charlotte as a heroine. While she certainly deserves admiration for the way she overcomes many of the difficulties facing her as a blind person, there are other aspects of her personality that make her a less than sympathetic character, not least of which is her poor treatment of Patrick. She never lets him forget he is not her first choice, and, because she never really talks to him about the help she will need to help her to acclimatise herself to new surroundings, blames him when he fails to take her blindness into account.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

A Shocking Delight by Jo Beverley

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Lucy Potter, daughter of a wealthy merchant, is more interested in trade than in the men after her dowry. When forced to have a London season, she sets out to enjoy herself rather than to find a husband. But once she meets the notorious Earl of Wyvern, her resolve weakens, and when they kiss, it dissolves—even though her instincts warn he’s dangerous.

Wyvern has a dark secret, which means he must win a rich bride. Lucinda Potter seems ideal. Not for her beauty and her lively charm, but because at first meeting she seems unlikely to realize the truth.

As he comes to know her, however, as they spar and kiss, he realizes she’s too clever and honest by far. Marrying Lucy would mean living a lie with the woman he has come to love…

Rating: B

This, the fifteenth novel in Ms Beverley’s Company of Rogues series may not have been particularly shocking but it was a thoroughly delightful read 😉 I haven’t read all of the previous books in the series, but this works perfectly well as a standalone – although I did have a rough idea of who the secondary characters were from reading reviews of some of the other books, and Ms Beverley provides a little background information regarding the hero in her author’s note.

David Kerslake-Somerton first appeared in The Dragon’s Bride, when he had just taken up the reins as “Captain Drake”, the leader of a large smuggling ring, having more or less inherited both “title” and responsibility from his father, Melchisadeck Clyst. At the end of that book, David has become the Earl of Wyvern, it having been discovered that although Mel was his biological father, his mother was actually married to the previous earl at the time of his birth, which makes him the legitimate heir. A Shocking Delight picks up David’s story around a year later. He is still leading a double life as both earl and smuggler, trying to be all things to all men and isn’t particularly comfortable in either role. The earldom is also deeply improverished, and David is going to have to find himself a rich wife is he is to be able to maintain his estates and continue to fulfil his obligations as earl.

His investigations lead him to believe that perhaps Miss Lucinda Potter, daughter of a wealthy Cit, might be the solution to his problems. She has a dowry of thirty thousand pounds, and David hopes that she will be like most young heiresses – frivolous and empty headed enough not to wonder why her husband is absent on moonless nights. He doesn’t relish the idea of marrying a stupid woman, but he can’t take the risk of having someone around is capable of putting two and two together and making four.

Lucinda – or Lucy – must also come to terms with massive upheavals in her life. Her mother – the daughter of a viscount who scandalised the ton by running off to marry a mere merchant – has been dead one year, and now that the mourning period is over, Lucy hopes that her father, who has been somewhat distant since the loss of his wife, will once again invite her to take part in some of his business dealings. Lucy is fascinated by the whirlwind of the City, would much rather read the newspapers than the fashion magazines, and has nurtured the secret hope that her father will involve her in his business more and more, with the ultimate intention of naming her as his successor. Her hopes are dashed when he tells her that he is going to remarry and hopes to have a son, and makes it clear that he has never seen Lucy in the light of a potential business partner. He wants her to take her place in the world she belongs to by rights; her mother’s world of the ton, and is keen for her to marry a title. He may have had an unconventional marriage but he wants the conventional for his daughter.

While wanting her father to be happy, Lucy knows she is going to find it difficult to conceal her unhappiness and frustration, and decides to take up a long-standing invitation from her aunt, Lady Caldross, to visit her. She isn’t interested in marrying and knows that her dowry will attract every fortune hunter in London, but decides she may as well enjoy a season, and prepares for the journey from the City to the completely different world of Mayfair and the West End.

On the day she departs, Lucy pays a visit to her favourite bookshop, and there encounters a tall, handsome, country gentleman with whom she spends a pleasant few minutes chatting about books.

She doesn’t know that this is the newly-minted young earl everyone is talking about, and he doesn’t know that she is the heiress he has come to town to pursue – but both are instantly smitten. Their eventual reunion several days later at a ball is far from auspicious; both are dismayed and feel betrayed because the other is not what they had first appeared to be. Very soon that animosity is dispelled, and smitten turns into stolen kisses and not-so-harmless flirtation that explodes into a yearning desire the like of which Lucy has never imagined.

David and Lucy appear, at first glance, to be complete opposites, and they are complex characters whose flaws serve to make them more interesting and their actions appear more naturalistic. Despite their obvious differences – Lucy is city bred, while David is happiest in the countryside and by the sea, David is a smuggler – Lucy hates them; they share an affinity so strong that it soon becomes impossible for either to envision life without the other.

The path to true love does not, of course, run completely smooth. David and Lucy have to cope with familial interference, deeply-held secrets and tough decisions which are going to involve major changes in their lives. But when push comes to shove, they face the challenges together.

As one would expect of such an experienced author, the writing itself flows beautifully. The central characters are well-rounded and have great chemistry; and the love scenes, while not terribly explicit, are romantic and sensual. I was intrigued by Ms Beverley’s descriptions of the very different lifestyles espoused in the physically close but socially distant areas of the City and the West End of London – which isn’t something to which I’ve given much thought before, but the idea that even the fashions were different was rather an eye-opener. In addition, the depictions of life in the small Devonian communities and descriptions of the landscapes are engaging and evocative, and I enjoyed the sense of kinship the author created between the populace, villager and landowner alike.

If I have a criticism, it’s that David and Lucy’s initial infatuation with each other blossomed into love after only a handful of encounters; although I admit that thought didn’t occur to me until after I’d finished the book because their attraction was written so well and given such depth.

I thoroughly enjoyed A Shocking Delight, and reading it has made me want to go back and read the other books in the series which are still languishing on my TBR pile.

Sweet Disorder by Rose Lerner

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Nick Dymond enjoyed the rough-and-tumble military life until a bullet to the leg sent him home to his emotionally distant, politically obsessed family. For months, he’s lived alone with his depression, blockaded in his lodgings.

But with his younger brother desperate to win the local election, Nick has a new set of marching orders: dust off the legendary family charm and maneuver the beautiful Phoebe Sparks into a politically advantageous marriage.

One marriage was enough for Phoebe. Under her town’s by-laws, though, she owns a vote that only a husband can cast. Much as she would love to simply ignore the unappetizing matrimonial candidate pushed at her by the handsome earl’s son, she can’t. Her teenage sister is pregnant, and Phoebe’s last-ditch defense against her sister’s ruin is her vote—and her hand.

Nick and Phoebe soon realize the only match their hearts will accept is the one society will not allow. But as election intrigue turns dark, they’ll have to cast the cruelest vote of all: loyalty… or love.

Rating: A-

Sweet Disorder sees the very welcome return to the publishing world of Rose Lerner, whose two previous novels, In for a Penny and A Lily Among Thorns I enjoyed very much.

This book, the first in a series set in the town of Lively St. Lemeston, presents us with a different take on the Regency Romance and paints a wonderful portrait of small-town life in early nineteenth century England. The hero is the son of an earl, it’s true, but the heroine is most definitely an “ordinary” woman, who, like many of the other townsfolk, is struggling to make ends meet while she is also caring for her sister, helping her brother-in-law to run the town newspaper and doing her bit for the local charities and organisations.

The setting is refreshingly different as the novel takes place around the General Election of 1812. Lively St. Lemeston is controlled by the Tories, although it’s been a close-run thing in the past, and the Whigs are hopeful that this time, their candidate, the youngest son of Lord and Lady Tassell, is going to secure a victory for them. The campaign is close fought, and things are going to come down to a mere handful of votes, two of which are in the possession of Mrs Phoebe Sparks, the widow of the town’s former newspaper publisher. Of course, this is the nineteenth century, so Phoebe cannot actually vote herself, but because her father was a freeman of the town, she holds his votes “in trust”, so to speak, and they can only be used by her husband, should she remarry. Naturally, both sides are eager to see her wed to a man of their political persuasion in order to secure her votes.

Wanting to see Mrs Sparks safely wed to a Whig, Lady Tassell, a veteran political campaigner and a woman who invariably puts politics before her family, sends her middle son, Nicholas, to Lively St. Lemeston so that he can meet the potential husband she has selected and do everything he can to promote the match. Nick, who has recently returned from the war in Spain with a debilitating injury to his leg, can think of nothing worse than to have to get involved with politicking and refuses to go, until his mother threatens to cut off his allowance. Nick has had no opportunity or inclination to think about alternative sources of income – so he has no alternative but to agree to do his mother’s bidding and play matchmaker.

When he arrives and sees Phoebe’s pretty face and voluptuous body, he realises that playing matchmaker might be a much more difficult task than he’d thought.

Phoebe has no desire to remarry, and certainly not for the sake of political expediency. Her marriage had been …not unhappy in the early days, but things had soured so that in the year before her husband’s death, things between them had not been going well. She’s strong, independent, speaks her mind, and has a quick temper – but she’s also exhausted most of the time, worried about not having enough money, and continually contending with her mother’s very vocal disapproval.

In spite of that, she is enjoying the independence of widowhood – until her younger sister drops the bombshell that she is pregnant and can’t marry the father.

Helen’s condition puts a completely different complexion on Phoebe’s situation as well. If Helen remains unwed, it will be impossible for her to remain in Lively St. Lemeston to have her baby without being branded a whore, so Phoebe suggests an alternative. She will take Helen away somewhere she can have the baby and they will find a good family to take the child in and raise it as their own. But for this, she will need money, something which is in terribly short supply.

There is only one thing she can do. If she agrees to marry one of the men being put forward by the two political parties, her husband will help her to protect Helen and provide the money they need.

During the course of her “courtship” by the man the Whigs have put forward, Phoebe is thrown much into the company of Nick Dymond, who is handsome, charming, easy to talk to and who goes out of his way to help her whenever he can. Phoebe knows it’s wrong to lust after one man while planning to marry another, but she can’t help it. Nick understands her in a way nobody ever has, and, even though it’s only for a little while, she knows that here is someone she can lean on.

The romance that develops between them is based on much more than lust and physical attraction (although there’s plenty of that, too, and the sex scenes are hot!) Despite the vast difference in their social station, Nick and Phoebe interact as equals, they communicate very well and find themselves telling each other things, their sorrows, hopes and fears, that they’ve never told anyone else. Their relationship progresses at a natural pace and it’s certainly not all plain sailing, something which only serves to add more realism to their romance.

All the characters in the book are extremely well-drawn and in fact, I can’t think of a single minor character who didn’t seem to have a life of their own, from Betsy, the assistant in the sweet shop to Mr Gilchrist, the Tory election agent. The writing flows well, the background research has clearly been meticulous, the dialogue is excellent and the characterisation of the two principals is superb. Nick and Phoebe are complicated, flawed and very real characters, both of them having to cope with difficult family relationships and issues relating to their sense of self-esteem. Phoebe has been criticised by her mother all her life and Nick is finding it difficult to accept and adjust to his disability and to deal with the emotional scars he carries from the war. As a result, both of them have a slightly distorted view of their own self-worth, and it’s lovely to see both of them coming to terms with their issues and also to begin to like themselves as a result of the way the other sees them.

Sweet Disorder is a very engaging and well-told romance which is interwoven with some fascinating insight in to the political situation of the time. I especially enjoyed the fact that this was essentially a story about ordinary people with ordinary problems – not enough money, controlling mothers, unplanned pregnancies – things I’m sure that many people today can identify with. The ending felt absolutely right for Nick and Phoebe, and more importantly, it felt thoroughly deserved, given everything they’d been through to get there. Rose Lerner is definitely an author to watch, and I’ll certainly be adding her name to my auto-buy list.

I also reviewed this title for Romantic Historical Reviews.

Redemption of the Duke by Gayle Callen

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A duke who needs to be tamed . . . a lady who refuses to be rescued.

Adam Chamberlin was the third son of a duke, known for gambling binges and drunken nights. No one expected anything of him . . . until tragedy strikes. Now Adam is the new Duke of Rothford, determined to right the wrongs he’s done. Except a secret in his past means helping the one woman who doesn’t want his help at all.

It’s not every day that a duke introduces himself to a woman sitting by herself in Hyde Park. Faith Cooper is even more surprised when Adam offers her a position as a lady’s companion to his elderly aunt. Faith refuses to be beholden to a man again—certainly not this man, who both infuriates and attracts her. But with passion simmering between them, will Faith surrender to forbidden desire?

Rating: C

Having thoroughly enjoyed the previous two books in this trilogy (Return of the Viscount and Surrender to the Earl), I was very much looking to reading this, the final of Ms Callen’s stories about three soldiers who return from army service in India determined to help the relatives of men in their regiment who were killed in a tragedy for which the three feel they are responsible.

Unfortunately, Redemption of the Duke turned out to be rather a disappointment and I’m not completely sure why. The writing was good, the chemistry between the leads was strong and Adam has all the requisite qualities listed in “Romance Heroes 101”. He is stunningly handsome, rich and titled, had a crappy childhood and is still coming to terms with a trauma for which he blames himself. Yet all those pieces of the puzzle fail to add up as they should, because the main thing I remember about him is the way he manipulates the heroine at every turn “for her own good.”

Adam returns to England having unexpectedly become the Duke of Rothford upon the death of his father and two half-brothers. As the third son, Adam had absolutely no expectations that he would ever inherit, and given his brothers’ intense dislike and threats to cut him off without a penny as soon as their father died, Adam determined to make his own way in the world and joined the army.

His youth had been rather a wild one, mostly because his brothers had so poisoned their father’s mind against him that notoriety was the only way in which he could count on receiving the late duke’s attention. But he has changed and is now a much more sober and mature man, intent on fulfilling his responsibilities to the dukedom and his family. The problem is that all his estates are managed so well by his staff that he finds himself at rather a loose end; and this leaves him time to concentrate instead on his mission to find and offer his aid to the sister of one of the men whose death weighs on his conscience.

Faith Cooper is working as a lady’s companion and drudge to a young woman who is making her entrée into society. After her brother was killed in India, she and her mother managed to support themselves by selling off their belongings, but that money lasted only a few months and Faith had to turn to other means to make ends meet.

Adam accosts her in the park one day, completely out of the blue, and informs her of his intention to help her in some way. Realising immediately that he is merely trying to assuage his own sense of guilt, she dismisses him angrily and hopes that is the last she will see of him.

But she has reckoned without Adam’s persistence. In spite of her admonishments about the damage being seen with him could do to her reputation, and in spite of her refusal of his offer of assistance, he won’t take no for an answer, and eventually enlists some outside help in the form of his aunt, Lady Duncan. She and Faith hit it off straight away, and it’s a matter of hours before Faith is being taken to her new place of work…only to be dismayed upon being taken to Rothford House.

By this time, Adam is well aware that he is more than a little infatuated with Miss Cooper and his interest in her does not go unnoticed; something he realises when he begins to receive anonymous notes which hint at the fact that she has some sort of murky secret in her past.

Knowing Faith well enough by this point to know that, should she get wind of the fact that the family is being threatened with scandal on her account, she would insist on leaving, he chooses not to tell her anything. He continues blithely to do what he thinks is best without reference to anyone else, and eventually forces Faith into an difficult situation which leaves her only one recourse.

It’s easy to understand Adam’s motives. He wants to do the right thing, but the trouble is that he goes about it in completely the wrong way. He believes that his unconsidered actions in India led to the death of Faith’s brother thus depriving her and her mother of their only means of support. Even though he offers to help Faith partly to salve his own conscience, he genuinely wants to make her life easier; he wants to keep her safe and he wants to keep her with him, and he truly believes his actions are for the best, but in doing the things he does, he makes one huge mistake: He takes away Faith’s right to choose for herself.

That’s not to say that the hero’s actions are solely responsible for the problems I experienced reading the book. Faith, too, is rather a difficult character to warm to. She rebuffs Adam quite cruelly to start with and refuses to admit that perhaps she does need help.

On the positive side, there was a good deal of chemistry between the principals, and I liked the way Ms Callen brought them to the realisation that despite everything, despite the potential scandal and their mistakes, they were two people who really needed each other. And Adam does finally come to see the error of his ways and make more of an effort to include others in his decision-making, although I can’t help wondering how long that will last.

Yet neither Faith nor Adam really came to life for me. The pacing was fairly slow throughout, and the mystery as to who is sending the anonymous notes wasn’t especially suspenseful or tense. There are some interesting secondary characters – principally Adam’s unconventional aunt – and it was nice to see Blackthorne and Knightsbridge and their wives, but overall Redemption of the Duke was a let-down, and rather a weak ending to what had been a very enjoyable series.

TBR Challenge: At Your Pleasure by Meredith Duran

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By candlelight she lures him…

Glittering court socialites and underworld cutpurses alike know that Adrian Ferrers, Earl of Rivenham, is the most dangerous man in London. Rivenham will let nothing—not the deepening shadow of war, nor the growing darkness within him—interfere with his ambition to restore his family to its former glory. But when tasked by the king to uncover a traitor, he discovers instead a conspiracy—and a woman whose courage awakens terrible temptations. To save her is to risk everything. To love her might cost his life.

At swordpoint she defies him…

Lady Leonora knows that Rivenham is the devil in beautiful disguise— and that the irresistible tension between them is as unpredictable as the dilemma in which Nora finds herself: held hostage on her own estate by Rivenham and the king’s men. But when war breaks out, Nora has no choice but to place her trust in her dearest enemy—and pray that love does not become the weapon that destroys them both.(

Rating: A

I picked this up in response to this month’s TBR Challenge prompt:
Read a book by an author who has more than one book on your TBR pile.

It’s true – while I’m a huge fan of Meredith Duran’s writing, I have more than one of her books I still haven’t read. In my defence, it’s because I save them up for when I’ve had a run of mediocre reads and can’t face another one! But the TBR Challenge was a good reason to pick one of them up – and I had no hesitation whatsoever in deciding that it would be this book. It’s set at a time which is not often featured in historical romance or historical fiction, which made it a shoe-in.

I freely admit that the transition from Stuart to Hanoverian monarchy is a period of history I don’t know much about, for all that I regard myself as a bit of an amateur historian. But I didn’t need to keep one eye on Wikipedia as I was reading, because Ms Duran does a splendid job of explaining why the characters have adopted their particular loyalties, why the conflicts between them exist, and weaving all the necessary information about the complicated political situation into her story without making it seem like a history lesson.

But given this is a book in which the main cause of the conflict between the two central characters is political and religious, I wanted a little more historical context and background. It’s absolutely NOT necessary in order to enjoy the book – it’s just me 🙂

This next part is me indulging in historical geekery, so please feel free to skip the next couple of paragraphs to the actual book review!

The novel is set in 1715, the year after the death of the last Stuart monarch (Queen Anne). In the last years of her reign when it became apparent that she was not going to be able to bear an heir to succeed her, negotiations were undertaken with her second cousin, George of Hanover, who subsequently became George I. George wasn’t her closest living male relative, but he was the closest one who was acceptable to the British government and the British people, by virtue of the fact that he was a Protestant.

This was another period of great unrest and uncertainty in Britain, less than one hundred years after a bloody civil war which led to the execution of the king and the brief establishment of a republic. The Jacobite cause, which wanted to see the son of James II upon the throne, was principally supported by Britain’s Catholics (James had been deposed in 1688 because of his espousal of that religion), but he also had his supporters amongst the (Protestant) English political elite. And now, with discontent brewing over the choice of Anne’s successor, it seemed as though the country was in for another war, or even a revolution.

The situation of Catholics in England at the time was still a precarious one, despite the supposed religious freedoms introduced under Elizabeth I and taken further under Cromwell. Catholics were not permitted to hold positions of political power or vote, they could not worship openly, and they still risked fines, confiscation of property and imprisonment.

Here endeth the geekery
Amidst all this political unrest and subversion, Ms Duran spins a terrific tale of love and betrayal, forgiveness and redemption. Leonora, the widowed Lady Towe, is the daughter of Lord Hoxton and sister of David Colville, both of whom have been stripped of their lands and titles because they have been plotting against the new king. The family is not Catholic, but rather, are political opponents of the Hanoverian monarchy, and father and son have fled to France where they continue to plot, basically abandoning Nora and leaving her alone to manage Hodderby, the home for which she has a deep and abiding love. Hoxton is settled at the Court of the Pretender in France, but Nora is in daily expectation of her brother’s return, even while knowing how dangerous it will be for him to set foot in England.

Adrian Ferrars, Earl of Rivenham has been sent to arrest Colville and bring him to London to face trial and, almost certainly, execution for treason. Nora is stunned at Adrian’s unexpected appearance, and not just because she knows the danger he represents to her brother. Their family estates border each other, so Adrian, David and Nora grew up together; and six years earlier, Adrian and Nora had fallen deeply in love and had a brief affair. When Nora’s father discovered their relationship, the pair were brutally separated, for Adrian was a Catholic, and thus not a suitable husband for the daughter of a high-ranking, Protestant family.

Their short-lived affair ended bitterly and violently, with Nora believing Adrian abandoned her to the fate forced upon her by her father (marriage to an older, abusive man) and Adrian believing she deserted him in order to do her father’s bidding and marry a rich man of his choice.

Adrian barely escaped David’s brutality with his life, and was then bundled off to France by his family for his own protection. Upon his return some years later, he renounced his faith and by virtue of his intelligence, charm and wits, rose quickly through the ranks of the court to become a trusted advisor to Queen Anne, and has retained his position under the new king.

The few times Adrian and Nora crossed each other’s paths at Court, he ignored her, causing her to believe he hated her; and the only way she can deal with that is to tell herself that she despises him. Their reunion is barbed and bitter, both of them haunted by memories of betrayal and heart-break and determined to convince the other of their utter indifference. Adrian is cold and cruel and Nora meets his harshness with sharp-tongued defiance, determined to protect her property and her brother, sometimes to the point of stupidity. What she doesn’t know is that Adrian is walking a political tightrope. He became a recusant in order to keep his own family safe from the sort of brutality inflicted upon him by the Colvilles – but he is still regarded with suspicion by many (especially those who are jealous of his position and influence) and has been given the job of bringing in David Colville as a way of proving his loyalty. If he succeeds, he will further cement his position of power at court – if he fails, his enemies will immediately accuse him of collaborating with Colville. And the Jacobite supporters want him out of the way so they can continue in their mission to restore a Stuart to the throne. With his political enemies prepared to join forces in order to bring Adrian down, he is prone to attack from all directions and decides there is only one way he can do what he must and keep Nora safe at the same time.

With the undercurrent of attraction that still swirls between them proving harder and harder to deny, the two begin an uneasy rapprochement. The devastating truth about what happened six years ago is revealed, and the barriers between them – barriers not of their own making – begin to break down. But even so, Adrian must ignore Nora’s wishes and act to protect her in a way which threatens to destroy their re-kindling relationship; to protect her from herself as much as from those outside forces which seek his destruction.

Ms Duran’s story is utterly compelling, as are her two central characters. Adrian is a wonderful hero, a man who can be ruthless and uncompromising when he has to be, but who also shows a remarkable capacity for tenderness and consideration. The depth of his love for Nora drives him to desperate measures, it’s true, but that love is never in question. Nora is a little more difficult to warm to, primarily because of the blind loyalty she shows toward David, who has put her in danger time and again. I found myself frequently wanting to scream at Nora to just cut the cord and leave him to fend for himself! Even though he is preparing to marry her off to another man to further his own ends, and after Adrian has revealed to her the extent of his duplicity six years before, she can’t bring herself to wash her hands of him. Loyalty is an admirable trait most of the time, but in this, Nora really is her own worst enemy.

Much mention is made of the helplessness of women in the society of the time; Nora, like most well-born young women, was regarded by her father as not much more than property, a useful pawn to be used in order to secure wealth, position and influence, and she is constantly frustrated by the way she is so often dismissed and treated as though she is not a person in her own right. Yet she is clever, stubborn, and courageous; her motives might not always be clear-sighted or in her best interests, but she possesses a great inner strength:

“He could not admire her destructive loyalty to her brother. But it was born of the steel at her core. As a girl, she had not disguised that steel, speaking boldly, daring the world to cross her. But now that she carried it concealed, it took on a new element of power, like the hidden stiletto that could save a man’s life when all else was stripped from him … men too often mistook bravado for courage. Her courage was not wasted on display.

But what a wealth of riches she offered to those who possessed her loyalties. She put her whole self into their defense and never accepted defeat. Even if her wits saw the weakness in a cause, she would sacrifice herself for the sake of honor.”

At Your Pleasure is a beautifully developed romance with real emotional depth set against a fascinating historical background. I found it to be an intense read with very little to lighten the tension and there are some scenes which make for downright uncomfortable reading – but I loved the intrigue and that feeling of walking the thin line along with the characters. The writing itself is gorgeous, and I applaud Ms Duran for the way she shows us the grey areas that are part of the lives of these characters and the tough decisions they have to make.