The Wickedest Lord Alive (Westruthers #3) by Christina Brooke

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Can an Indecent Proposal

Eight years ago, a tall, handsome stranger entered Lady Alexandra’s bedchamber and consummated a marriage of the utmost necessity. The Marquis of Steyne had agreed to wed and bed Lord Brute’s admittedly lovely daughter to pay off his mother’s gambling debts. But once the deed was done, Steyne’s lawfully-wedded wife vanished into the night…

Lead to Everlasting Love?

Years later, Steyne has nearly forgotten about his runaway bride. But when he suddenly finds himself in need of an heir, he has no choice but to track her down. Living happily in a small village under an assumed name, Alexandra is surprised to see her husband—and to feel such a strong attraction to him. But she is downright shocked when he asks her to bear him a son. How can they possibly repeat the heated encounter of their ill-fated wedding night…without falling hopelessly in love?

Rating: B-

To quote Charlie Brown – “Oh, Good Grief!” Here’s yet another of The Stupidest Titles Around attached to an historical romance. Is there some sort of competition for The Crappiest Title Ever of which I’m unaware?

Fortunately, the book is rather more readable than the title might suggest, although a better one might be The Worst Mother in the World, as it’s more indicative of something that actually happens in the book; try as I might, I couldn’t find the slightest bit of evidence to support the claim of Xavier Westruther, Marquess of Steyne to the epithet of Wickedest Lord Alive. Oh, we were told that he has a terrible reputation, holds orgies and keeps a string of mistresses…we just never see any of them (well, there’s a mistress) in this book.

The story opens with the twenty-one-year-old marquess being forced into marriage with the daughter of the vicious Earl of Bute in order to pay off his mother’s gambling debts. Young Xavier is furious at having been manoeuvred into such an invidious situation, but he nonetheless goes through with the marriage, consummates it and leaves. When he returns shortly afterwards to fetch his bride, she is nowhere to be found.

Eight years pass and we discover that Lady Alexandra-that-was is now living in the village of Little Thurston where she was taken in by the kindly vicar and his late wife. Professing to have lost her memory, she calls herself Lizzie Allbright and has built herself a new and comfortable life in the village.

Until, that is, the Marquess of Steyne arrives unexpectedly and tells her it’s time she resumed her role as his marchioness, particularly with reference to the begetting of an heir. Lizzie is naturally astonished – not only at her husband’s sudden appearance, but at the fact that he had actually known where she was but decided to leave her be to live her own life. She is annoyed at that – somewhat irrationally given she was the one who ran away in the first place, but Steyne believed he was doing the right thing by keeping away.

Of more importance, however, are his reasons for re-entering Lizzie’s life and demanding they get down to the business of making babies without delay. His current heir is his indolent and greedy uncle Bernard, who is far too in thrall to Xavier’s despicable and manipulative mother for comfort. Xavier has good reason to suspect that his life is in danger and wants to secure the succession in case the worst happens.

Lizzie is worried that Steyne will expose her falsehoods, but to her surprise he is not inclined to do so. Instead he offers her an alternative – he will court her for a few weeks, after which they will announce their engagement, elope, travel for a bit and then return home once the gossip has died down. Lizzie knows she doesn’t really have an alternative – Steyne is her husband and she is subject to him. To tell the truth, she’s not totally against the idea; he’s sexy, handsome, and rich, she’s got the hots for him, and he’s obviously attracted to her, too. But she is wary, having realised that he is rather a cold fish and that while she could easily lose her heart to him, he is unlikely to return the favour. She wants to know him, and, sensing it’s not something he’s known much of, to be allowed to love him – although she knows that loving him without return will destroy her.

Steyne is a fascinating character, and it’s this that lifts this book out of the realms of the average. I haven’t read all the other books in this series and Ms Brooke’s previous Ministry of Marriage novels, but I gather that Steyne has been an enigmatic background presence in many of the books. It’s always a treat when that kind of character finally gets their own story and the reader gets to see what makes them tick. He’s complex and haunted by an irrational belief in his own failures and by the simple longing for the maternal affection denied him. He is frequently referred to as “cold” or “icy” – which, as we learn more of his backstory, is not at all surprising, as he has clearly thrown up these defences around his emotions as a form of self-preservation.

Lizzie is a likeable character from the start, even though she is somewhat inconsistent in her behaviour towards Steyne. (Not that he is completely consistent either, but he has his reasons). And there’s a moment towards the end where she strays too far into TSTL territory for my liking.

In the last section of the book there were a number of inconsistencies which took me out of the story. I read a printed ARC which may since have been corrected, but there were some jumps and holes in the plotline which made me feel as though I’d missed a page or two; Lizzie has apparently written to Xavier’s mother, but there is no mention of it until Lizzie is preparing to attend an arranged meeting at a nearby inn. At one point, the death of a minor character is referenced in Xavier’s presence about twenty pages or so before he learns of it.

The pacing is generally good, although I felt that once the action moved to the house party at Harcourt, things started to gallop away a bit, and what had been a nicely developing romance turned into a quickly-get-them-into-bed. I accepted this as necessary because of the demands of the plot, but it’s a bit of a let-down, nonetheless. There is, however, plenty of sizzle between the leads, and at least Xavier gets the chance to live up to his “Wicked” moniker between the sheets.

All in all, I enjoyed reading The Wickedest Lord Alive, in spite of the dumb title and its swerve into the melodramatic. What with Lizzie’s abusive father and Steyne’s total bitch of a mother, the forced, secret marriage, the need for an heir, pretend-amnesia, attempted murder – it’s like the plot of a Victorian Sensation novel! But Ms Brooke brings it all together and makes it work, turning a story that could have been unbelievably cheesy into a very readable page-turner.

Tempting the Bride by Sherry Thomas (audiobook) – Narrated by Jenny Sterlin

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Helena Fitzhugh understands perfectly well that she would be ruined should her secret love affair be discovered. So when a rendezvous goes wrong and she is about to be caught in the act, it is with the greatest reluctance that she accepts help from David Hillsborough, Viscount Hastings, and elopes with him to save her reputation. Helena has despised David since they were children – the notorious rake has tormented her all her life. David, on the other hand, has always loved Helena, but his pride will never let him admit the secrets of his heart. A carriage accident the day after their elopement, however, robs Helena of her memory – the slate is wiped clean.

At last David dares to reveal his love, and she finds him both fascinating and desirable. But what will happen when her memory returns and she realizes she has fallen for a man she has sworn never to trust?

Rating: B+ for narration; A- for content

The third novel in Ms Thomas’ Fitzhugh Trilogy, Tempting the Bride is the story of Helena Fitzhugh (twin sister of Fitz from Ravishing the Heiress) and David Hillsborough, Viscount Hastings. The pair has appeared in secondary roles in the previous books and has the sort of antagonistic relationship which is most definitely NOT one of those “we-bicker-but-only-because-we’re-trying-to-hide-our-mutual-attraction” associations so beloved of romantic novels. No, Helena detests the ground Hastings walks on, and it seems he returns the favour.

In reality, however, Hastings has been desperately in love with Helena since he was fourteen, and, in the way of the hormonally challenged teenaged boy, resorted to insults, practical jokes and, later, sexual innuendo in an attempt to get her to notice him. Unfortunately, while he has grown up in all other respects, when it comes to Helena, he has never been able to progress beyond the metaphorical pigtail-pulling, which has become more and more barbed as the years have progressed. He has reached a point where he can’t see how he can possibly pull himself out of the pit he’s spent half his life digging.

Helena may be the wealthy sister of an earl, but her independent nature, university education and ownership of a publishing house mean that she is walking a societal tight-rope. One false step could lead to social ostracism, and it seems she is heading for just that disaster, for she is in love with a married man.

Hastings is the one person who can see all this clearly, and he warns Helena off on several occasions. The problem, of course, is that because the warnings come from him, she refuses to see the sense of what he tells her and not only ignores him, but becomes even more determined in her pursuit and reckless in her actions. Things come to a head when Helena and her lover, Andrew Martin, walk into a trap laid by Martin’s busy-body sister-in-law; only Hasting’s quick-thinking stands between her and ruin and while his actions avert disaster, she is compromised and they are obliged to marry.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Importance of Being Wicked (Wild Quartet #1) by Miranda Neville

Having recently posted my review of Lady Windermere’s Lover, which is book 3 in this series, I realised I’d never transferred my review of this across from Goodreads. Better late than never. Possibly.

Review originally written and posted to Goodreads in November 2012.

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The rules of society don’t apply to Caro and her coterie of bold men and daring women. But when passions flare, even the strongest will surrender to the law of love…

Thomas, Duke of Castleton, has every intention of wedding a prim and proper heiress. That is, until he sets eyes on the heiress’s cousin, easily the least proper woman he’s ever met. His devotion to family duty is no defense against the red-headed vixen whose greatest asset seems to be a talent for trouble…

Caroline Townsend has no patience for the oh-so-suitable (and boring) men of the ton. So when the handsome but stuffy duke arrives at her doorstep, she decides to put him to the test. But her scandalous exploits awaken a desire in Thomas he never knew he had. Suddenly Caro finds herself falling for this most proper duke…while Thomas discovers there’s a great deal of fun in a little bit of wickedness.

This is the first of a four book series centered around a group of badly behaved late-Georgian art collectors.

Rating: C

A more appropriate – although less enticing – title for this book might have been The Importance of Employing some Common Sense, because there were times I really wanted to knock some into the heroine.

We first met Caro in the novella The Second Seduction of a Lady, which I enjoyed very much. During the course of that story she meets and elopes with Robert Townsend when she is just seventeen years old.

This books starts some seven years later; she is now a widow and in straightened circumstances, Robert having gambled away all their money. Her debts are mounting up and she has no way to pay them, yet she still keeps “open house” for her friends, who are quite happy to eat her out of house and home with no thought as to how she pays for the food and drink they consume.

Caro is what would probably, at the time, have been termed “fast”. She is vivacious and almost proud of the fact that she isn’t respectable (which is understandable in some ways, given the rigidity of society at that time), and she flouts convention, even when she is supposed to be acting as chaperone to her cousin.

There were times I felt some empathy for her, as her thoughtlessness and generally carefree attitude was obviously just a front to cover for her anxieties and insecurities, and to stop her thinking about things she didn’t want to think about. But at other times, I just wanted to yell at her to grow up, and to be fair, towards the end of the book, she realises she needs to do just that.

Our hero, Thomas, Duke of Castleton, nicknamed “Lord Stuffy” certainly lives up to the epithet a lot of the time. He’s very proper and has come to town with the intention of securing the hand of Caro’s cousin, Anne, who is an heiress. Castleton owns a lot of land, but most of it is entailed, and he has sisters to provide for – his father having been rather profligate – and so he isn’t particularly flush with cash, either.

So those are the two protagonists, and while I didn’t dislike the story, I have to say that I found it hard to engage with either Caro or Thomas very much. Caro is immature and headstrong for the sake of being so, which lands her into hot water on several occasions. Thomas has a stick up his arse; and for all that he occasionally displays a dry sense of humour and, at times, a willingness to learn which is verging on adorable, he is a fairly bland hero.

Caro and Thomas fall almost immediately into lust with each other. That’s not uncommon in romances, but I didn’t really feel that we got to see the progression from lust to love. Thomas seems to suddenly decide he loves Caro, while for most of the book, Caro is honest enough with herself to admit she married Thomas for financial security and because she desperately wanted to sleep with him. It’s only towards the end, following a tragic event that she begins to see his true worth and finally starts to grow up and put the past behind her; and from that point, I found I could like her. Grown-up Caro is capable, sensible and loving and will make an excellent duchess, and at last, the relationship between her and Castleton begins to become romantic rather than just sexual.

The Importance of Being Wicked was enjoyable enough despite my reservations about the main characters; but I’m not sure it’s a book I’ll revisit.

Lady Windermere’s Lover (Wild Quartet #3) by Miranda Neville

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Hell hath no fury . . .

Damian, Earl of Windermere, rues the day he drunkenly gambled away his family’s estate and was forced into marriage to reclaim it. Now, after hiding out from his new bride for a year, Damian is finally called home, only to discover that his modest bride has become an alluring beauty—and rumor has it that she’s taken a lover. Damian vows to keep his wife from straying again, but to do so he must seduce her—and protect his heart from falling for the wife he never knew he wanted.

Lady Cynthia never aspired to be the subject of scandal.

Lady Cynthia never aspired to be the subject of scandal. But with her husband off gallivanting across Persia, what was a lady to do? Flirting shamelessly with his former best friend seemed like the perfect revenge . . . except no matter how little Damian deserves her loyalty, Cynthia can’t bring herself to be unfaithful. But now that the scoundrel has returned home, Cynthia isn’t about to forgive his absence so easily—even if his presence stirs something in her she’d long thought dead and buried. He might win her heart . . . if he can earn her forgiveness!

Rating: B-

I knew in advance that the plotline of this book revolved around that least favourite of romance tropes – the Big Misunderstanding. But I also knew that it contained some of my favourite plot devices: A marriage made in less than auspicious circumstances, a hero who is in desperate need of a wake-up call, and a second chance for the hero and heroine to make something of their situation, so I decided to accept the Big Mis and see how things turned out.

Damian, Viscount Kendal, is celebrating his twenty-first birthday with his closest friends in the manner of young men – by getting plastered and wagering the family silver. The whoring would probably have come later were it not for the fact that the birthday boy, much the worse for drink, wagers Beaulieu, the estate he has just inherited from his late and beloved mother, and, after losing it, passes out and has to be carried home.

Seven years later, Damian – now the Earl of Windermere – is on the verge of being able to re-purchase Beaulieu. His plans are thwarted at the last minute when the property is sold to a wealthy merchant who will only return it when Damian marries his rather gauche daughter, Cynthia. Furious and full of resentment, Damian agrees to the proposition; the marriage is hastily performed and consummated, and two weeks later, he leaves England on a diplomatic mission to Persia.

During his absence, Cynthia – whose brief experience of being married was not at all a happy one – has taken to heart his comments about her needing to learn to be the wife of a diplomat. She has taken great trouble to improve her French (the language of diplomacy back then), her deportment, and her appearance and makes such a successful transformation that, on his return to England a year later, her husband fails to recognise her!

So far, so good. But then the Big Misunderstanding raises its ugly head. Damian arrives in London expecting Cynthia to be safely ensconced at Beaulieu, and is therefore surprised to find his London house inhabited. He is even more surprised to espy his wife in the arms of another man, who can be no other than his neighbour and former great friend, Julian Fortescue, now the Duke of Denford. Damian immediately jumps to the conclusion that Cynthia is having an affair with him.

The close friendship between Damian and Densford was more or less obliterated on the night the former lost Beaulieu, but now Damian must try to repair the rift between them in order to carry out the mission with which he has been charged by his superiors at the Foreign Office. Densford is an art dealer, and is believed to have acquired an important collection in France after the Revolution. Damian’s boss wants him to get confirmation that Densford has the collectionand negotiate its acquisition by the British government.

Damian is furious at his wife’s betrayal with a man he now regards as his enemy, but keeps that under wraps, admitting to himself that his behaviour towards her had been inconsiderate and that he needs to make amends in some way. He is, however, determined to put a stop to the affair and to make sure that Cynthia is so in thrall to his amazing skills in the shagging department that she will never want anyone else ever again.

The fact that Damian realises how selfishly he has behaved towards Cynthia is a point in his favour, and I enjoyed the way the author has him begin to woo her by making overtures of friendship rather than embarking upon a seduction. The fact that he doesn’t want to have sex with her until he’s sure she isn’t pregnant by someone else is perhaps less laudable, but it does seem perfectly in character for a man of that time and of Damian’s ilk.

Fortunately, Ms Neville doesn’t allow the Mis to go unchallenged for too long, even though Damian’s reaction leaves much to be desired. But eventually, the ice between the couple begins to thaw, even though Densford’s continued attentions to Cynthia keep Damian’s suspicions alive.

There’s an interesting subplot concerning the conditions and treatment of the women working in the silk factories in the East End of London. Cynthia discovers that a number of young women employed at her uncle’s factory have been raped by his factory manager. When confronted, neither the manager or her uncle give a damn about the issue, so she determines to do what she can to help, and sets up a home where the victims of these assaults and their children can live safely. There is also mention of the Spitalfields Acts, which were designed to regulate the pay of the silk workers and some indication of the political manoeuverings surrounding them which added some informative historical colour.

In spite of my dislike of the set-up, I did enjoy the book and read it in more or less one sitting. The leads have chemistry and I enjoyed the friendship that develops between them. But the romance feels under-developed and we are asked to believe that Damian goes from angry and resentful bridegroom to a man panting after his wife after little more than one glimpse of her and simply because she’s dressing better and has a nicer hairstyle. His behaviour towards Cynthia is inconsistent and his stubborn belief in her infidelity manifests itself in immature fits of the sulks during which he treats her poorly. In fact, there were times I was rooting more for Densford as he seemed to genuinely care for Cynthia, and certainly was able to see her true worth long before her husband did.

The ending is on the silly side and is actually superfluous to requirements, as it serves principally to set up the next book which will be Densford’s story.

If you’ve been following this series, then I think you’ll enjoy this latest addition provided you can accept the premise and the fact that the hero is an arsehole at times. I admit that I didn’t care much for book one (The Importance of Being Wicked), but Lady Windermere’s Lover has restored my faith somewhat, so I will likely be reading the final book in Ms Neville’s Wild Quartet when it appears.

Knave’s Wager by Loretta Chase (audiobook) – narrated by Stevie Zimmerman

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Lilith Davenant, has ample reason to detest Julian Wyndhurst, Marquess of Brandon: he’s exactly the kind of man who hastened the demise of her profligate husband, and the debt he owed to Julian has forced her to an engagement with a wealthy suitor for the sake of supporting her beloved nieces and nephews. Besides that, Lord Julian somehow manages to ignite disturbing…feelings…she’s never felt before!

Lord Julian used his considerable skills and cunning in the war against Napoleon. Now he’s obliged to use the same talents to save his young cousin from a disastrous marriage to a scheming mistress — who makes him a wager: If Julian can seduce the famously icy Lady Lilith Davenant, the lady will release his cousin from the engagement.

But very quickly, Julian discovers Lilith’s hidden warmth, kindness and humor. Will he be able to prove his heart to her before she learns of his recklessly shameless wager?

Rating: Narration B; Content: B+

Knaves’ Wager is one of Loretta Chase’s earlier titles, having originally been published in 1990. The author’s trademark wit and humour are much in evidence, the principal and secondary characters are strongly drawn, and the story features a sweet secondary romance as well as the very well-developed central one. The book also boasts one of her wittiest, sexiest heroes and lots of wonderful, battle-of-the-sexes banter.

Julian Wyndhurst, Marquess of Brandon has recently returned to London from the war-torn continent, having been summoned home to deal with a family emergency – which it turns out is his cousin Robert’s intention to marry his mistress of two years’ standing. Julian is not pleased at having been called back for such a paltry reason, but Robert has not only expressed his desire to marry his chère amie, he has committed his intentions to paper, which puts a completely different complexion on things.

Reluctantly, Julian confronts the young woman fully intending to buy her off, but she is made of sterner stuff and instead proposes a wager. If Julian can seduce the thoroughly proper and upstanding Mrs Davenant within the next eight weeks, she will bow out gracefully, return Robert’s letters and agree never to see him again.

Having already formed the intention of laying siege to the widow’s virtue, and fully cognisant of the effect upon women of his exceptional good looks and confident in his ability to charm the birds from the trees, Julian accepts.

Lilith Davenant is cool, composed and has the reputation of being an ice-queen. She is reserved, but is kind, thoughtful and generous to those who know her best, as well as possessing has a dry sense of humour that she rarely has the opportunity to exercise. Her late husband did not treat her well, and left her in straightened circumstances. Having no children of her own, Lilith has made it her mission to bring out her numerous nieces, but now her finances are dwindling to such an extent that she is forced to consider the idea of marrying again.

Julian, however, will have greater obstacles to overcome than his bad-boy reputation and Lilith’s sense of propriety, for she blames him for her husband’s demise. Even though Davenant was ill, Lilith believes his end was hastened by his association with Julian’s set, and the final indignity was that her husband died owing Julian a very large sum of money, which has caused the depletion of her finances.

Of course, Lilith can’t help but find herself reluctantly drawn to the gorgeous marquess, and of course, he can’t help falling for her and then being too stupid to recognise his feelings for what they really are. But even such a clichéd plotline can’t detract from the sheer joy to be found in this story. The chemistry between the leads is potent, and the author builds the sexual tension between them by slow degrees so that nothing feels rushed or forced. Julian and Lilith eventually manage to put their preconceptions aside and develop a genuine friendship in which they discover that they enjoy each other’s company and like each other as people as much as they are also attracted to each other.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan

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An idealistic suffragette…

Miss Frederica “Free” Marshall has put her heart and soul into her newspaper, known for its outspoken support of women’s rights. Naturally, her enemies are intent on destroying her business and silencing her for good. Free refuses to be at the end of her rope…but she needs more rope, and she needs it now.

…a jaded scoundrel…

Edward Clark’s aristocratic family abandoned him to die in a war-torn land, so he survived the only way he could: by becoming a rogue and a first-class forger. When the same family that left him for dead vows to ruin Miss Marshall, he offers his help. So what if he has to lie to her? She’s only a pawn to use in his revenge.

…and a scandal seven years in the making.

But the irrepressible Miss Marshall soon enchants Edward. By the time he realizes that his cynical heart is hers, it’s too late. The only way to thwart her enemies is to reveal his scandalous past…and once the woman he loves realizes how much he’s lied to her, he’ll lose her forever.

Rating: A

If Courtney Milan’s last book – The Countess Conspiracy – was a love letter to the forgotten women of science, those women who were ridiculed and derided because they dared to encroach upon the male preserve of scientific investigation and discovery, then The Suffragette Scandal is by way of being her panegyric to those women who were ridiculed – and far worse – for their advocacy of the cause of women’s rights.

It’s an extraordinary story, and after I had, with a feeling of immense satisfaction, finished it, my next thought was – “How the hell am I going to do justice to it in a review?!”

The answer to that, of course, is that I can’t. All I can do is encourage you to read it, too, because I can’t imagine that anyone picking it up could fail to be drawn in by the story, which is, as one would expect from Ms Milan, splendidly written, full of warmth and humour, possessed of a wonderful grasp of the social issues of the time, and boasts two complex and very well-rounded central characters.

Each book in her Brothers Sinister series has managed to combine a well-developed love story with some serious social commentary, the latter presented in such a way as to never feel preachy or overly didactic. Her heroines have all been extraordinary women, from Serena, the violated governess who refuses to be invisible, or Violet, the brilliant scientist whose history of repeated tragedy causes her to collapse in upon herself to the point she can’t see herself any more; to Free, passionate activist and campaigner for womens’ rights, who continually places herself in danger because while the world is a terrible place – she refuses to be cowed and is determined to make it better.

Each of these incredible women has met her match in a man who is much more than her perfect mate. Hugo, Robert, Oliver, Sebastian – and now Edward – are all men who do so much more than understand and support their women. They love them for who they are – difficult, challenging women though they may be – and wouldn’t have them any other way. Each of the men is a bit of subversive in his own right – as with Robert, the duke who wants to improve the conditions of the working man, and Sebastian, the joker in the pack who started down his particular path in order to help the woman he adored and along the way, found his true calling and his sense of self-worth along with it.

Edward Clark isn’t a hero. Or, thinks he isn’t. He’s a liar, a forger and a blackmailer, admitting to each of these things quite openly when he first confronts Frederica Marshall with an offer of assistance. Someone in a position of power is out to close down her radical newspaper, The Women’s Free Press, but more than that, is determined to exact a more hurtful and personal revenge against her. For his own reasons, Edward wants to thwart that plan, and has devised the perfect way to do it.

Given all the things Edward tells Free, she is suspicious of his motivations for wanting to help her, but reasoning that the enemy of her enemy is… if not precisely her friend, then at least someone she is willing to listen to, she hears him out. Her enemy is going to have one of her writers arrested for theft on a trumped-up charge and then use that to discredit her. Free goes along with Edward’s scheme to prevent this, and very cleverly pulls the metaphorical rug from under his feet when the job is done. Edward can’t believe she has outwitted him, but rather than going into a male fit of the sulks, he takes it on the chin and admires her for it.

But he is still keeping his motives hidden. He doesn’t tell her that the reporter is a dear friend of his, or that the person seeking to ruin her is actually his younger brother James Delacey, the would-be-Viscount Claridge.

For Edward is the rightful holder of that particular title, but, having been missing for almost seven years is about to be declared legally dead. He doesn’t want the title or all its trappings anyway and is quite content for Edward Delacey to remain dead so his brother can inherit.

We met Frederica Marshall a few times in the previous books; she’s the daughter of Serena and Hugo from The Governess Affair and is Oliver’s (The Heiress Effect) youngest sister. A precocious child, a supremely confident teenager and now a fiercely intelligent and dedicated woman, she has thrown herself into her cause with little regard for her own personal safety, as did so many of those women who sacrificed much to gain little. And that’s another amazing thing about this book – its pragmatism. Free knows she isn’t going to turn the tide of male opinion by publishing her newspaper, or putting on demonstrations. She is under no illusions that change will come overnight – all she can do is chip away, brick by brick at those bastions of male superiority and authority and make enough inroads for those that follow to keep chipping away until the foundations are undermined enough for the walls to crumble. There’s a wonderful moment, where Edward, out of weariness and frustration, points out that she might as well try to drain the Thames using a thimble.

”You see a river rushing by without end. You see a sad collection of women with thimbles, all dripping out an inconsequential amount…

But we’re not trying to empty the Thames… Look at what we’re doing with the water we remove. It doesn’t go to waste. We’re using it to water our gardens, sprout by sprout. We’re growing bluebells and clovers where once there was a desert. All you see is the river, but I care about the roses.”

Free is an idealist, but she’s a realist, too. And that makes her one of the most exceptional heroines I’ve ever come across.

There’s no glib “yay – it’s all going to be plain sailing from now on!” ending, or assurance that things will turn out well. I was left with the impression that here are two people who have enough determination and love for each other to make things work, but that it won’t be easy. And I think that’s been the case for all the couples in this series.

If I have one criticism about the book, it’s that it uses the “I’m a bad man and aren’t good enough for you” trope to put roadblocks in the way of the HEA, but it’s a very, very minor niggle. I was so tied in knots for Edward and the things he had suffered and had to work through as a result, that I honestly didn’t care about that. The relationship between the couple is beautiful, both complex and breathtakingly simple at the same time. He makes things complicated; he doesn’t want to fall in love but he can’t help it; he doesn’t want to hurt Free, but knows it’s unavoidable once she discovers the truth about his identity. But for Free, the hurtful thing isn’t that he lied to her, it’s that he doesn’t trust her to forgive him, or believe they can work things outtogether. He is floored by her reaction, which finally sets him on the road to the realisation that he person he has been lying to more than anyone, the person he really needs to trust is himself.

I say this every time I write a review of a Courtney Milan book, but it’s the truth. I am in awe of her ability to craft a sensual and tender love story while she is also telling me about social injustice, and in this case, the horrors and indignities suffered by so many women, or about the threats and abuse heaped upon the heads of those women who dared to speak out about them.

Courtney Milan’s really is a unique voice in the field of historical romance, a genre which has suffered its fair share of criticism for poor writing and a dearth of good ideas. But with her around, I can, at least, paraphrase Mark Twain and say that “reports of its (HR’s) death are an exaggeration,” because this entire series really does represent the pinnacle of what can be achieved in the genre, and has set the bar incredibly high for everyone else.

This is the final full-length novel in the Brothers Sinister series (there is a “coda” novella to follow in August) and I’ve enjoyed every single one of them immensely.

In for a Penny by Rose Lerner

in for a penny

“Grand Passion or epic disaster?”

Lord Nevinstoke revels in acting the young wastrel, until his father is killed in a drunken duel. Never one to do anything halfway, Nev throws off his wild ways to shoulder a mountain of responsibility and debt vowing to marry a rich girl and act the respectable lord of the manor.

Manufacturing heiress Penelope Brown seems the perfect choice for a wife. She s pretty, proper, and looking for a husband.

Determined to rise above her common birth, Penelope prides herself on her impeccable behavior and good sense. Grand Passion? Vulgar and melodramatic. Yes, agreeing to marry Nev was a rare moment of impulse, yet she’s sure they can build a good marriage based on companionship and mutual esteem.

But when they arrive at the manor, they’re overwhelmed with half-starved tenants, a menacing neighbor, and the family propensity for scandal. As the situation deteriorates, the newlyweds have nowhere to turn but to each other. To Penelope’s surprise, she begins to fervently hope that her first taste of Grand Passion in her husband’s arms won’t be her last.

Rating: A-

Rose Lerner’s début novel In for a Penny was originally published in 2011, but has been out of print for a while due to the demise of Dorchester Publishing. The author’s most recent book, Sweet Disorder (which I also rated highly) was recently published by Samhain, who has now reissued Ms Lerner’s earlier novels, In for a Penny and A Lily Among Thorns. Ms Lerner is a very talented writer who, while setting her stories in the Regency period, has managed, in each of her books so far, to give readers a view of something other than the glittering ballrooms of the ton, combining an eye for historical detail and social observation with a well-developed romance.

Lord Nevinstoke – Nev to his friends – is a character rather in the mould of one of Georgette Heyer’s “wastrel” heroes like Sherry in Friday’s Child; he’s not really a rake, just a young man enjoying all the pleasures of a life “on the town”. Nev’s bachelor existence comes to an abrupt end when his father is killed and is discovered to have left a mountain of debts, leaving Nev in desperate need of funds. So he does what any young nobleman in a similar situation would do, and finds himself an heiress to marry.

Penelope Brown is the daughter of an extremely rich brewer, and although she and Nev have spent only a few minutes in each other’s company, she can’t help being a little bit smitten by such a charming young man. Nev is completely honest about the reasons for his sudden proposal, and Penelope appreciates his honesty, thinking that perhaps she can help him (she has a head for finance and he doesn’t) – so she accepts and they are married without delay. Immediately, I liked both characters for the way they entered into the marriage with their eyes open and the feeling that while they weren’t madly in love, they liked each other and could probably make a go of it.

The newly-weds travel to Nev’s estates, and set about trying to put things to rights. But all is not well, and they encounter distrust and animosity at almost every turn. Ms Lerner turns the focus of her story away from the whirl of the social season, and sets it in a less-than-idyllic countryside in which the farmers and tenants are finding it hard to make ends meet and have suffered years of neglect by the landowner – Nev’s father – who was supposed to be responsible for their welfare.

At the same time as he is learning to run the estate, Nev and Penelope are navigating their way through their new relationship, and finding that’s not all plain sailing either. The couple gets along very well, although Pen’s business acumen sometimes makes Nev feel inadequate, and Pen’s lowly background makes her feel as though she’s not good enough for him. But those sorts of class distinctions don’t matter to Nev. He may be Penelope’s social superior, but he never treats her as anything less than an equal.

But with feelings of inadequacy and insecurity lurking beneath the surface, there is scope for misunderstanding and miscommunication, which stems from both characters’ reluctance to open themselves up to the possibility of their love being one-sided.

While In for a Penny is a superb book, the second half of it becomes a little over-populated with plot-points. We already have a fledgling marriage navigating its way through rocky patches and the unrest bubbling along through the yeomanry who are feeling the pinch because of mechanisation and enclosure. To this are added the oily local magistrate who has his lecherous eyes on Nev’s sister and the even oilier vicar who is taking back-handers, a poaching gang, and, on top of it all, a subplot involving Nev’s ex- mistress, which, personally, I could have happily have dispensed with. Nev and Penny had enough to contend with without all those extraneous issues.

Still, the writing and the characterisation are both excellent, with Nev being the real stand-out character. He is only twenty-three, and at the beginning, is living the high life with nobody to worry about other than himself. His father’s unexpected death hits him hard, but there is never any question in his mind that he must do his duty and take his responsibilities very seriously. There’s a nice sub-plot concerning Nev and his two bosom buddies, and how he comes to see that he’s outgrown them. He’s a terrific hero – honest and hard-working – and his treatment of Penny is simply wonderful, time and again showing how much he cares through small gestures and consideration.

Penny is Nev’s opposite. She’s a commoner and her family has made its money in trade; she has been well educated and brought up as a lady, but there’s no escaping the fact that society looks down on her because of her origins. She’s intelligent, practical and has a sound business mind that is the perfect complement to Nev’s “people skills”.

In for a Penny is a terrific portrait of a marriage of convenience turning slowly into love amid real-life problems like being short of money and having to cope with new and difficult situations. The romance is beautifully developed and has real depth to it, and Ms Lerner’s grasp of the history of the period is sound and used to very good effect. In spite of my comments about the density of the plot in the latter part of the story, I’m nonetheless recommending this delightful book very highly indeed.