How to School Your Scoundrel by Juliana Gray (audiobook) – narrated by Carmen Rose


Princess Luisa has devoted her life to duty, quietly preparing to succeed her father as ruler. Nothing, however, primed her to live on the run, disguised as a personal secretary to a notorious English scoundrel. The earl is just the man to help her reclaim her throne, but Luisa is drawn to her powerful employer in ways she never could never imagine.

Philip, Earl of Somerton, has spent six years married to a woman in love with another man – he refuses to become a fool due to imprudent emotions ever again. Only, as his carefully laid plans for vengeance falter, fate hands him hope for redemption in the form of a beautiful and determined young princess who draws him into a risky game of secrets, seduction, and betrayal. And while his cunning may be enough to save her life, nothing can save him from losing his heart.

Rating: Narration B-; Content B+

This is the third and final book in Ms Gray’s A Princess in Hiding trilogy, in which three royal sisters have to flee their homeland following a revolution. The princesses are transported to England where their uncle, the powerful Duke of Olympia arranges for them to go into hiding disguised as young men. How to School Your Scoundrel focuses on the eldest sister Luisa who, following the assassination of her father, is now the Crown Princess of Holstein-Schweinwald-Huhnhof. At the beginning of the book she arrives, in the guise of Mr Louis Markham, at the home of the Earl of Somerton to apply for the position as his personal secretary.

Anyone who is familiar with Ms Grey’s earlier Affairs by Moonlight trilogy will recognise the Earl as the villain of A Gentleman Never Tells, in which he pursues his estranged wife to Italy with the intention of gaining custody of their five year-old son. I confess that Somerton is the big draw for me when it comes to this book. I’m a sucker for seemingly irredeemable, tortured bad-boys. Unlike so many of the “wicked,” “rakish,” or “rogue” heroes that abound in historical romance today, Somerton really is a black-hearted scoundrel – ruthless, implacable and unscrupulous. He isn’t well liked, he’s feared rather than respected, and he doesn’t give a damn what anyone else thinks of him. Which are, of course, qualities that make him ideally suited to helping to wrest back a kingdom (or, in this case, small German principality).

Somerton finds something admirable in the fact that young Mr Markham not only stands up to him, but shows no fear when doing so, and employs him. As the months pass, they strike up an odd kind of master/servant relationship. Somerton puts up with Mr Markham’s cheek because the man is efficient, straightforward and trustworthy – and his trust is something Somerton does not give lightly or often. There is also the sense of a developing friendship, which is clearly something with which Somerton does not have much experience.

I admit that it does seem odd that Somerton, one of the government’s foremost intelligence masterminds doesn’t see through Luisa’s disguise immediately; I can only presume he is so focused on his own goal of proving his wife’s infidelity and exacting revenge on her lover that he fails to see what is under his nose.

Luisa is growing increasingly concerned for the safety of her sisters and impatient to regain her throne. Things come to a head when an attempt is made on Luisa’s life, and it becomes necessary for her to reveal the truth and ask for Somerton’s help. There’s a lot of humour in the book – I particularly enjoyed the sniping between Somerton and Luisa’s uncle Olympia – as well as an enjoyably complex plot in which the double-dealing and double-double-crossing of the revolutionaries continues to threaten the lives of the princesses.

The love story is emotionally satisfying, too, as Luisa, who has heretofore lived for duty, finds the ideal partner in Somerton. He is not only “the sort of chap who will confound her enemies and do her dirty work, behind the scenes, so she may appear as an unsullied angel to her subjects,” but also a passionate lover who shows her how much more there is to life than duty. And Somerton, a man who has no experience with love or affection, and whose first love cruelly rejected him, finds the woman for him in the form of this loving, loyal young princess, whose good heart refuses to believe the worst of him, and sees honour where he’d believed none remained.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about this and Ms Gray’s previous trilogy is the fact the stories take place concurrently rather than one after the other. The listener gets brief glimpses of events which have taken place in the other books from different points of view. It isn’t necessary to have read or listened to any of the others, as this works fairly well as a standalone, but I definitely think it enhances the experience if one is familiar with the other stories and characters.

I listened to and enjoyed Carmen Rose’s performance in the previous book and am pleased to see she has finished out the series. Her voice is pleasantly modulated and her narration is measured and clear, although sometimes it feels a little on the slow side. She has an occasional tendency to snatch breaths mid-sentence, which leads to some odd vocal inflections, and I noticed a few mis-pronunciations (although not too many).

Ms Rose differentiates clearly between all the characters and performs male roles well by using a variety of timbres and accents. The Duke of Olympia, who has been a background presence in the other stories, here assumes a more prominent secondary role, and she differentiates clearly between him and Somerton – they’re easily distinguishable in the numerous scenes in which they both appear.

It must be a challenge to represent a female character who is pretending to be a man using only one’s voice. Does one choose to voice the character in a masculine way to help to perpetuate the deception being practiced within the story, or represent them in the same way – as female – throughout? Ultimately, I think Ms Rose has found the happy medium here, by performing Luisa at the lower end of her range, which still allows her to pitch Somerton and Olympia a little bit lower.

The Princess in Hiding trilogy has proved to be an entertaining series. None of the reservations I’ve expressed about the narration are serious enough to have adversely affected my enjoyment of the story. Overall , Carmen Rose delivers an accomplished and nuanced performance.


Douglas: Lord of Heartache (Lonely Lords #8) by Grace Burrowes


Douglas Allen needs a home for his aching heart

Douglas Allen, Viscount Amery, hates having arrived to his title without knowing how to manage his properties. Guinevere Hollister is a distant family connection raising her daughter in rural obscurity while stewarding the estate. Douglas reluctantly puts himself in Gwen’s hands for lessons in land husbandry and discovers beneath her prickly exterior a woman of passion and honor. Yet despite the closeness they find, she will not marry him.

Guinevere Hollister needs a champion

When the powerful Duke of Moreland arranges an engagement between Gwen and his heir, Douglas knows the marriage is not what Gwen wants. In Douglas’s eyes, Gwen deserves to make her own choices, and he will take on family, the meddling duke, and Gwen’s own lonely, stubborn heart to ensure his lady’s happiness.

Rating: A

When we met Douglas Allen, Viscount Amery in Andrew, he came across as rather cold, unfailingly correct and a bit stand-offish, so it was perhaps a little difficult to imagine him as the romantic hero of his own book.

To be fair, he has bloody good reason to be all those things. His older brother has just died, leaving him with a mountain of debts, an estate that he has never been trained to run and a younger brother and mother who complain of his every effort to curb their spending; and added to that, he is suspected by the Alexander brothers (Gareth and Andrew) and David, Viscount Fairly of possibly trying to cause harm to his sister-in-law and her unborn child. So Douglas is a man with a lot of crosses to bear, and one who, it’s made clear in the earlier book, has always been the odd-one-out of his family. Not at all gregarious as his brothers were, Douglas is the steady-hand, the practical one, which didn’t make him popular with his immediate family, who all saw him as a killjoy.

In Douglas, our eponymous hero is still struggling to repay his debts and to rebuild his life as best he can. Both his brothers are dead and his mother is very ill and he has no other family or close friends to whom he can turn for help or for simple companionship. Fortunately for him, by the end of Andrew, he’s been more or less adopted by the Alexanders and Worthingtons, all of whom prove to be steadfast friends.

One of Andrew’s estates, Enfield, is managed by his cousin, Guinevere (Gwen) Hollister. She is all but a recluse, having retired there after the birth of her illegitimate daughter, Rose, who is now five years old. Gwen is very self-reliant and even the mighty Alexander brothers are somewhat in awe of her and have tended to leave her to herself, because it has seemed to them that that is what Gwen wants. It’s what Gwen thinks she wants, too – until she is brought to see the disadvantages such isolation could bring to her daughter, as well as to realise that perhaps having someone else to shoulder some of her burdens may not be such an insupportable idea.

Gwen is a very good land-steward, so it’s to her that Andrew sends Douglas for guidance and instruction concerning estate management. His father and elder brother never bothered to learn much about the land they owned other than how to spend what money they could squeeze from it, and Douglas wants to retrench and start over. Andrew has offered to sell him one of his estates, and has suggested that Douglas asks Gwen to visit it with him to look it over and give him an honest opinion of its worth and its future viability.

Anyone who has read Ms Burrowes’ first published novel, The Heir, will have met Douglas, Gwen and Rose before, and will know a little of their backstory, which is fully fleshed-out in this book. Gwen’s experience with men left her badly burned emotionally, and she is determined never to place her trust in one of them again. But she can’t help but be won over by Douglas who is ever respectful and properly behaved towards her. He is a truly gentle man (and a lovely beta hero), one she comes to know she can rely on to do the right thing and who will never hurt her. Both Gwen and Douglas are misfits, but together, they find companionship, shared understanding and reawaken emotions so long buried they had forgotten they’d ever existed.

I applaud Ms Burrowes for the way she has turned Douglas from the aloof man we met in Andrew into a romantic lead without giving him a major personality transplant. He’s still very much the same man from the earlier book; still very proper and somewhat reserved, and it’s lovely to watch him loosen up when he’s around Gwen and Rose and to admit the possibility of affection into his life.

There is, of course, a nice big dollop of angst in the story, which comes when Gwen has to make a horrible choice between doing what she believes is the best thing for her daughter, or being with the man she has come to love – it wouldn’t be a Grace Burrowes book without it. And the crazy thing is that she does this to me book after book after book – I know it’s coming, and I still sit here sniffling and trying to locate the nearest box of tissues! (Which is in no way a complaint – I seem to have become addicted.)

The other thing I loved about the book is the Alexander/Worthington alliance and the way that Gareth, Andrew and David have taken Douglas under their collective wing. They regard him as family, even though his connection to them is fairly tenuous (his elder brother was married to Astrid, who is now Andrew’s wife, and also Gareth’s sister-in-law). The idea of these three very wealthy, very powerful men trying their hand at matchmaking is rather funny, and the scenes which feature the three of them are among the highlights of the book. The way they and their womenfolk rally around Douglas and Gwen at a time of crisis is truly touching and really brings home the importance this author places on family and familial relationships.

This one is joining Darius and Ethan as one of my favourite books in the Lonely Lords series.

Accidentally in Love (novella) by Claudia Dain


Miss Emeline Harlow has loved Kit Culley all her life and is going to marry him. Unfortunately, Kit doesn’t know that.

Growing up together in Wiltshire has given Kit the odd idea that he and Emeline are practically siblings. They are not. Now that they are both in London for the 1804 Season, Emeline is going to prove it to him. Emeline and Kit both have mothers who are determined that they marry into the peerage, but that isn’t going to stop Emeline from using every ploy she can think of to get Kit to realize that he loves her.

What Emeline quickly realizes is that growing up in Wiltshire has not prepared her to have “ploys.” She does, however, have Lady Eleanor Kirkland as a new London friend and Eleanor is very sophisticated for a girl just Out, and she has very sophisticated Town connections, one of them being Sophia Dalby, ex-courtesan and widowed countess.

Between Eleanor and Emeline, Kit and Lord Raithby, Emeline’s mother and Kit’s mother, Emeline’s three younger brothers, and with a final push from Sophia Dalby, there are ploys aplenty. Find out how Kit falls accidentally in love in this lighthearted Regency romp, a novella in the More Courtesan Chronicles series.

Rating: D+

As well as being part of Ms Dain’s Courtesan Chronicles series, this novella is also one of a series of mixed-genre novellas from Red Door Reads. It’s light and fluffy, written with a deft touch – and it certainly passed an hour or so pleasantly, but it’s rather too insubstantial for my tastes.

The plot can be summed up as follows: Emeline Harlow has been in love with her childhood friend, Kit Cullen, for as long as she can remember, but he doesn’t seem to have noticed or share her feelings. How is she going to get him to fall in love with her?

And that’s it.

It’s fun and frothy, and while Emeline’s constant “oh, he’s soooooo gorgeous, but he’s so thick not to have noticed me!” is a bit overdone, it’s written with a gentle humour that makes it less than grating.

The writing flows well, and we are introduced to various characters who will no doubt make appearances in future stories. But the characterisation is shallow overall, and Kit is presented as rather a “mummy’s boy”, something which clearly annoys Emeline, as on the couple of occasions in the story when she and Kit have an actual conversation, she confronts him about it.

There is little dialogue, although what there is is perfectly fine.

Would I read this again? Has it interested me in reading more in the series? Probably not, on both counts.

If you’ve got an hour to spare and are in the mood for something akin to a very frothy cappuccino – one that’s all froth and hardly any coffee – then this might suit. But if you want to read a novella that delivers on the coffee, stick to Courtney Milan.

Raven’s Bride by Lynn Kerstan


She tried to rob him. And then she stole his heart.

If a mysterious assassin gets his way, Ashton Cordell, the Earl of Ravensby, will die without leaving an heir. Five years ago, that assassin murdered the Earl’s wife and unborn child, and Ashton has dodged repeated attempts on his life since then. Now reclusive and wary, he takes no chances when two highwaymen attempt to rob him one dark night. Killing one of them, he takes the other prisoner, only to discover a beautiful and sharp-witted young woman beneath a robber’s hood.

Glenys Shea is at his mercy, and she knows it—even more so after her devoted young brother, an apprentice street thief, barges in to save her. Ashton quickly realizes that the pair are good-hearted and loyal despite following in the footsteps of their father—the robber Ashton killed. Glenys wins him over with her kindness, intelligence, and empathy for the tortured life he leads.

Together they concoct a scheme to lure the assassin to light, but as their plan progresses, danger lurks at every turn, and their growing love only serves to make the stakes even higher.

Rating: C+

This is a digital reissue of a book originally published in 1996.

Ashton Cordell, Earl of Ravensby has, for the past six years, been trying to find out who murdered his wife and unborn child – and who is out to deal him the same fate. As a matter of self-preservation, he has become a recluse, holed up in his ancestral home of Ravenrook, where he is constantly surrounded by a small army of bodyguards.

One night, his coach is held-up by highwaymen, and in the ensuing confusion, Ash shoots and kills one of them. The younger of the two men is taken for questioning – and discovered not to be a young man at all, but a young woman, and the dead man was her father. At first, Ash is convinced that the pair must have been hired to kill him, but when the girl’s brother arrives with more information, he realises his error.
This leaves Ash with rather a dilemma – what to do with the two young people? He comes to see that they’re decent and loyal, and finds he feels a degree of responsibility for them. He doesn’t want to hand them over to the magistrate – so he takes them in temporarily, with the idea of eventually sending them over to America to make a fresh start.

In the meantime, Glenys, who is independent, clever and shrewd, with a perennially sunny disposition – wants to know why Ash thought she and her father had been paid to kill him; in fact, wants to know why anyone would want to kill him. Ash is very reserved and doesn’t give much away, but it’s clear he’s rather a lost soul, and Glenys is doggedly determined to draw him out. More than anything, she wants to make him smile and bring him back from whatever dark place he’s been in for the past six years. Along the way, she falls head-over-heels for him, (of course) but doesn’t hold out any hopes that there can ever be anything between them. For one thing, he’s an earl, and she’s the daughter of an ex-soldier (although her mother was the daughter of a marquess), and for another, he’s drop-dead gorgeous and she’s plain and lacking in the most basic of feminine graces and accomplishments.

Raven’s Bride moves along at a good pace and is a well put-together story; and while the characterisation isn’t particularly deep, the two protagonists are likeable and attractive. Glenys is like a force of nature – she breezes into Ash’s life determined to help him (whether he wants it or not), which can admittedly be rather an annoying trait; but there’s something so good-natured and endearing about her that pulls her back from the brink of being annoying-as-hell. She is a natural optimist and is not easily cowed, and even when she faces setbacks, she puts them behind her and determines to move on. Ash is almost her complete opposite; he’s austere and reserved, and has been reactive rather than proactive over the last six years. Glenys shows him that, and convinces him that the only way he can be free of the threat hanging over him is to get out there and confront it, rather than waiting for it to find him. The identities of the villains are fairly obvious (well, one of them is), but that doesn’t detract from the story as a whole.

The romance is quite nicely done, although I wish we’d seen a little more of it from Ash’s point of view. Overall Raven’s Bride is a quick and entertaining romantic mystery that’s certainly worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time, although I’m not sure it’s something I’ll revisit.

The Rules of Seduction by Madeline Hunter

rules seduction

Dangerous. Sensual. Handsome as sin. Meet Hayden Rothwell, the shamelessly erotic hero of The Rules of Seduction and author Madeline Hunter’s most irresistible alpha male yet: a man of extraordinary passion and power, a man who can bring out the seductress in any woman.…

He enters her home without warning or invitation–a stranger of shadowy motives and commanding sensuality. Within hours, Alexia Welbourne is penniless, without any hope of marriage. Until Hayden Rothwell takes her to bed. When one impulsive act of passion forces Alexia to marry the very man who has ruined her, Hayden’s seduction of Alexia is nearly complete. What Alexia doesn’t know is that her irresistible new husband is driven by a secret purpose–and a debt of honor he will risk everything to repay. Alexia is the wild card. Reluctant to give up their nightly pleasures, Hayden must find a way to keep Alexia by his side…only to be utterly, thoroughly seduced by a woman who is now playing by her own rules.

Rating: B

I haven’t read many books by this author, and judging from various reviews I’ve seen, she can be a bit hit-and-miss for many, but I enjoyed this, and was particularly impressed with the way she utilises a specific historical event (the stock market crash of 1825) to provide both background detail and impetus for her story.

Lord Hayden Rothwell, brother of the eccentric Marquess of Easterbrook is a highly successful and skilled financier, as well as being a mathematical genius on the quiet. He is a man who keeps himself tightly controlled and is not subject to whim or impulse; everything he does is carefully considered and calculated, which has earned him a fearsome reputation in both high society and in financial circles.

Several years previously he, like many of his peers, travelled to Greece to fight in the war of independence against Turkey. Were it not for the actions of his friend, Benjamin Longworth, Hayden would have been killed – and that debt of honour is one that Hayden holds sacred, even four years after Benjamin’s death at sea. Because of that debt, Hayden now finds himself in an impossible situation, having discovered that Benjamin’s brother, Timothy, has been embezzling funds from the bank in which both he and Ben were partners. Hayden has no alternative but to confront Longworth with his knowledge; but owing Ben his life means he is not willing to throw Longworth to the wolves. He comes up with a way for Longworth to avoid the gallows – but it will mean repaying as much of the missing money as he can and then learning to live within his now meagre means.

Bound by his word never to reveal the truth to Longworth’s sisters and the impoverished cousin who lives with them, Hayden has to endure the misplaced enmity of the entire Longworth household. It’s not that he cares overmuch, even when rumour begins to circulate that he deliberately ruined the family, but it’s an inconvenience, especially when Hayden finds himself unexpectedly drawn to the Longworths’ cousin, Alexia Welbourne. He is impressed by her dignity even as she makes clear her dislike and disdain, and he can’t help rising to the tempting bait she presents, sensing that beneath her controlled exterior, she’s seething with frustration and unable to help thinking of other ways he would like to rouse her passions.

Alexia can’t deny that Hayden is a very handsome man, and against her will and better judgement she is attracted to him. But she is convinced it is a transient thing, and instead still clings to the memory of Ben, with whom she was in love. Before leaving for Greece, he had – she believes – promised to marry her, although he didn’t actually propose. He had no such intentions, of course, but she has remained unaware of that, and is clearly more in love with Ben’s memory and the idea of being in love, than she was with the man himself.

Realising that her cousins’ impoverished state means Alexia will not be able to continue to live with them, he arranges for her to take a position as his aunt’s companion and governess to his cousin who is to make her début this season. As the ladies will be taking up residence in the Longworth’s former home, Alexia will not have to leave or try to find other employment.

Because of his aunt’s demands that he dance attendance upon her and his cousin, Hayden is often in company with Alexia. He’s well aware that his aunt has designs upon him on her daughter’s behalf, but he’s interested only in Alexia and is prepared to put up with his relations in order to spend time with her. His continued presence makes her feel rather uncomfortable because she is starting to find much in him to admire, and to more than like the way he makes her feel when he kisses her. She can’t understand it – how can she feel such an intense attraction to a man she doesn’t even like?

After passionate kisses turn suddenly and unexpectedly into lovemaking, Alexia believes Hayden intends to make her his mistress. She decides to be practical and accept his offer of carte blanche with the intention of putting aside enough money and jewellery to support her comfortably after he leaves her and to offer her cousins what help they will accept.

She is stunned to receive an offer of marriage instead.

She knows that this will cause a serious breach between her and her cousins, who are her only family; yet Hayden is offering her a comfortable life, and one filled with passion for as long as they want it, for neither of them can deny the intensity of the sexual pleasure they experienced together. Prepared to live in a marriage of convenience in which both partners lead separate lives, Alexia can’t ignore the small voice at the back of her mind telling her that when her husband eventually strays from her bed, it will hurt like the devil.

While there are elements of miscommunication in the story, they don’t reach the level of the silly Big Misunderstanding, the sole existence of which is to provide easily resolvable conflict. There are issues between Hayden and Alexia that take time to resolve, it’s true, but for the most part they DO talk honestly. There is one important exception, however, which is Hayden’s request to Alexia early on that there should only ever be the two of them in their bed. He means it mostly as a reference to Ben, as he believes that although Alexia is a passionate and very willing bed-mate, she is still carrying a torch for his old friend; but she interprets it very literally, and never speaks of her problems in the bedroom, often reminding Hayden of his request on those occasions he asks what is troubling her.

While I do have a few minor quibbles about the book as a whole, the storyline is very well put-together both in terms of the romance and the plot concerning Hayden’s following of the money-trail as he tries to work out exactly who stole what and what happened to the money. There’s a brilliant and unexpected twist towards the end, which I didn’t see coming, but which, looking back on it, is subtly signposted.

The characterisation of both leads is very good, and there is plenty of chemistry between them. I liked that they actually talk to each other quite a lot, and especially enjoyed the way that Ms Hunter allows the romance to build slowly. Hayden is a delicious hero – tall, dark and handsome of course, but he’s also defined by an air of competence and a deep intensity and sensuality that make a heady cocktail! Alexia is practical and intelligent, and while there were times I didn’t agree with her actions, they nonetheless made sense within the terms of the plot. She resists her attraction to Hayden while he is determined to foster it – and in doing to, he falls hard and has to learn to accept that there are some things he can’t control. But he is also considerate and never treats his wife with anything other than respect – he values her opinions and her spirit, and is sensible of the fact that she needs to make her own decisions about him. With time, Alexia comes to see that her new husband is a man of honour and integrity, and to finally have her suspicions that perhaps the Longworths’ ruin was not his fault.

The Rules of Seduction is an enjoyable read featuring a well-developed love story set against a very intriguing historical background. There are three more books in the series, which I certainly intend to check out at some point on the strength of this one.

Never Trust a Pirate (Scandal at the House of Russell #2) by Anne Stuart


Madeleine Russell, the beautiful daughter of a shipping magnate, counted on marrying a wealthy husband. Then her father’s disgrace and death left her with no dowry and no suitor. But Maddy and her sisters fully intend to restore their good name. Their first step: find the villain who framed their family. One of her father’s captains, a notorious former pirate, becomes a prime suspect. When Maddy joins the captain’s household disguised as his newest servant, her dark-eyed, charismatic employer soon develops his own agenda: seduction…

Captain Thomas Morgan spent most of his life amassing vast riches and respectability…and keeping his gypsy roots a secret. Now, he just needs to marry his prim, polished fiancée…and resist his intriguing new housemaid. A pirate never falls in love, he reminds himself. As mutual deception leads Maddy and the captain into uncharted territory, the truth could anchor them to terrible heartache…or to passion beyond their wildest dreams.

Rating: C

This is the second book in Ms Stuart’s Scandal at the House of Russell trilogy, and it features the middle Russell sister, Madeleine.

Eustace Russell, a wealthy shipping magnate, died suddenly at the beginning of the first book (Never Kiss a Rake), having widely been believed to have embezzled huge sums of money from his company. His death, immediately following the discovery, looked like suicide, but his daughters are not at all convinced – and a scribbled note in their father’s hand warning them not to trust his business partners makes them even more determined to prove that he was murdered.

The girls have been left with nothing, so while Bryony remains in London to investigate her father’s relationship with the Earl of Kilmartyn, Madeleine and Sophie are sent to Somerset to stay with their old nurse, Nanny Gruen.

When the news reaches them of Bryony’s marriage to Kilmartyn, and the couple’s subsequent flight from England, the sisters realise that the earl can have had nothing to do with their father’s death, and Madeleine determines that it’s now up to her to continue the investigation. Taking a leaf out of her sister’s book (Bryony had gone to work as Kilmartyn’s housekeeper), she obtains a position as a housemaid in the home of Captain Thomas Morgan, a man of whom her father had been very fond.

Believing a salty old-sea-dog is going to be somewhat grandfatherly, she is naturally surprised when Morgan turns out to be a gorgeous, dark-eyed half-gypsy with a penchant for open collars (thus flashing heretofore unimagined areas of male flesh) and a gold earring, who isn’t even thirty.

The half-gypsy sea-captain’s name isn’t Thomas or Morgan; he’s Luca, abandoned by his gypsy mother in the streets of London where he did what he had to do to survive, which seems to have included a period spent as a rent-boy. One night, he wasn’t quick enough to evade the press gang, and ended up on board ship where, unusually for a gypsy, he discovered an affinity for the sea. Since then, he’s worked his way up, becoming Eustace Russell’s most efficient and profitable partner, and is now rich enough to have purchased a number of Russell’s ships after the company’s collapse. He is currently negotiating the purchase of the Maddy Rose one of the last clipper ships to have been built by the company – and named after the middle Russell daughter.

Maddy manages to blag her way into the housemaid job and is immediately tasked with doing absolutely everything – cleaning, mending, more cleaning – by the lazy housekeeper who, it seems, does very little other than a bit of cooking. Maddy is permanently exhausted, but being the sort of girl she is – stubborn, and damned if she’ll let a woman like Mrs Crozier get the better of her – determines to do everything to the best of her ability. Even though she’s not used to such hard work, she throws herself into it as she tries to work out how to get into the captain’s study so she can go through his papers looking for evidence of his involvement in her father’s death.

What she doesn’t know is that Luca has recognised her, and after his initial fury at her presence in his house and her deception has abated, he decides to wait it out until he can work out exactly what she’s up to.

It’s a decent story, and there’s plenty of sexual tension between the leads but… there’s just something missing in this book and I’m not exactly sure what it is. Luca is very sexy, but he’s not quite in the usual Anne-Stuart bad-boy mould. He’s a ruthless businessman to be sure, and he talks a harsh game when it comes to Maddy (he insists he’ll shag her a few times and then cast her off) – but he’s clearly a decent bloke underneath the swagger, and there’s never any doubt about that. Of course, we all know that a hero – even an Anne Stuart hero – is going to turn out that way, but there’s none of the edginess to him that one has come to expect from this particular author. Of the other hand, he’s clearly had an interesting (to say the least!) past. He and one of his friends made money “servicing gentlemen” and there’s a throwaway line to the effect that he’d been raped – what?! But neither of those things is expanded upon. I’m not saying I wanted him to be angst-ridden and full of insecurities – if there’s one thing Luca isn’t, it’s insecure, and it makes a change to find a hero who is actually pretty well-adjusted. But Luca’s character isn’t particularly well fleshed-out, and I’m not sure if this is due to lack of space or time, or some other reason.

Maddy is more of a well-rounded character. She’s the beauty of the family, the one who was expected to make a grand marriage, and who, until their father’s demise, was fighting off the young bucks with a stick. Well, all except one, with whose stick she became acquainted before he buggered off to South America the morning after. But Maddy is a tough cookie, and although she’s hurt by the man’s rejection, she doesn’t show it, and gets ready to rejoin the fray that is the marriage mart. Her father’s death changes everything of course, and now, Maddy is left with just the one suitor – a much older man who already has his heir and spare (and more), but he’s an earl, and Maddy hopes he’ll shuffle off this mortal coil fairly soon and leave her a rich widow.

The plot is fairly predictable, and we are once again introduced to the mysterious Mr Brown – now calling himself Griffiths (which, incidentally, is the name of the hero of the next book), who is still suffering from the injuries sustained as a result of his attempts to do away with Kilmartyn and Bryony in the previous book. Now he’s out to get rid of Maddy, although we still don’t quite know why – I imagine the whys and wherefores will be revealed in the final story.

I didn’t dislike Never Trust a Pirate, but perhaps, being the middle book of a trilogy meant that it was treading water somewhat. I also felt that it was narrative-heavy and that there wasn’t as much interaction between Luca and Maddy as I’d have liked. But I’ll still be reading Never Marry a Viscount because I want to see how it all turns out.

Betraying Mercy by Amber Lin


Can she be more than a mistress?

With a tarnished reputation, Mercy Lyndhurst expected to become the Earl of Rochford’s mistress, not his wife. Immediately abandoned by her husband after their wedding, Mercy transformed herself from commoner to countess, vowing to protect the lands and people her husband was forced to leave.

Over the past six years, William has restored the family fortune all the while tortured by his memories of Mercy…and the dark night he killed a man. When a threat draws him home, William learns just how much has changed—including his wife. While the passion still flares between them, he fears he has wounded her too badly to regain her trust. But as the danger grows they must unite to save the estate…and possibly their marriage.

Rating: C-

As someone who enjoys stories of second-chance romance, I was intrigued by the synopsis of this book, which indicates that the central couple has been apart for six years. I settled in for a story of love re-kindled and forgiveness earned…which isn’t quite what I got.

Betraying Mercy begins very well indeed. Amber Lin expertly evokes an atmosphere of eerie menace as the newly minted Earl of Rochford returns to his family home full of grief, anger and guilt. His mother’s death is widely believed to have been suicide, but with no proof, William insisted upon her burial in the family crypt. When he discovers that her resting place has been defiled, he is furious, his wrath adding fuel to the fires of rage he already feels as the result of his guilt over not having done more to prevent her death. In his fury, he commits a heinous act – he shoots and kills the man responsible for tampering with her grave and then burning her remains. But this man – Jasper Lyndhurst – attempts to evade William’s retribution by threatening the life of his (Jasper’s) youngest daughter, so one could argue that William’s action is justifiable.

The girl he saves is the heroine’s younger sister. William and Mercy Lyndhurst more or less grew up together, but she is the daughter of a common farmer, and he is the son of an earl, so there was never any possibility of anything between them but friendship. But Mercy sees the darkness that is eating William up and determines to offer him solace in the one way she can think of – by going to his bed. At first, he rejects her, determined not to add to his list of sins committed that night. But Mercy persists, expecting nothing more than to perhaps become his mistress, which is why, in the morning, she is astonished when he rounds up a vicar and witnesses and marries her.

I was drawn in by the first quarter of the book, although I felt that there was perhaps a little too much that was left vague. I never felt as though I quite understood either of the characters’ motivations, but I decided that was probably a deliberate move on the part of the author, and that all would be revealed later.

Immediately after the impromptu wedding (which I question, because there was no mention of a Special License, and the banns had not been read), William rides away, and does not return.

Six years pass during which he pursues his business interests at sea. Every year upon his return to England, he enquires of his London solicitor as to Mercy’s situation, and every year, he is told that she is fine, and he goes back to sea. But on this particular occasion, the solicitor gives William a note which says that Mercy is in danger – and he heads home to find out what is happening.

In the intervening time, Mercy has re-invented herself as the Countess of Rochford. Gone is the bedraggled waif that William married and in her place is a cool, highly competent woman who has not only renovated herself and William’s home, but has also rejuvenated the local village. The novel is set in the 1780s, at a time when mechanisation was drawing many labourers to factories for the higher wages, leading to a neglect of the land and mass migration. When a new cotton factory is built nearby, Mercy sets up a business of her own to provide employment for their tenants and village inhabitants.

William returns to a cool reception. His wife is clearly not pleased to see him and wants him gone as soon as possible. She has no reason to want him there, and he has no reason to want to stay – all he does want to do is make sure she is safe and be on his way. But an incident at Mercy’s factory convinces William that whoever sent the note was right, and that he needs to stay to find out who is responsible and stop them.

For a fairly short novel, even by Category standards, there is quite a lot of plot in Betraying Mercy. But that means that there is no time for the development of a romance between the protagonists. We are told that they have thought about each other constantly while they were apart; we are told they are attracted to each other, but we are never really shown it. In fact, they spend more time apart than together, which is a major flaw in any romance. More time is spent in the workshop of the factory as Mercy tries to repair the damage resulting from the “accident”, or on discussions of the business and the implications for village life than on their relationship, or on any resolution of the questions raised in the earlier part of the book.

We are also asked to believe that Mercy, who, as the daughter of a poor farmer is unlikely to have received much of an education, if any, has, in the six years since William’s departure, acquired the skills to set up and run a business. And not only that, it seems that she has taught herself engineering as well. I’m afraid this is a bit too much of a stretch for my credulity.

If the story had continued in the way it had begun, I’d probably have given it a much higher grade, but unfortunately, the tone of the opening is never regained, and it ends up as rather a nondescript and not very romantic romance. The writing is good for the most part (although there are several glaring Americanisms used) but the storytelling is disjointed, with the book feeling like a series of snapshots rather than a cohesive narrative.

Ms. Lin has created a couple of intriguing characters who are both haunted in some way – she by her father’s violence and abuse, and he by his mother’s death and the fact that he allowed his anger to lead him to murder and to, as he thinks, debase a young woman he cared for. But they are not fully fleshed out, and the reader never gets to know them in anything but a superficial manner.

To sum up, Betraying Mercy feels like the bare bones of a potentially good story, but the author’s failure to put any meat on them leads to an ultimately unsatisfying read.