The Duke and the Lady in Red by Lorraine Heath

duke and lady in red

When Rosalind Sharpe gains the attention of the deliciously wicked Duke of Avendale, she’s torn between her distracting attraction to the notorious rogue and the knowledge that he—rich as Croesus—is the perfect target for a deception that will put her swindling days behind her.

However, Avendale is no fool. After he discovers the tantalizing lady packing up to leave London with his coins in tow, he confronts her with a scandalous proposition: she can have all the money she requires…for a week in his bed.

Desperate for the funds, Rose agrees, but on one condition: he must never question her motives. Avendale quickly sees beneath her mask and discovers she is more than passion and pleasure—she is everything he has ever desired. But claiming her requires he unveil her secrets and lose her forever. Unless he can put his own dark past aside and risk everything for a chance at love.

Rating: B+

I’ve read and enjoyed the previous books in this trilogy – When the Duke Was Wicked and Once More My Darling Rogue, finding both to be enjoyable with strongly written central characters and well developed romances. My favourite by a nose is the first, which is a really emotional read that delivered more than one metaphorical punch to the gut and made me tear up several times.

I was surprised when The Duke and the Lady in Red produced a similar emotional reaction (albeit for different reasons), because when I started reading, it seemed to be a variation on a theme: wealthy, handsome, arrogant aristocrat with-a-trauma-in-his-past-that-makes-him-eschew-the-finer-emotions-and-hide-his-true-nature-behind-a mask-of-the-dissipated-scoundrel meets and is intrigued by an adventurous-widow-who-doesn’t-swoon-at-his-feet-or-seem-as-though-she’ll-succumb-to-his-charms-without-a-lengthy-chase. But I don’t mind tropes when they are handled skilfully, so I settled in for an enjoyable – if predictable read – with just the teeniest bit of disappointment at the thought that this book wasn’t going to live up to the standards set by the other two.

How wrong I was. Yes, the Duke of Avendale is immensely rich, immensely arrogant – and immensely bored. He’s reached a point at which nothing much interests him; he indulges in drink, women and gambling almost automatically and takes little pleasure in anything, until one evening, he glimpses a striking woman he’s never seen before, wearing a seductively cut red dress and falls immediately into lust with her. Accustomed to getting exactly what he wants when he wants it, Avendale relishes the fact that here is a woman who doesn’t throw herself at him, and thus begins a rather deliciously sexy game of cat and mouse. Mrs Rosalind Sharpe is a widow recently returned to England following the death of her husband in India – or at least that’s the story she’s putting around. In fact, she’s a con artist looking for her next mark, and even though she senses that Avendale has the potential to ruin her in more ways than one, she’s as strongly attracted to him as he to her, and she can’t resist the idea of getting close enough to him to get what she wants while knowing she’ll have to be on her mettle if she’s to avoid succumbing to his seduction.

The sparks fly immediately, and it’s a wonder my Kindle didn’t short-circuit from the onslaught of the heat between them! Avendale fully expects that once he’s slaked his lust for Rose, he’ll tire of her, just as with all the other women he’s bedded, and Rose is perfectly aware of that fact. But even so, when he uncovers her deception and furiously demands she spends a week in his bed, she can’t find it in herself to refuse. It’s true that he threatens to expose her as a thief and swindler, but there’s more to it than that for Rose, because she wants to be with him. For all her adult life, has never had time for a life of her own or been able to put her own needs and wants first. Avendale’s dangerous sensuality enthrals her, the knowledge that there’s another man behind the mask of the debauched scoundrel intrigues her – and everything about him combines to make her want to know what’s behind it.

So far, so predictable – until suddenly, the author pulls a blinder in the form of Rose’s brother, Harry. He’s the one Rose has been trying so hard to protect, the one for whom she’s been scheming and stealing ever since they ran away from their abusive father when Rose was seventeen and Harry a couple of years younger. I don’t want to give away too much, but Harry is a wonderful character, a young man who hasn’t been able to have a normal life due to illness. It does perhaps require rather a large suspension of disbelief to credit that Avendale, the ultimate selfish bastard, befriends him and goes way above and beyond the call of duty to show him kindness and even to bond with him; but it’s an easy suspension to make because of the way Ms Heath uses their friendship to tell us as much about Avendale as she does about Harry. And the fact that Avendale has been written – up to this point – as a man who doesn’t know how desperate he is for real companionship (or one who knows, but won’t admit it, even to himself) makes this part of the book perfectly believable. We’re finally shown the man he could, should and would be, were it not for a youthful misunderstanding – a man with a huge capacity for love and kindness who has not had an outlet for either.

It was this aspect of the book that floored me and left me unable to pick up another book for at least twenty-four hours. The romance is very well done, it’s true, but it’s Harry’s story – and indirectly Avendale’s journey towards self-discovery – that made the deepest impression on me.

Rose and Avendale are strongly drawn characters and the push-and-pull between them is brilliantly written as both of them struggle to make sense of a relationship borne out of the debt of one to the other. Their verbal exchanges are like beautifully choreographed fencing bouts – both of them circling, advancing and retreating in a way which is both utterly enthralling and frustrating, yet wonderful to read. Avendale quickly realises he wants Rose to be with him because she wants to be and not out of any sense of obligation. Rose is pragmatic, convinced that once she’s gone, it’ll be “out of sight out of mind”, for Avendale, and is determined to make the most of the time they have. Her easy acceptance of their circumstances send the wrong signals to Avendale, who is, beneath the arrogance, someone with little sense of self-worth, and unable to believe that Rose would be with him were it not for her indebtnedness to him.

The Duke and the Lady in Red is a beautifully written and highly emotional read that really tugs at the heartstrings. What started out as a re-tread of familiar tropes is skilfully turned into something far richer and multi-layered; and most of all, Ms Heath made me care about her characters so that I was compelled to keep reading. I deliberated over the final grade for my review for a while, but because I had a couple of issues – mostly to do with the nature of the trauma in Avendale’s past and its resolution – it’s missed the DIK bracket by a hairsbreadth. But even so, it’s a very enjoyable book and one I’m strongly recommending.

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The Likelihood of Lucy (Regency Reformers #2) by Jenny Holiday

likelihood of lucy

She would never bow to any man…

London, 1815

Trevor Bailey is on the cusp of opening the greatest hotel in London. His days as a guttersnipe are behind him, as he enjoys a life of wealth, society, and clandestine assignments as a spy in the service of the Crown. Until one tumultuous night churns up the past he’d long left behind…

Turned out by her employer for her radical beliefs, Lucy Greenleaf reaches out to the man who was once her most beloved friend. She never expected that the once-mischievous Trevor would be so handsome and gentleman-like and neither can deny the instant attraction.

But Lucy’s reformer ways pose a threat to the hotel’s future and his duties as a spy. Now Trevor must choose between his new life and the woman he’s always loved…

Rating: C+

I read and enjoyed the first book in Jenny Holiday’s Regency Reformers series, The Miss Mirren Mission, and was keen to read more of her work. She’s written a number of contemporary romances, but these are her first forays into the historical genre, and I’ve found both to be well-written and enjoyable, in spite of some small inconsistencies and niggles. Although this is the second book and the principals from book one appear in it, I don’t think it’s necessary to have read The Miss Mirren Mission in order to be able to appreciate and understand The Likelihood of Lucy.

When Lucy Greenleaf is forced to flee her lecherous employer, she runs to the one person she thinks will be in a position to help her, her childhood friend, Trevor Bailey, a wealthy businessman. As children, they had been inseparable, eeking out a precarious existence in Seven Dials, one of the worst areas of London, scamming and stealing just to fill their bellies. Trevor always felt responsible for Lucy and was determined that if ever an opportunity presented itself, he would make sure she escaped to a better life. That time came when she was eleven, and the pair haven’t seen each other since.

Trevor Bailey may be wealthy, but he has never really left behind the idea of himself as a guttersnipe from the slums. He joined the army and saw active service in the Napoleonic Wars, and also undertook covert missions for the British government, which is where he met the Earl of Blackstone, with whom he still maintains a friendship, and for whom he still undertakes the odd mission.

One of his many business ventures is the opening of a luxury hotel in London, a project which holds much personal significance for him. Lucy has read of this in the news-sheets, and makes her way there, hoping he will help her for old times’ sake. He is stunned to see Lucy so unexpectedly and in such a state, but he takes her in and the two quickly rekindle their friendship. But there’s an undercurrent of something else between them now, an awareness of each other in a way that wasn’t there before which they both find unsettling. I’m a big fan of the friends-to-lovers trope, so this aspect of the romance was one I particularly enjoyed; and the author makes the most of the sexual tension that results from the fact that these two people who haven’t seen each other for years suddenly discover that their old, ragamuffin mate is gorgeous and that they’re attracted to one another.

Trevor offers Lucy a temporary respite at the hotel and offers to help her find a new position as a governess, if that is what she wants. Her previous employer – a viscount – was incensed when he discovered that she was teaching his daughters according to the precepts of the infamous Mary Wollenstonecraft, who is Lucy’s idol. Despite his ignominious treatment of her, she is undaunted in her determination to pursue Mary’s goals and to bring her message of female equality to as many women as possible.

Lucy doesn’t want to be a governess, but she has to earn a living and has no other options. When he realises this, Trevor offers her another post – that of manager of his new hotel, which is due to open within weeks. Lucy has very quickly made herself incredibly useful, dealing with correspondence, appointing staff and working on the accounts, and Trevor knows he needs someone like her, someone with a head for the day-to-day to make the venture a success. Lucy agrees to take the job for six months, knowing that having a woman as manager will be difficult for the male investors in the project to accept. She has quickly come to see that the hotel is more than just another business for Trevor – it’s a project that’s very close to his heart, and she doesn’t want to do anything that could cause it to fail.

But that’s not her only reason for only wanting to stay for six months. Her deepening attraction to her old friend is difficult for her to reconcile with her desire for an independent life and she knows that the longer she stays with him, the harder it will be when she eventually has to leave.

I enjoyed reading The Likelihood of Lucy, although there are a number of minor issues that prevent me rating it more highly. The writing itself is solid, and the romance between Lucy and Trevor is nicely done; their longing for each other leaps off the page and there are some beautifully tender moments between them. Both are likeable characters, but the author’s method of keeping them from pursuing their mutual attraction is rather weak. Trevor still thinks of himself as a kid from the slums, and spends most of the book telling himself that he’s not good enough for Lucy – yet she grew up in the slums, too, and, like him, has made good despite her humble background. And Lucy tells herself that love isn’t for her because Mary Wollenstonecraft was driven to madness by love and she doesn’t want to marry because she doesn’t want to cede control of her life to a man. While I can certainly appreciate her stance and her desire for more independence, her reformist tendencies are presented in such a way as to make Lucy seem rather naïve, and her continual evoking of “what would Mary do?” becomes a little tiresome.

Taking those reservations into account, I can, however, give The Likelihood of Lucy a qualified recommendation, because it held my interest and proved to be an engaging read overall.

Married to a Perfect Stranger by Jane Ashford

married to a perfect stranger

Mary Fleming and John Bexley are the “white sheep’ of their large families, written off as hapless, boring—and thus suitable for each other. But they’re no sooner married than John is sent off on a two-year diplomatic mission.

Upon his return, John and Mary find that everything they thought they knew about each other is wrong. They’ve changed radically during the long separation. They have to start all over. It’s surprising, irritating—and somehow very exciting…

Rating: B-

Married to a Perfect Stranger is the rather sweet and enjoyable story of a young couple who are separated just a month after their marriage, because the husband – who works at the Foreign Office – is sent to China as part of a diplomatic delegation. When John Bexley returns to England almost two years later, the couple quickly realises that their spouse has become a different person in the intervening years; and that if they are to make any kind of life together, they will have to work at getting to know and understand the virtual stranger to whom they are married.

I love stories like this, where the characters fall in love after the wedding and have to actually work at a relationship. There’s a sense of realism that goes hand-in-hand with that aspect of the story as the reader is shown that not everything in the garden-of-romance is rosy all the time. Although John and Mary are married when the story begins, we learn that they more or less drifted into marriage because their respective families viewed them as misfits and wanted to get them off their hands. As a result, they didn’t know each other very well when John left – and now he’s back, any memories or preconceptions that remain are quickly shown to be useless when it comes to piecing together the essense of the other person as they are now.

When, a month after her marriage, John leaves for China, Mary is packed off to stay with her Great-Aunt Lavinia. While not far from Mary’s family home, they rarely visit, so have no idea that Lavinia is unwell (she is suffering from what we would recognise today as dementia), and it’s down to Mary to take over the reins of the household. She has always been rather timid and shy, but there is no-one else she can turn to; and she is surprised to find that not only does she enjoy managing the household, she’s very good at it.

John has also made some discoveries about himself during his absence, and is returning to England a much more dynamic personality than when he left; he is determined to make a success of his chosen career and to advance through its ranks.

One of the things Ms Ashford does very well in the early stages of the book is to show the chaos that Mary has to deal with on a daily basis, which immediately communicates to the reader that she’s both clever and efficient, and has become the lynchpin in her aunt’s household. John arrives when the house is in uproar and is dismayed to discover that his previously timid wife has turned into a “managing female” – and he makes that dismay clear in no uncertain terms. Mary can’t believe that the taller, broader, still handsome but utterly infuriating man who did nothing but scowl at her, insult her and then order her to return to London – is the easy-going young man she’d married. But she refuses to be cowed and besides, has to arrange care for her aunt before she goes anywhere.

John comes off as an arrogant arse during his first encounter with Mary; it’s all about him and what he wants and he looks set to become one of those domineering husbands who expects his wife to be a doormat. Fortunately, once Mary joins him in London, he’s calmed down and his initial panic at the thought of having the “wrong” kind of wife to help advance his career has dissipated. That’s not to say that there aren’t still difficulties ahead for them – they do continue to clash and become frustrated with each other as the story goes on, but by this time, they have both accepted that they have to work at their marriage and are prepared to do so.

Both principals are well-rounded characters, who clearly have some emotional baggage to deal with in addition to navigating carefully through the uncharted waters of their marriage. John is the third of four boys and the butt of the endless childhood jokes at his expense recounted by his two older siblings. It’s obvious that his family never expected him to amount to much and he has been overshadowed by the forceful cleverness of his brothers. They believe him to be unremarkable, dull and without ambition; they are dismissive of his job and think he’s destined to stay in a junior post for the rest of his life.

Mary has always been the perfect quiet, biddable daughter. Her overbearing mother thinks she’s a bit of a dreamer and doesn’t really understand her; but Mary is a very talented artist who likes to draw and paint portraits, and has the rare gift of being able to infuse her work with a true sense of the personality of her subject, sometimes revealing things about them they would rather keep hidden. It’s a talent that lands her in hot water at one point in the story which serves to highlight the importance placed on reputation and societal standing, and the way in which women’s opinions and abilities were so often completely disregarded at this time.

Ms Ashford does a very good job of showing how John and Mary support each other and gradually get to know and fall in love with the people they are now. Their relationship is well developed as they agree to start afresh, become friends and eventually lovers, and earn each other’s trust.

There’s an interesting and informative sub-plot running through the story about John’s attempt to put together a network of informants who can help him to obtain information about the situation in the Orient. This injects a bit of suspense into the story and the author has clearly done her homework – but it didn’t quite ring true for me and felt a little rushed at the end. I also noticed a bit of head-hopping going on which, while it didn’t happen too often, did mean I had to back-track occasionally, just to make sure I knew whose PoV I was supposed to be in.

With those reservations in mind, I’d certainly recommend Married to a Perfect Stranger to anyone in the mood for a gently moving, character-driven historical romance.

Love in the Time of Scandal (Scandalous #3) by Caroline Linden

LOVE IN TIME

Penelope Weston does not like Benedict Lennox, Lord Atherton. He may be the suave and charming heir to an earl, as well as the most handsome man on earth, but she can’t forget how he abandoned a friend in need—nor how he once courted her sister, Abigail. He’s the last man she would ever marry. If only she didn’t feel so attracted to the arrogant scoundrel…

Once upon a time, Benedict thought he and Penelope got along rather well. Though he needs a wealthy bride to escape his cruel father’s control, spirited Penelope just doesn’t suit his plans for a model marriage—until a good deed goes awry, and scandalous rumors link his name to Penelope’s. She might not be the quiet, sensible wife he thought he wanted, but she is beautiful . . . beguiling . . . and far more passionate than he ever imagined. Can a marriage begun in scandal become a love match, too?

Rating: B+

Having thoroughly enjoyed the two previous books in this series, Love and Other Scandals and It Takes a Scandal, I’ve been eagerly looking forward to this latest instalment, which features Penelope Weston and Benedict Lennox, both of whom appeared as secondary characters in the last book. While I enjoyed it very much, it didn’t quite reach DIK territory for me (as the other two did), although I’m not really sure why – it’s just as well written, it uses one of my favourite tropes (compromised-into-marriage) both central characters are well drawn and the hero is drop-dead gorgeous. There is, however, an element of the story that is unresolved at the end – I assume that Ms Linden will be addressing it in a future book – so while Penelope and Ben do get their HEA, perhaps that’s why this one missed the DIK shelf by a gnat’s whisker.

Penelope Weston is lovely, vivacious and outgoing, yet is feeling rather bereft following the recent marriages of her sister, Abigail, and their good friend Joan Bennett. In their absence, she strikes up a friendship with a young debutante, seventeen-year-old Frances Lockwood, and takes her under her wing, as well as maintaining her friendship with the widowed Olivia Townsend, who lives on the fringes of society.

Frances is pretty and has a dowry of twenty-thousand pounds, and Penelope, who is also an heiress, cautions her against falling for a fortune hunter, giving her pointers as to how to spot when a man is truly interested in her rather than just in her money. Lately, however, one particular young man has been paying his addresses to Frances, a very handsome, charming officer in the King’s Life Guards who is the son of an earl and who thus has no need of her money. Penelope thinks he sounds like a promising marriage prospect – until she learns that he is none other than Benedict Lennox, Lord Atherton – the man who at one time wanted to marry her sister and who, in the past, treated his former best friend (now her brother-in-law) Sebastian Vane very badly.

“She’d seen Atherton’s real measure when he persisted in pursuing her sister, Abigail, even when it was clear Abigail was in love with someone else. She’d known what the viscount really was when she learned he had allowed accusations of murder and theft to endure for years against Sebastian, without speaking a word of support or protest.”

At the beginning of their acquaintance, Penelope had been somewhat smitten with Lennox, and the attraction between them had seemed mutual – until Ben offered for Abigail having decided that her quieter, less adventurous nature made her perfect wife material. It’s fairly obvious that Penelope’s intense dislike is due to the fact that she’s still sweet on him, although of course she’d die rather than admit it. For his part, Benedict is still very much affected by Penelope’s beauty and attracted to her quick wit and sharp tongue, but is adamant that he doesn’t want a woman who will challenge him at every step. His life is difficult enough as it is, and he wants a gentle, docile wife who won’t cause him any trouble. He also wants to marry an heiress – as heir to an earl, he stands to inherit a considerable fortune and property, but at present is subject to the whims of his cruel, controlling father, and can only achieve his independence by marrying money.

When Penelope, in trying to help Olivia out of a difficult situation, becomes the subject of some truly vicious gossip, she finds herself facing complete social ruin. Having been present at the incident which caused it (although not responsible), Benedict offers marriage. After all, Penelope also has a large dowry and no matter how hard he tries to ignore it, he’s still strongly attracted to her – and thinks that perhaps he can turn the passion she seems to have been expending on hating him into something much more mutually pleasurable.

Enemies-to-lovers is another favourite trope when it’s done well, and that’s definitely the case here. Benedict and Penelope are perfect for each other and I love stories where it’s evident to everyone except the couple themselves that they’re besotted with each other. It doesn’t take Benedict long to admit that a demure, sensible wife would have bored him silly, or for Penelope to admit that she has misjudged him. The sparks fly whenever they’re together, and in the bedroom they’re explosive. Thanks to her reading of the scandalous pamphlets, 50 Ways to Sin Penelope isn’t afraid to ask for what she wants in bed, something which delights her new husband who is only too happy to indulge her naughtiest whims.

The emotional meat of the story, however, is found in the disclosure of the nature of Benedict’s relationship with his autocratic, unforgiving father, and in the way in which Penelope is able to learn to be less judgemental and more understanding, especially in situations where she doesn’t have all the facts. My heart broke for Benedict several times, in fact, as the truth of his situation came to light. In the last book, it was very clear that his father was a cruel despot who would stop at nothing to bring Ben to heel, including threatening his mother and sisters. Benedict despises himself for being unable to stand up to the Earl as much as he wants to, and truly regrets the way he was forced to act towards Sebastian; so while he wasn’t an especially sympathetic character in the last book, Ms Linden redeems him admirably here, and turns him into a wonderful hero.

Love in the Time of Scandal is an engrossing story that can be read as a standalone, although the other two books are excellent and well worth reading, too. Ms Linden writes with a great deal of wit and intelligence, all the characters are strongly drawn and the central romance is well developed with plenty of sexual tension between the leads and steamy love scenes. As I mentioned above, my one criticism is that there is one particular plot element left unresolved at the end, which I assume will be picked up in a future story, but otherwise, it’s a terrific book and one I’d certainly recommend most highly.

Love and Other Dangerous Chemicals by Antony Capella (audiobook) – Narrated by Simon Vance and Kate Reading

Love and Other Dangerous Chemicals

Dr Steven J. Fisher is a young and brilliant biochemist (special subject: the female orgasm). He’s invented a Viagra-like pill for women – now he just needs his results to be perfect. Annie is an orgasmically-challenged arts student (special subject: Victorian semicolons). She’s just volunteered to be one of Fisher’s case studies – but for some reason his miracle treatment isn’t working. As scientist and subject bond over romantic meals lit by the flickering glow of a Bunsen burner, Dr Fisher is surprised to find his feelings taking a most unscientifc turn…what if love is one thing science can’t explain?

Rating: A- for narration; B for content

As anyone who reads my book and audio reviews regularly will know, a foray into contemporary romances/chick-lit is a very rare event for me! But when I was scouring Audible for something new to listen to, I stumbled across Love and Other Dangerous Chemicals, which had attached to it the names of not just one but TWO of what I call my phone-book narrators (i.e., people I’d listen to if they were reading the telephone directory!), and I couldn’t resist it.

In his gently humorous author’s note at the beginning, author Anthony Capella tells the listener how he came up with the idea for this story, which centres around a brilliant young biochemist and his research into Female Sexual Dysfunction (FSD).

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Jewelled Snuff Box by Alice Chetwynd Ley

The Jewelled Snuff Box

When the Earl of Bordesley married, he believed that his much younger wife would benefit from the company of someone her own age, and employed Jane as her companion. But Celia, the Countess of Bordesley, was a spiteful woman, who went out of her way to make Jane’s life unpleasant, particularly after Jane was given a jewelled snuff-box by the man whose life she had saved, on a snow bound highway…

Rating: C-

I’m always interested when older romances make their way into digital format, so when I saw this one was a freebie for Kindle I picked it up, having vaguely recognised the author’s name as someone who wrote Regency Romances back in the 60s and 70s (and into the 1980s, according to her bio.)

Knowing that The Jewelled Snuff Box was likely to be a quick and fairly simple read, I picked it up one evening planning to whizz through it before bedtime – which is what I did. One of the things about many of these older titles is that they’re shorter than we’re used to and as a result, the characters and plotlines are rarely as well developed as those in the best of the historicals around today, so I wasn’t surprised when I was proven right on both counts by this story.

Miss Jane Spencer is going to London to take up her new post as a lady’s companion when the roads become impassable due to a heavy snowfall and the passengers are forced to take shelter at a nearby inn until the weather clears. As the group is walking to the inn, Jane notices a dark shape lying on the ground, and on going to investigate, discovers the shape is an injured man. He is taken to the inn where Jane tends to him, but on coming round, he discovers that he has no idea who or where he is, and no memory of his life before waking up in unfamiliar surroundings.

Jane and the stranger spend a little time together and a friendship starts to develop between them. When he feels better and the weather clears, Jane and the other passengers resume their journey and the man accompanies them, in hopes of learning something about himself from Jane’s lawyer, who she is sure will be able to help him to find his people and perhaps set him on the road to recovery.

Jane meets with said lawyer, but when she goes to find her new friend in order to introduce him, he is nowhere to be found. And when she finds a letter tucked securely into the secret compartment of the little jewelled snuff box which was his only possession – a letter which indicates he may be having an affair with a married woman – Jane is heartbroken. Although gently born, she has had to make her own way in the world for years, and had more or less given up all dreams of love and marriage. But the stranger had stirred those longings in her, and she had believed they had an affinity for one another – which makes this knowledge all the more devastating.

But Jane is a strong young woman, and heads to the address of her new job, only to discover that her employer the Earl of Bordesley, is married to an old schoolfellow of hers – the archetypal “mean girl” who had made her life a misery.

Celia Bordesley is petulant, spoiled and the sort of character who needs a good slap. Her much older husband indulges her to a point, and actually, I’d have liked to have got to know him a little more, as it’s clear from his interactions with Celia that he sees a lot more than he lets on and is well aware of his wife’s nature even as he can’t help being drawn to her youth and beauty.

There are revelations ahead about Jane’s family, and about the identity of her mystery man and the true nature of his involvement with the lady mentioned in the note as “C” (bet you can’t guess who she is! :P), and of course all ends well. Dating from 1977, the book is of course squeaky clean, and while it’s much as I expected – short and lightweight – it was easy to read and held my attention for the couple of hours it took to read it. The downside is that the characterisation is incredibly thin and the mystery element of the plot isn’t all that mysterious or well-developed.

I picked this up when it was free and also have The Guinea Stamp (which was also a freebie when I got it), but I’m not sure I’d have purchased any more at full price. That’s not to say this is a dreadful book – it isn’t. It’s well written and has echoes of Georgette Heyer and Jane Aiken Hodge – although it’s most definitely NOT in the same class as Heyer – and if you’re looking for something clean and simple that doesn’t come with the bucketful of angst typical of today’s HRs (and I’m not complaining about that – I love me some angst!) and something reminiscent of the time when the door (and the book) closed on a kiss, you might like this one.

A Good Rogue is Hard to Find by Kelly Bowen

Bowen_A Good Rogue is Hard to Find_MM

HE THOUGHT HE’D SEEN IT ALL . . .

The rogue’s life has been good to William Somerhall: He has his fortune, his racehorses, and his freedom. Then he moves in with his mother. It seems the eccentric Dowager Duchess of Worth has been barely skirting social disaster-assisted by one Miss Jenna Hughes, who is far too bright and beautiful to be wasting her youth as a paid companion. Now home to keep his mother from ruin, William intends to learn what’s afoot by keeping his friends close-and the tempting Miss Hughes closer still.

. . . UNTIL HE MEETS HER

He’s tall, dark, and damnably intelligent – unfortunately for Jenna. She and the duchess are in the “redistribution business,” taking from the rich and giving to the poor, and it’s going great – until he shows up. But even as William plots to make an honest woman out of her, Jenna will use all her wiles to reveal just how bad a rogue he can be . . .

Rating: B+

I was only a few pages into A Good Rogue is Hard to Find when it became clear that in Kelly Bowen, I’d found a new author worth watching. Most of the débuts and follow-ups I’ve read over the past couple of years have been average at best, but this, Ms Bowen’s second book, is a very accomplished piece of work. It’s full of warmth, humour and intelligence, the characters are likeable and well-rounded and the author has managed to find an unusual plotline that, while it does require rather a sizeable suspension of disbelief, is handled so well as to make it possible for the reader to accept it and just go with the flow.

William Sommerhall, Duke of Worth, is handsome, charming and wealthy, and lives a carefree life among his many friends and acquaintances in London. He inherited his title some years previously, but the responsibilities and trappings accompanying it don’t interest him and he relies on his various secretaries and stewards to run his estates, thus leaving him more time to devote to his passion for breeding racehorses. But the recent escalation of the gossip about his mother’s eccentricities has become too much for him to bear and he decides he must go home in order to try to curb her excesses.

Will arrives at the Dower House on his Breckenridge estate to find it in uproar following the unexpected appearance of a number of Her Grace’s raucous “pet” chickens and a snake named Philip at one of her regular dinner parties. Not only that, but he finds himself face to face with the young woman who has haunted his dreams following their brief meeting at a ball a few months earlier and for whom he’s been searching ever since – (I assume this happened in the previous book, I’ve Got My Duke to Keep Me Warm, which I haven’t read). He is even more stunned to discover that she’s his mother’s companion.

Having experienced the complete chaos of his mother’s household first hand, there’s only one thing for Will to do – move in, straighten out the finances, make sure her rather rag-tag bunch of servants are doing right by her, and try to get her to see that she’s just a step away from social ostracism.

For Eleanor, the Dowager Duchess of Worth and her companion, Miss Jenna Hughes, the duke’s sudden interest in his mother’s affairs couldn’t have come at a worse time. This is where that required suspension of disbelief I mentioned earlier comes in, because the ladies are in fact in the process of organising a massive scam, which is due to come to fruition in a matter of weeks and which they must keep hidden from Will at all costs.

Jenna is charged with coming up with ways to distract the duke while she and the duchess continue making their plans, so she suggests that he starts his review of the estate finances as soon as possible, knowing that the elderly, deaf secretary, George, will keep him occupied for several days at least. But Will isn’t so easily diverted and much to Jenna’s annoyance, proves himself to be very shrewd and surprisingly intelligent. He knows there is something iffy going on and Jenna, realising how tenacious he is, slowly and at first reluctantly, lets him in on part of the secret. She and his mother are waging a clandestine war against those heedless members of the nobility who repeatedly fail to honour their debts, leading to hardship and ruin for many honest, hardworking men and women – but whom the law cannot touch:

… the peerage had devised a robust system of laws to punish cheats and debtors while the peers themselves remained largely immune…

The first part of the story is a frothy delight as Jenna and the dowager lead Will a merry dance in their attempts to pull the wool over his eyes. His sometimes sulky reactions are surprisingly cute, and it’s impossible to dislike him when he points out how much he hates it when people never look beyond his title and admittedly hefty bank balance.

Jenna and Will are wonderful together. Their verbal exchanges are full of wit and subtle humour and the attraction between them is palpable. Their relationship progresses at a sensible pace, and it’s this gradual growth of the emotion between them and the way the author imbues it with a degree of realism that makes it easy to overlook the rather unlikely premise of the story. But what starts out as a light-hearted, fluffy read treads a darker path in the second half, which takes a slightly longer than normal look at class differences in nineteenth century England, and at the grim realities faced by those people whose lives were ruined by the selfishness of others. It’s here that the full extent of the plans being hatched by Jenna and the duchess are finally revealed – and it’s something that Will, even with his new-found appreciation for what the ladies are doing – finds almost impossible to stomach.

Although Will, Jenna and the dowager are all engaging and well-written characters, the star of the book is undoubtedly Will, who grows and matures a lot throughout the story. At first, Jenna thinks of him in much the same way as everyone else who knows him, as “a beautiful fribble of a man”, just like any other aristocrat who treats privilege as his due, is oblivious to how lucky he really is and is uninterested in the suffering of others. At the beginning of the book, Will is a little pompous and tends to see everything in black and white – but as the story progresses, he is brought to acknowledge the advantages of his position and starts to see that perhaps his view has been too simplistic. His is not so much a change of heart as it is a re-alignment of it, so that his evolution from being a man who doesn’t know enough about the life of the poor to care about it, to one who wants to help is absolutely convincing.

Eleanor, too, is a complex character, a woman whose husband treated her abominably and whose life had been one of quiet endurance until his death. After that, she cultivated a reputation for eccentricity, hiding her keen intelligence and ability to strategize as well as any military general behind the façade of a dotty old woman so that nobody would ever suspect what she was up to. The moment late in the book when Will realises this, and what it must have cost her to allow everyone to believe she is so much less than she really is, is beautifully done and very poignant.

Ms Bowen’s writing is assured, displaying a deftness of touch and seemingly effortless flow that drew me in completely from the first page. A Good Rogue is Hard to Find isn’t a perfect book, but it’s an enjoyable one, and I’m eagerly looking forward to whatever the author does next.