The Viscount and the Vixen (Hellions of Havisham Hall #3) by Lorraine Heath

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This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Love begets madness. Viscount Locksley watched it happen to his father after his cherished wife’s death. But when his sire arranges to marry flame-haired fortune hunter Portia Gadstone, Locke is compelled to take drastic measures to stop the stunning beauty from taking advantage of the marquess. A marriage of mutual pleasure could be convenient, indeed… as long as inconvenient feelings don’t interfere.

Desperation forced Portia to agree to marry a madman. The arrangement will offer the protection she needs. Or so she believes until the marquess’s distractingly handsome son peruses the fine print… and takes his father’s place!

Now the sedate — and, more importantly, secure — union Portia planned has been tossed in favor of one simmering with wicked temptation and potential heartbreak. Because as she begins to fall for her devilishly seductive husband, her dark secrets surface and threaten to ruin them both—unless Locke is willing to risk all and open his heart to love.

Rating: B+

Lorraine Heath is one of those writers whose work really resonates with me. I don’t know what it is exactly, but the emotional content of her books draws me to her time and time again, and I will often finish one of her novels feeling completely wrung out and unable to pick up another book for at least twenty-four hours. Such was the case with The Viscount and the Vixen, the final full-length novel in her Hellions of Havisham Hall series.

The Marquess of Marsden is a recluse, labelled mad by most because he is believed to have gone insane following the death of his beloved wife in childbed. Havisham Hall has been allowed to fall into disrepair over the years, and even though his son, Viscount Locksley has lived there exclusively for the past couple of years, he has made no improvements because his father dislikes change and he – Locke – doesn’t want to agitate him.

So when he arrives at the breakfast table one morning to find his father freshly shaved, smartly dressed and reading the paper, it’s a bit of a shock. Marsden usually takes his meals in his room and doesn’t bother much about his appearance, but when he tells Locke that his (Marsden’s) bride will be arriving later, Locke thinks his father is delusional and must be referring to his mother. But Marsden is perfectly lucid and explains that as Locke has so far neglected to find a wife and set up his nursery, it behoves him to marry a woman young enough to provide the necessary “spare” in order to secure the succession. And in order to do that, Marsden placed an advertisement in a newspaper which was answered by a Mrs. Portia Gadstone, with whom he has been corresponding ever since. Locke is flabbergasted, but also concerned for his father and worried that he has been taken in by a fortune hunter. When Mrs. Gadstone appears, he is knocked sideways even further; she’s luscious and he’s suddenly drowning in lust the like of which he can’t remember ever experiencing before. But even so – he’s sure she’s a gold digger and is determined to protect his father at all costs. And it quickly appears there is only one way to do that, which is to marry Portia himself.

Portia has been driven to the drastic step of marrying a man widely reputed to be insane because she’s in a desperate situation. She can’t deny that the prospect of marrying a wealthy man is an attractive one, but just as important as the marquess’ wealth is the fact that his title offers her the protection she seeks, and she is determined to be a good wife to him.

But her first sight of Marsden’s gorgeous, green-eyed son throws her for a loop, even though he makes it perfectly clear that he distrusts her and wants to stop her marrying his father. When Locke proposes she marry him instead, Portia is almost turned from her purpose, realising that her life with him will in no way fulfil her desire for quiet, rather dull existence she had envisaged having with his father. But that doesn’t alter the fact that she has imperative reasons for marrying and living in a remote location – and the deal is made.

The sexual tension between Locke and Portia is off the charts right from the start, and theirs is – to begin with – a relationship based purely on mutual lust, which suits both of them. Locke saw what his mother’s death did to his father and as a result, has no wish to experience love; and Portia doesn’t want to fall in love with a man upon whom she is practicing a serious deception. But as the story progresses, the lines between lust and affection become blurred and Portia starts to worm her way under the skin of father and son, both of whom are taken with her intelligence, wit and kindness. And for Locke, the fact that his wife is a woman whose capacity for passion matches is own is an unlooked for bonus.

Lorraine Heath has penned a lovely, tender romance that progresses at the same time as Locke and Portia are setting fire to the sheets (often!), and I particularly enjoyed the way that Portia’s gradual progress in restoring Havisham Hall, opening up long-closed rooms and making them habitable and welcoming again, mirrors her gradual unlocking of her new husband’s heart and her discovery that he is a man capable – and deserving – of a great deal of love and affection. There is never any doubt that Locke and Portia are falling in love; their actions often speak louder than their words as these two people who didn’t want love come to realise that it’s found them, regardless.

Portia’s backstory and her reasons for answering Marsden’s advertisement are drip fed throughout the book, and it’s a testament to the author’s skill that even though Portia has deliberately set out to deceive, the reader feels sympathy for her. At a time when women had no rights to anything, even their own bodies, she has had to make difficult choices and ended up living a life very different from the one she had envisaged. She owns her own mistakes, but when faced with an impossible choice, made the only decision she could live with, one which now looks set to ruin her life and happiness with the man she never intended to love.

Locke seems to be rather a stereotypical romance hero at first glance – tall, dark, handsome, cynical and a demi-god in bed – but there’s more to him than that. Underneath the veneer of charm and wicked sensuality, he’s a compassionate man with a strong sense of duty who is quite obviously fooling himself into believing he doesn’t want love when he is so clearly ready to embrace it. His relationship with Marsden is easily one of the best things about the book; the affection in which father and son hold each other leaps off the page and possesses just the right degree of exasperated tenderness. And Marsden is far more subtly drawn here than he has been in the other books; he’s unbalanced, but clearly not insane and appears to be subject to fits of melancholy rather than mentally unhinged.

When Locke discovers his wife’s dishonesty, there are, of course, some unpleasant things said, and later, Portia does perhaps forgive Locke a tad too quickly. But on balance, Locke’s willingness to listen to Portia’s story – something many men of the time would probably not have done – says much for him and about the strength of their relationship. It works in context, although I can understand that some may feel he wasn’t sufficiently remorseful and should have grovelled more.

The Viscount and the Vixen contains just about everything I want from an historical romance – complex, intriguing characters, scorching sexual tension, and a strong storyline that is firmly rooted in the era in which the story is set. Ms. Heath once again delivers those things along with finely observed familial relationships and a sexy, well-developed love story. I’ve enjoyed each of the books in this series and am looking forward to whatever the author comes up with next.

My Rogue, My Ruin (Lords of Essex #1) by Amalie Howard and Angie Morgan

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This title may be purchased from Amazon.

The Marquess of Hawksfield’s lineage is impeccable and his title coveted, but Archer Croft is as far from his indulgent peers as he can get. His loathing for the beau monde has driven him to don a secret identity and risk everything in order to steal their riches and distribute them to the less fortunate.

Lady Briannon Findlay embraces her encounter with the Masked Marauder, a gentleman thief waylaying carriages from London to Essex. The marauder has stirred Brynn’s craving for adventure, and she discovers an attraction deeper than the charming thief’s mask.

Brynn is a revelation, matching Archer in intelligence, wit, and passion. Stubborn and sensuous in equal measure, she astonishes him at every turn, but when someone sinister impersonates Archer’s secret personality, and a murder is committed, Archer begins to think he doesn’t stand a fighting chance without her.

Rating: C

When I read the storyline of My Rogue, My Ruin – in which the hero is a kind of latter-day Robin Hood – it was obvious I was going to have to be prepared to suspend my disbelief to a larger degree than normal. But that’s okay. I was in the mood for an adventure story, and if an author (in this case authors) can spin a good yarn without too many contrivances and create interesting characters I can root for, then I can accept a degree of implausibility. And as Ms. Howard and Ms. Morgan quite quickly managed to do both, things went swimmingly for the first part of the book. There’s the usual (unfortunate) smattering of Americanisms and a few small anachronisms, but the characters and motivations were established well and I was enjoying the story. But as the book progressed and the pacing started to flag, those errors and inconsistencies began to happen more frequently, culminating in an inaccuracy so large, that I had to ask myself not only if the authors had done any research at all, but also if they’d ever read an historical romance before.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, because in spite of what I’ve just said, there ARE things to enjoy in this book, which saved it from receiving a much lower rating.

Archer Croft, Marquess of Hawkesfield has a reputation for being aloof, ruthless and bad-tempered, all things that make him the complete opposite of his life-and-soul-of-the-party father, the Duke of Bradburne, whose sobriquet of ‘The Dancing Duke’ pretty much sums him up. He lives for wine, women and song – probably not so much the song – indulging his dissolute lifestyle to the extent that he has nearly bankrupted his estate and forced his son to assume the reins of the dukedom far earlier than he would otherwise have done. His constant infidelities were naturally a matter of great unhappiness for Archer’s late mother, who actually took in one of the duke’s by-blows and brought her up as her ward. But Bradburne refused to acknowledge Eloise as his daughter, and pretty much ignored her, behaviour that has continued since his wife’s death some years earlier, in a fire which also left Eloise badly scarred.

Unlike many of his peers, Archer is strongly motivated to improve the lot of the less fortunate in society, and he spares as much money as he can for charitable causes. But that isn’t – and can never be – enough, and it’s this that has led him to turn highwayman; but he takes only from those who can afford it and uses all the proceeds to help those in need.

When the book opens, Archer – or rather, the Masked Marauder – is in the process of robbing Lord and Lady Dinsmore and their daughter, Lady Briannon, on the road that joins their two estates.  Even though they are neighbours, he hasn’t seen Briannon for years, and is impressed with the way she refuses to give ground even as he is stealing from her and her family.

In the days following the robbery Briannon – or Brynn as she is referred to in the chapters from her PoV – is shocked  to find her thoughts so preoccupied by the handsome highwayman, and especially by the reaction evoked by the memory of the gentleness of his touch as he relieved her of her grandmother’s pearls.  But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t despise both him and his way of life.

Archer was similarly entranced by the glimpses of fire in Lady Briannon’s eyes that night, but can’t afford to become emotionally attached to anyone.  He has recently received a couple of anonymous notes which indicate that someone else is aware of his secret occupation and he must focus on tracking down that person and finding out what they know.  And I will say at this point that the authors do a great job of concealing the villain’s identity, because I couldn’t narrow down the list of suspects to just one.

So far, so good.  Both principals are well-drawn, and Archer’s motivations – which stem from his mother’s desire to atone for the duke’s treatment of Eloise’s mother and women like her – are effectively explained and make sense.  I liked the set-up, with Archer now having to fear exposure from an unknown source, and expected the story to be about his search for that source while trying to keep his secret and falling in love with Briannon.  But then, the authors ramp up the tension with the introduction of a copy-cat highwayman whose vicious, violent acts are laid at the door of the Masked Marauder, making life for Archer even more difficult and dangerous.

But the pacing starts to lag around the middle of the book; a terrible murder is committed, and it seems that someone is trying to point the finger at Archer for that, too – but somehow the tension slacks off instead of heightening, and even though this allows room for some romantic development, both Briannon and Archer act inconsistently. They indulge in heated kisses and passionate interludes, but then one of them pushes the other away for reasons I couldn’t quite make out, and this continues until almost the end of the book.

The last quarter of the story picks up again with the couple coming up with a plan to draw out the villain – but this is where the authors drop the most enormous clanger.  Without giving too much away, Archer and Briannon host a ball just a week after the death of a family member.  Anyone who has read only a few historical romances, or who has done the thirty seconds’ research I just did by Googling “nineteenth century mourning conventions” would know that people in mourning – which could last for months or years – were not supposed to socialise at all, let alone host a massive society event.  I had already suffered through the lack of knowledge of men’s and ladies’ attire (there was no such thing as a Dinner Jacket and ladies didn’t wear bloomers – mostly because they hadn’t been invented yet!), the scene of our heroine attempting to dress a gunshot wound to the thigh sustained by the hero but instead spending her time ogling his wedding tackle, and the ridiculousness of a highwayman holding up a coach in the middle of London – but the ball-in-mourning was a faux-pas too far, and it threw me so far out of the story that instead of being eager for the dénouement, I just wanted it to be over.  And speaking of wanting it to be over, the sex scene that takes place right before the epilogue is unnecessary and feels as though it’s been tacked on because, hey, it’s a romance and there has to be some nookie.

It’s obvious that I’m not going to recommend My Rogue, My Ruin. BUT – the authors have shown that they can craft a decent plot and create engaging characters who possess depth and insight.  There are clearly more stories to be told – I was intrigued by Lana, the Russian maid; and Rhiannon’s brother, Gray, will make an attractive hero.  So I may try another book by Ms. Howard and Ms. Morgan in the hope that next time, they will do some actual research into their historical setting and perhaps delay the ogling of manly bulges until the hero isn’t almost unconscious and in excruciating pain.

Duke of Pleasure (Maiden Lane #11) by Elizabeth Hoyt

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This title may be purchased from Amazon

IN THE ARMS OF DANGER

Bold. Brave. Brutally handsome. Hugh Fitzroy, the Duke of Kyle, is the king’s secret weapon. Sent to defeat the notorious Lords of Chaos, he is ambushed in a London alley—and rescued by an unlikely ally: a masked stranger with the unmistakable curves of a woman.

IN THE HEAT OF DESIRE

Cocky. Clever. Courageously independent. Alf has survived on the perilous streets of St. Giles by disguising her sex. By day she is a boy, dealing in information and secrets. By night she’s the notorious Ghost of St. Giles, a masked vigilante. But as she saves Hugh from assassins, she finds herself succumbing to temptation.

ONE KISS WILL CHANGE THEIR LIVES FOREVER

When Hugh hires Alf to investigate the Lords of Chaos, her worlds collide. Once Hugh realizes that the boy and the Ghost are the same, will Alf find the courage to become the woman she needs to be—before the Lords of Chaos destroy them both?

Rating: A-

Amazingly, we’ve reached the eleventh of Elizabeth Hoyt’s <i books, and the author shows no sign of running out of steam! Duke of Pleasure is another strong addition to the series, a beautifully-written, well-paced story that achieves just the right balance between romance and action; and which is, in part, a charming Cinderella-type story that sees everyone’s favourite street-urchin – Alf – get her man in the shape of the formidable Hugh Fitzroy, Duke of Kyle.

Alf has made brief appearances in a number of books in the series, most prominently in the previous one (Duke of Sin) in which she was employed by the Duke of Montgomery as a spy/informant. She lives in the stews of St. Giles and is ideally placed to ferret out information about the many nefarious deeds that are cooked up in its numerous rookeries and gin palaces and has been instrumental in helping our heroes to uncover and foil a number of evil schemes. Not many of those heroes, however, know that Alf is anything other than the boy on the edge of manhood she pretends to be. Left on the streets of St. Giles when she was just five years old, Alf was fortunate to be taken under the wing of a lad called Ned, who looked after her and told her that it would be safest for her to live as a boy; as a girl she would be almost certain to end up working on her back, and sooner rather than later given the proclivities of some of the visitors to the district’s brothels. Now aged twenty-one, Alf continues to pass as a boy and has spent so many years living as one that it’s practically impossible for her to imagine doing otherwise – or even wanting to.

Recently, however, in addition to her daytime disguise, Alf has taken on another identity – that of the Ghost of St. Giles, the masked crusader who leaps from rooftop to rooftop, dropping to the streets to lend assistance – usually armed assistance – to those in danger. Quick-witted, agile and skilled with her blades, one night she leaps into the fray to aid a single man being attacked by a large group, a man she has met once before when she was Montgomery’s employ and who, at that time, wanted her to work against him. That doesn’t stop Alf though, and she helps the man to fend off his attackers, pausing only to pull him to her for a kiss before running off into the night.

Hugh Fitzroy, the Duke of Kyle (a bastard son of the King, George II) is pretty sure who is out for his blood – a dangerous group of men who term themselves the Lords of Chaos, a select club that indulges its members’ unnatural tastes for satanic rites, blood sacrifice and many other degenerate practices.  In the previous book, Kyle was tasked with discovering the identities of the Lords and bringing them down – but even though the man believed to be its leader – the Duke of Dymore – is now dead, it seems the Lords are thriving and are as determined to stop Kyle as he is to hunt them down.   Fighting for his life, he is amazed at the sight of the slight figure coming to his aid – and even more surprised to discover that the Ghost of St. Giles is a woman.

The story of the duke and the street-urchin may be highly implausible, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless.  Kyle is an upstanding, honourable man who has cultivated the art of self-control to a high degree.  His marriage to a society beauty with whom he was head-over-heels in love was a tempestuous one, founded on an explosive passion which ultimately led to disappointment and disaster.  He adores his two young sons and deeply regrets that he missed so much of their early childhoods because he couldn’t face living with his difficult (now deceased) wife.  As a result, he is mistrustful of strong feelings and convinced that giving into them again will only lead to pain and sorrow.  Yet there’s something about Alf – her resilience, her courage and her free-spirited nature – that calls to him and begins to turn attraction into something more.

Alf has become so used to her life as a boy that the idea of living as a woman is thoroughly alien to her.  She can’t imagine feeling comfortable or safe as anything else, so when Hugh asks her to accompany him to a society event – as a woman –  in order to help him to look for evidence against the Lords, her initial reaction is to refuse.  But when she realises that there really is no-one else able to do what she can, she musters her courage and agrees, willing to set aside her own fears to help the man she has come to love.

It’s the working relationship between the couple that does much to bridge the immense social gap between them.  Hugh may be a duke, but he respects people for who they are and what they can do; and nowhere in the book is this more apparent than the couple of times where he gives Alf (knowing her to be a woman) a dangerous task perform, fully confident that she is up to it.  Of course, he struggles against his instinct to protect her, but he also knows she’s capable and trusts her to get the job done – and I loved that about him.

Ms. Hoyt does a wonderful job in showing the depth of Hugh’s love for his two sons, who are both written in such a way as to come across as actual children and not just cutesy moppet plot devices.  Hugh’s confusion at the way that his elder boy – Kit – seems so angry at him all the time is palpable, and to see this big, powerful, confident man at a loss as to how to build a relationship with these little boys makes for some moments of true poignancy in the story.

The author also delivers a perfectly lovely romance full of passion, tenderness, and understanding, all ingredients that bring readers flocking to her books time after time.  The chemistry between Alf and Kyle leaps off the page, the love scenes are a delicious mix of sweet, sexy and earthy and there’s a real sense of equality to their relationship that allows it to work, in spite of their difference in station. We all love a good rags-to-riches story once in a while, don’t we?

Ms. Hoyt’s writing is lush and wonderfully intelligent, her characterisation is extremely strong throughout, and as ever, the descriptions of the less salubrious areas of London are so evocative as to put the reader in the middle of those dank, smelly and dangerous streets! A passionate romance  wrapped around a thrilling suspense story, Duke of Pleasure really is a pleasure and I devoured it in a couple of sittings.  Fans of historical romance shouldn’t miss it.

Covert Evidence (Evidence #5) by Rachel Grant (audiobook) – Narrated by Nicol Zanzarella

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This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon

Falling in love was never part of his mission…

With visions of professional glory, underwater archaeologist Cressida Porter embarks on a research trip deep into the heart of Eastern Turkey. Her dreams turn into nightmares when she becomes the unwitting courier for a terrorist network. Stranded and unable to speak the language, she turns to a handsome and enigmatic security specialist for help, even while fearing he may be behind a violent assault that leaves her vulnerable.

CIA case officer Ian Boyd’s mission is clear: follow the courier, identify the terrorist leader, and intercept the microchip before it falls into enemy hands. For Ian, cozying up to the alluring archaeologist to find out where her loyalties lie isn’t exactly hardship duty. But spending time with her proves dangerous when she awakens a longing for a life he can never have.

Attraction wars with distrust as Cressida and Ian are forced on the run. When violence erupts in the already unstable region, Cressida discovers everything she knows about Ian is false. With all secrets revealed, Cressida must decide if she can trust the spy with her life while Ian faces his own impossible choice: Cressida or his mission.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – A-

In this action-packed romantic thriller, the fifth in Rachel Grant’s Evidence series, marine archaeologist Cressida Porter travels to South Eastern Turkey (near the borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran) in order to reconnoitre a possible excavation site as a subject for her thesis, only to end up on the run from a dangerous terrorist network with an American covert operative who may or may not be trustworthy. I should point out that although a number of characters from the previous books make cameo appearances in Covert Evidence, it’s not absolutely necessary to have listened to or read them to be able to understand and enjoy this story.

On her last night in Antalya before heading out to the prospective site, Cressida and a friend are enjoying a night out at a bar while waiting to meet with the guide and translator with whom she has arranged to travel. Completely out of the blue, Cressida’s ex-boyfriend Todd Ganem turns up and starts making a nuisance of himself, and their heated exchange ends with Cressida decking him in rather spectacular fashion. Some months earlier, Todd had stolen some extremely valuable Lidar (a kind of Radar, but which uses laser technology) equipment from the university and then dragged Cressida into it by claiming he stole it at her instigation. An enquiry exonerated her, but her reputation is still a little suspect in some quarters, and now all she wants to go is to regain the respect of her colleagues, move on and finish her PhD.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Danger of Desire (Sinful Suitors #3) by Sabrina Jeffries

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This title may be purchased from Amazon

To root out the card cheat responsible for her brother’s death, Miss Delia Trevor spends her evenings dancing her way through high society balls, and her late nights disguised as a young man gambling her way through London’s gaming hells. Then one night, handsome Warren Corry, the Marquess of Knightford, a notorious member of St. George’s Club, recognizes her. When he threatens to reveal her secret, she’s determined to keep him from ruining her plans, even if it means playing a cat-and-mouse game with the enigmatic rakehell.

Warren knows the danger of her game, and he refuses to watch her lose everything while gaining justice for her late brother. But when she starts to delve beneath his carefully crafted façade, can he keep her at arm’s length while still protecting her? Or will their hot desires explode into a love that transcends the secrets of their pasts?

Rating: B

This third book in Sabrina Jeffries’ Sinful Suitors features Warren Corry, the Marquess of Knightford, a man whose many and varied amorous exploits have earned him the reputation as a scoundrel of the highest order. Readers met Warren – briefly – in the previous book, The Study of Seduction, when he asked his best friend, Edwin, the Earl of Blakeborough, to keep an eye on his ward, Clarissa while he (Warren) saw to some important business abroad. Warren and Edwin are old friends and members of the St. George’s Club, a gentleman’s club like most others but whose members banded together with the aim of protecting their female relatives from fortune hunters, gamblers, womanisers and other unscrupulous men by regularly sharing information about the men of their acquaintance.

When Warren’s cousin Clarissa – now happily married to Edwin – asks him to see if any of the club members has heard any gossip about her friend, Delia Trevor, he is not keen at first, believing her request to be a poorly disguised matchmaking attempt. But when Clarissa explains that she is concerned because her friend has been behaving rather oddly of late, Warren takes notice and agrees to help. Having recently discovered what befell Clarissa in her début Season (she was stalked and assaulted by a suitor), Warren feels guilty for not having protected her, and, determined never to let another woman go through something similar, he agrees to see what he can find out.

Miss Delia Trevor has come to London for the Season not, as her aunt believes, to find herself a husband, but in order to discover the identity of the man who cheated her late brother out of a large sum of money and drove him to suicide. The only information she has to go on is the name of the gambling den at which Reynold last played and the fact that his lordly opponent had a sun tattoo on his wrist. So every evening, she disguises herself in man’s attire and sneaks out of the house, making her way to the hell accompanied by a trusty servant in the attempt to draw out the card cheat.

Delia is annoyed, therefore, when the Marquess of Knightford starts to take an interest in her and starts popping up at inconvenient moments and asking awkward questions. She knows she isn’t the sort of woman likely to attract him – her bosom is too small, her hips too wide and she has gone out of her way to dress in the most unflattering manner possible to put off any potential suitors – so she is immediately suspicious of his motives for flirting with her and singling her out.

Warren quickly discovers that Miss Trevor is not at all the simpering miss he had expected and is immediately intrigued by her reluctance to have anything to do with him. He finds he rather likes her waspish tongue, and her attempts to put him off only serve to put him on the alert as he realises that Clarissa’s concerns are not unfounded. Suspicious of Delia’s interactions with a servant, he waits outside her townhouse at night in the belief she has arranged an illicit assignation, only to be confused when the servant appears accompanied by a shabbily dressed boy. He follows the pair, ending up at one of London’s less salubrious gaming establishments where he discovers the reasons behind Delia’s evasiveness – the shabbily dressed boy is not a boy at all, but Miss Delia Trevor in disguise.

Warren is furious with Delia for putting herself in danger both physically and in terms of her reputation, and irritated that she will not confide in him or let him help. He is also aware that what began as curiosity liberally sprinkled with a helping of lust is turning into something else. He can’t stop thinking about Delia or stop wanting her, and while he’s bedded more than his fair share of women, he doesn’t dally with marriageable debutantes or respectable ladies, so he can’t understand his sudden fascination with a woman who is both those things. And Deila’s reaction to the handsome Marquess – most especially to his delicious, arousing kisses – is something she had never expected to experience, but once sampled, is quite helpless to resist.

The romance between Warren and Delia is nicely done, with plenty of verbal sparring and crackling sexual tension between them. While Warren is determined to discover Delia’s secrets, he is equally determined to prevent her from discovering his own, which have resulted in the debilitating nightmares he has suffered for most of his life. Believing them to be a sign of weakness, he has concealed them even from his own family, preferring instead to spend his nights in the company of whores or out gaming or drinking and then to sleep during the day when the dreams do not assail him. But when he and Delia are discovered in a compromising position and forced to marry, keeping his darkest fears from his new wife is going to be an enormous challenge, and one that could potentially derail their fledgling marriage before it has really begun.

While the romance is the main focus of the novel, Delia’s search for the card cheat is not forgotten, although the resolution to that plotline comes rather out of left-field, and is quite convoluted. There is no real build-up to the discovery of that person’s identity, and while explanations are given, anyone who hasn’t read the previous book might end up feeling confused, as the reasons behind the cheater’s actions relate directly to a character who has been hovering “off screen” in the background in the last two books, and whose story we will be getting in the next in the series. So while on the one hand, it’s quite a clever idea to relate the stories in this way, on the other, it feels somewhat contrived and as though it has been done purely to set up the next book. It also negates much of what Delia has gone through in her quest for justice for her brother and denies her any real sense of closure about his death; forgiveness comes very easily in order to satisfy the demands of the plot.

The Danger of Desire doesn’t break any new ground, but is nonetheless an entertaining read that is populated by well-drawn, attractive characters who are just a little different from the norm. While Warren is a rakish, marriage-avoidance minded bachelor, his motivations for eschewing the married state are other than the usual miserable-example-provided-by-parents, or earlier-relationship-gone-sour; and Delia’s talents at the card-table and her backstory as the daughter of a gambler lend depth to her character and explain her reluctance to trust. The ending is somewhat rushed, but the romance is given time to develop and Delia and Warren make a well-matched couple. I enjoyed the story in spite of my reservations, and am looking forward to the final book in the series.

The Dare and the Doctor (Winner Takes All #3) by Kate Noble

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This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Dr. Rhys Gray and Miss Margaret Babcock are friends—strictly friends. But over the course of the year, as they exchange dozens of letters, they share personal details that put them on the path to something more. When Dr. Gray helps Margaret realize her dearest dream and she comes to his defense in the uproar that follows, it seems that their connection cannot be denied. But will their relationship stand the scruples of society and jealous intendeds, or are they destined to be only friends, and nothing more?

The perfect novel for fans of Regency Era romance, The Dare and the Doctor is a clever and passionate love story worth sharing.

Rating: B+

This third book in Kate Noble’s Winner Takes All series is another beautifully written romance featuring likeable central characters, a very well-drawn secondary cast and dilemmas that feel realistic while also being problematic enough to provide the necessary degree of conflict. The Dare and the Doctor is a gently moving, character-driven friends-to-lovers story about two people who are perfect for each other falling in love while coping with personal and family difficulties. It’s not absolutely necessary to have read the other two books in the series (The Game and the Governess and The Lie and the Lady) in order to appreciate this one, although it might help to have at least a rough idea of the storylines of each of them in order to be able to place the recurring characters.

Doctor Rhys Gray and Miss Margaret Babcock met briefly around a year earlier when Rhys visited his friend John Turner at his Lincolnshire home. Margaret’s father, Sir Barty, is the local squire, a well-liked, congenial man who, at one time, had hoped to marry Leticia, Countess Churzy. As told in The Lie and the Lady, Leticia married Turner instead, but the Turners and the Babcocks remain on good terms, and Leticia has become one of Margaret’s few friends.

Recognising in each other people of similar interests and turn of mind – as Rhys puts it, they “like to know things” – when Rhys’ visit is over, he and Margaret begin a correspondence in which they discuss their various academic interests and scientific pursuits. Margaret is a dedicated and talented horticulturalist, spending most of her time in the greenhouse on her father’s estate, where she cultivates and studies a variety of plants and flowers, adhering to scientific methods of study, experimentation and recording. She doesn’t just grow flowers, though – she is seeking to propagate a new variety of hardy China rose using a plant much beloved by her late mother, and she is passionate about her endeavours. But she is also quite shy and wary of people and places with which she is not familiar, so when Rhys writes to say that he has spoken to one of the most influential members of the Horticultural Society about her rose project and that he has asked her to come to London to present it to him, Margaret is apprehensive. She doesn’t really want to go to London, certainly not to take part in anything remotely approaching the social whirl that is the season, but her desire to get an expert opinion on her new roses – and the thought of meeting Rhys again, terrifying though it is – finally wins out over her nervousness, and she is persuaded to go along with the Turners, who arrange for them all to stay with their friends, the Earl and Countess of Ashby.

Once Margaret arrives, she is almost distraught to discover that the conservatory she had been promised as a place to work is not at all suitable, and immediately sets about putting it to rights.  Yet her work is constantly interrupted – she has to go out for dress fittings, and to visit this place and that, when all she wants is to get back to her plants, her pots and making her special blend of manure and fishbone fertilizer.

Complicating things further is the fact that the Ashbys and the Turners seem to think that there is something more between Margaret and Rhys than a simple friendship born of an interest in science and academia.  And of course, there is.  It’s apparent to the reader straight away from the letters exchanged between the couple at the beginning of the book that they are more than half way toward being in love, but they continue to maintain that they are just friends, good friends, who happen to be interested in the same things.

Rhys was a doctor in the army, which is where he met Ashby and Turner, but he is the son of a viscount, a larger-than-life man who made fun of his bookish second son at every opportunity and whose sense of self-consequence and the superiority of his bloodlines unfortunately led to a quarrel with a neighbouring family which grew into something far more serious.  As a result, the viscount and his eldest son fled to the continent, where they both continue to reside with no apparent desire to return home.  But Rhys’ mother persists in the belief that if the disagreement between the two families can be patched up, her husband and son will return home and all will be well.  And the method of patching up is for Rhys to marry Miss Sylvia Morton, the lovely daughter of a self-made businessman who had the effrontery – in Lord Gray’s opinion – to purchase the neighbouring estate and set himself up as a gentleman.

Even before he met Margaret, Rhys was resistant to the idea of the marriage, knowing – as his mother refuses to acknowledge – that his father is quite happily living it up abroad and has no intention of returning to England.  But he is a dutiful son and loves his family – even though they drive him round the bend – and has so far found it impossible to tell his mother “no”.  Now that Margaret is in the picture, he is even less inclined to marry Sylvia, but can’t see a way to gently let down his emotionally fragile mother.

While this might seem like one of those very flimsily constructed “we can’t be together because I’ve got to marry someone else” plots at first, there’s more to it than that.  For one thing, Rhys’ dilemma is extremely well written and laid out so that even when one wants to yell at him to forget his bloody family and do something for himself for once, it’s easy to understand why he finds that so difficult to do.  In the absence of his father and older brother, he’s the man of the house and is the sole voice of calm and reason in what is, for the most part, a loveable, lively but somewhat unconventional (read bonkers!) family.  His younger brother is in his “sowing wild oats” phase; his older sister is unhappily married and possessed of a very sharp tongue; his youngest brother is a tearaway and his mother doesn’t seem to inhabit quite the same reality as everyone else!  Kate Noble paints a recognisable picture of family life complete with all its ups and downs and unpredictable messiness and somehow manages to make this bunch of collective pains in the arse rather endearing.

The romance between Rhys and Margaret is sweet and achingly tender, but not devoid of heat or passion.  I like the friends-to-lovers trope as a rule, and it’s beautifully done here, right from the opening epistolary exchanges through to the gradually dawning awareness of the other’s attractions and of the true nature of their feelings for one another.  Margaret is an especially appealing heroine; she has struggled with shyness and dislike of change all her life, and I admired her courage in deciding to get out there and try something new.  She is refreshingly natural and honest, and when push comes to shove, is prepared to stand up for what she wants with a compelling grace and quiet conviction. And Rhys is a charming hero, a genuinely good, decent man who is torn between wanting to help his family or pursuing happiness with the woman he loves.

On the surface, The Dare and the Doctor tells a fairly simple story, but further exploration reveals an understated complexity arising from richly detailed characterisation and exquisitely crafted emotional nuance which made it one of those books I finished with a sigh of contentment.  It’s not a ‘flashy’ book – there are no mysteries, spies, pirates, or other forms of derring-do to be found within its pages. But if you are looking for a rest from all that chasing around and appreciate a story replete with warmth, humour and subtlety, then I suggest you need look no further than this one.

The Salt Hendon Collection by Lucinda Brant (audiobook) – Narrated by Alex Wyndham

salt-hendon-collection-audio

This title may be purchased from Audible via Amazon.

This special boxed set edition is for all the fans who requested actor Alex Wyndham’s narration of two of Lucinda Brant’s best-loved books, Salt Bride and its sequel Salt Redux. Also included is a 20,000-word bonus novella, Salt Angel, featuring well-loved characters from the Salt books.

The Salt Hendon Collection is a great introduction to Lucinda Brant’s richly romantic 18th century world, and Alex Wyndham’s superlative voice talent.


Salt Bride When the Earl of Salt Hendon marries squire’s daughter Jane Despard, Society is aghast. But Jane and Salt share a secret past of heartache and mistrust. They are forced into a marriage neither wants; the Earl to honor a dying man’s wish; Jane to save her stepbrother from financial ruin. Beautiful inside and out, the patient and ever optimistic Jane believes love conquers all; the Earl will take some convincing. Enter Diana St. John, who has been living in a fool’s paradise believing she would be the next Countess of Salt Hendon. She will go to extreme lengths, even murder, to hold Salt’s attention. Can the newlyweds overcome past prejudices and sinister opposition to fall in love all over again?


Salt Redux Jane and Salt: Four years of Happily Ever After
Sir Antony Templestowe: Four years of Exile
Lady Caroline: Four years of Heartache
Diana St. John: Four years plotting Revenge
The time has come…

How does a brother cope with life knowing his sister is a murderess?
How can a nobleman have the life he has always wanted when a lurking evil consumes his thoughts and haunts his dreams?

What will it take for good to triumph over evil?

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – Salt Bride: B+ / Salt Redux: B

I first listened to Lucinda Brant’s Salt Bride and Salt Redux a few years back, when they were most ably narrated by Marian Hussey. This new edition of both books (plus the novella, Salt Angel, originally published in A Timeless Romance Anthology: Silver Bells Collection) includes the original version of Salt Bride, with the prologue reinstated (it was removed from subsequent editions of the book as it provoked some controversy) and the audios are narrated by the supremely talented Alex Wyndham, whose performances of Ms. Brant’s other novels have made quite the impression on fans of romance audiobooks.

A marriage made because of the conditions of a will and a deathbed promise is probably not the most auspicious beginning to a relationship. But those are the conditions under which Miss Jane Despard is forced to accept the hand of Magnus Sinclair, the Earl of Salt Hendon (known as Salt). In order for her beloved step-brother to receive the bulk of his inheritance, Jane must marry before a certain date, and in order to fulfil a promise made to a dying man, Salt is obliged to offer for the woman who heartlessly jilted him four years earlier. He and Jane met during her début season and fell deeply in love, eagerly anticipating their vows on the night he proposed to her. Salt was called away before they could make the engagement official but failed to return – even when Jane sent him a note telling him she was pregnant – and later broke their engagement by letter. So Jane is bewildered when, on the first occasion they have seen each other in four years, Salt seems to feel that he is the injured party and makes it clear in no uncertain terms that his offer is made only because he is honour bound to make it and that once they are married, he intends to send her to live in the country while he continues with his life in London. But Jane is no simpering miss and makes Salt aware that she is just as unhappy about the situation as he is.

As the couple settle into their married life and each realises that they never really fell out of love, there is sufficient mistrust and uncertainty between them for neither to want to make the first move and admit it.   Jane becomes more and more convinced that Salt never knew of her pregnancy – but doesn’t know why her letter never reached him, and is still confused as to why he ended their betrothal so abruptly.  And Salt comes to realise that Jane’s life during their separation was not at all what he had supposed, and that his assumptions about her have been based on falsehoods.

The arranged marriage is a favourite trope of mine, and this one is bound up in all sorts of deliberately engineered misunderstandings and behind-the-scenes machinations by the villain of the piece, Lady Diana St. John, Salt’s cousin and the widow of his best friend.  She is obsessed by Salt to the point of insanity – but knowing that he will never marry her, she nonetheless aims to keep him for herself by acting as his hostess and remaining constantly at his side through the glittering political career for which she believes he is destined.

Diana is a well-realised character, even though she’s dangerously close to being over-the-top. She’s so devious and clever that there are times it seems as though she might actually get away with her nefarious schemes; and the depths to which she will go in order to obtain what she wants are truly horrifying when they are finally revealed.

One word of warning – Salt Bride opens with the rather traumatic scene of a young woman (Jane) in the midst of a deliberately induced miscarriage, which, while not graphic, may nonetheless prove upsetting.  This prologue was removed from the second edition of the book (and the Marian Hussey version of the audio) – and the information is drip-fed through the rest of the story (the miscarriage scene is still present in a slightly different form).  Personally, I prefer that version of the story, but the placement of that scene makes no difference to the way the story plays out.


Salt Redux picks up the story of the Salt Hendons some four years after the ending of Salt Bride.  Salt, Jane and their young family are happily living in the country away from the goldfish bowl of London, but decide that it is time for them to return and for Salt to resume his political career.  We learn that in the intervening years,  Sir Anthony Templestowe, Salt’s closest friend and relative (and a prominent secondary character in the previous book) was sent to St. Petersburg on a diplomatic posting following a public melt-down and descent into alcoholism; Salt’s sister, Caroline – with whom Anthony has been in love for years – married another man, and the evil Diana was exiled to a remote corner of Wales where she lives on one of Salt’s estates, surrounded by servants who are actually her jailers.

But four years in isolation has not quashed Diana’s ambitions one jot, and her obsession with Salt and hatred for Jane are stronger than ever.  After lots of careful planning and waiting, she poisons her guard, makes her escape and heads straight for London where she begins to re-insert herself into a society that was never made aware of the extent of her misdeeds, believing instead that she had gone abroad in the wake of her heartbreak over Salt’s marriage.  This decision, made in order to spare the families the massive scandal that would have ensued on revelation of the truth, naturally comes back to bite everyone in the backside, as it enables Diana to hide in plain sight and to begin her campaign to insert herself back into Salt’s life.

News of her escape brings a much healthier, dried-out Anthony back to London where he is shocked and annoyed to find Diana in residence at his town house.  Knowing that her presence is almost certain to mean danger for the Salt Hendons, Anthony decides the best policy is to play along with his sister in order to discover her intentions and then make sure they are thwarted.  Running parallel with the continuation of this storyline is that of Anthony’s romance with Caroline, who is now a widow.  There is a little hiccup along the way, with Caroline believing herself unworthy of so good a man, but fortunately, this isn’t dragged out and Caroline very sensibly determines to make a clean breast of it to the man she loves before accepting his proposal.  Their romance is fairly low key, however, as the driving force of the novel is the Diana plotline, which contains some truly nail-biting moments. With that said, however, there are times in the first part of the book when the imparting of information is deliberately delayed; and while I normally enjoy Ms. Brant’s detailed descriptions of the clothes, food, locations and customs of the period, I can’t deny that they sometimes hinder the progression of the plot.  But that isn’t always the case, and her descriptions of the customs of the Russian court are vivid and interesting.  She also handles the key moment of Anthony’s confession to Caroline very well indeed.


The set is finished off by the novella Salt Angel, which sees Kitty Aldershot, a secondary character from Salt Redux, get her happy ending with Jane’s brother, Tom, with a little help along the way from a delightfully charming, elderly Russian prince.


Given the highly accomplished performances Alex Wyndham has already delivered in a number of Ms. Brandt’s other books, it’s no wonder that she took the rather unusual step of having him re-record these stories.  His delivery and pacing are spot on, and he continues to display exceptional vocal acting skills when it comes to bringing out the emotional nuances behind the author’s words.  His character differentiation is absolutely superb; I didn’t count the number of characters who appear in both Salt Bride and Salt Redux, but the cast is quite large and every single member, regardless of gender, age or station, is easily distinguishable from the others.  His female voices are among the best I’ve ever heard from any male narrator, so the high-born ladies – Jane, Diana and Caroline – all sound as ladies of quality should. It’s easy to tell them apart, however, and Diana’s sneering hauteur is perfectly judged.  The two heroes – Salt and Anthony – are flawlessly portrayed.  Salt’s deep, resonant tones expertly conjure up the portrait of a man of power and influence who exudes confidence and latent sensuality, while Anthony’s velvety baritone works wonderfully to convey the character’s deep sense of honour and compassion.  Anyone who has listened to Mr. Wyndham before will know that he is an outstanding narrator, and anyone who hasn’t – well, you’re missing out and really should give him a try.

Coming in at just under twenty-four hours, listening to the set all in one go is a big commitment, but it’s obviously possible to divide it up into its constituent parts and tackle one story at a time. Salt Bride is probably the stronger of the two books, and while Salt Redux could just about be listened to on its own, I wouldn’t advise it, as so many of the characters and plotlines are introduced in the first book, and this is very much a continuation of that story.

But with Alex Wyndham at the helm, listening for long stretches is no hardship!


Breakdown of Grade:  Narration: A+  Content:  Salt Bride: B+/Salt Redux: B

Running Time: 23 hours and 50 minutes

Note:  The Salt Hendon Collection, narrated by Alex Wyndham is available ONLY as a boxed set of the two novels and the novella.  Salt Bride and Salt Redux continue to be available individually, narrated by Marian Hussey.