A Proposal to Risk Their Friendship (Liberated Ladies #5) by Louise Allen

a proposal to risk their friendshipuk

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An unconventional friendship

Could ruin their reputations…

Respecting each other’s desire for independence, Lord Henry Cary and writer Melissa Taverner enjoy an uncomplicated friendship. Henry finds her amusing, intelligent company, but she’s also an attractive woman and he’s alarmed to find lust sneaking in… Having always viewed marriage as a cold matter of convenience, Henry dare not risk their friendship with a proposal. Yet when their closeness sparks rumours, he might not have a choice!

Rating: B

A Proposal to Risk Their Friendship is book five in Louise Allen’s Regency-set Liberated Ladies series, but although I haven’t read the previous books and the heroes and heroines of those stories do make brief appearances in this one, they’re very much in supporting roles and this book works perfectly well as a standalone.  I liked the leads, their relationship is well-written, and they have strong chemistry, but their friendship springs up too quickly for it to be completely believable, which caused me to knock my final grade down a bit.

Lord Henry Cary meets Miss Melissa Taverner in rather unusual circumstances.  They’re both taking the air in the gardens of a grand house where they’re attending a ball, and intervene to prevent a young lady being dragged away against her will.  Returned to the ballroom afterwards, Henry spots the tall, dark-haired rescuer and approaches her to congratulate her on her tactics.  She introduces herself, makes Henry known to her circle of friends (which includes a duke, a marquess and two earls and their wives – the heroes and heroines of the previous books in the series) and before he departs, Henry asks if he may call on her to make sure that Harlby – the man she ran off – doesn’t make a nuisance of himself.

Spirited and intelligent, Melissa managed to persuade her father to allow her to live independently in London with only her somewhat absent-minded aunt as chaperone.  Her parents’ marriage has not given her an especially favourable opinion of the institution – her father is a “domestic tyrant” – and at twenty-five, she’s decided it’s not for her.  Instead, she will satisfy herself with her very good friends and her writing; she’s already written articles for a variety of popular journals and is writing a novel (or several) she hopes to publish, too.

When Henry calls the day after the ball, he’s pleasantly surprised at the ease with which he and Melissa fall into conversation and finds himself intrigued.  He’s simultaneously not quite sure what to make of her and amused and invigorated by her conversation – and he invites her to walk in the park with him the next day.

This walk engenders further open conversation, and even though they acknowledge that they hardly know each other, they both realise that they feel comfortable with one another in a way that doesn’t happen very often.  Henry suggests they’re “friends at first sight” – and before long they’re on first-name terms and telling each other more about their lives and backgrounds.  Melissa tells Henry about her family, her decision not to marry and her writing; he tells her about his diplomatic work, his family and his parents’ uninspiring marriage.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

Mine Till Midnight (Hathaways #1) by Lisa Kleypas (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

mine till midnight

Their lives defy convention . . .

When an unexpected inheritance elevates her family to the ranks of the aristocracy, Amelia Hathaway discovers that tending to her younger sisters and wayward brother was easy compared to navigating the intricacies of the ton. Even more challenging: the attraction she feels for the tall, dark and dangerously handsome Cam Rohan.

Their desire consumes them both . . .

Wealthy beyond most men’s dreams, Cam has tired of society’s petty restrictions and longs to return to his ‘uncivilized’ Gypsy roots. When the delectable Amelia appeals to him for help, he intends to offer only friendship – but intentions are no match for the desire that blindsides them both. Can a man who spurns tradition be tempted into that most time-honoured arrangement: marriage? Life in London society is about to get a whole lot hotter . . .

Rating: Narration – A; Content – C+

Mine Till Midnight is book one in Lisa Kleypas’s series about the Hathaway family; it was published in 2007 and an audio recording – with Rosalyn Landor at the microphone – was released in 2009. That version was never available worldwide however; only one or two of the series was actually available in the UK before now (the same is true of the earlier and perennially popular (pun intended!) Wallflower series.) Last year, I noticed first two or three titles in the Hathaways series appearing at Audible UK and immediately assumed that they were reissues of the 2009 recordings – but they’re not; they’re brand new recordings.

The five Hathaway siblings were not born to wealth and privilege. Instead, they were thrust into the upper echelons of society when Leo – the only male sibling – inherited a viscountcy from a distant relative, although unfortunately, the title comes with only a modest fortune. Leo has been in a downward spiral for the last year or so, since the death of the young woman he planned to marry, which is how come we first meet our heroine Amelia – the oldest of the four female Hathaways – as she is planning to drag Leo out of Jenner’s (the club owned by Sebastian St. Vincent). She’s accompanied by her adoptive brother Merripen – a Rom (here’s one change from the original – “Gypsy” has been changed to “Rom”) – and they pull up outside the club in time to witness an altercation between some obviously drunk patrons who are vying for the attentions of a prostitute. Before things can get nasty, the fight is broken up by another man – a younger one with dark hair, gleaming hazel eyes and the face of an angel who, for all he is dressed like a gentleman, obviously isn’t one. He’s Cam Rohan (also a Rom), the club’s manager – and just looking at him is enough to take Amelia’s breath away. But she quickly squashes the ripples of nerves and heat that run through her to focus on her reason for being there, irritated when Rohan waves off her concern for her brother as nothing to do with him. It’s only when Merripen speaks to him in their own language that he at last agrees to allow them inside to search for Leo, and on learning that Leo has left the club for a nearby brothel, and of Amelia’s intention to seek him out there, Cam arranges transportation and accompanies them to retrieve the errant viscount.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Prairie Bride (Dodge City Brides #1) by Julianne Maclean (audiobook) – Narrated by Charlotte North

Prairie Bride

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

A loveless marriage of convenience on the Kansas prairie turns out to be far more than she bargained for….

He’s part of the west 

Briggs Brigman has been burned once before, and the last thing he needs is a beautiful wife who will spend hours in front of the mirror, primping herself. He knows how hard the prairie can be on a woman, and all he wants is a stalwart bride who won’t complain about hauling water from the creek….

She’s a city girl with no idea what she’s in for….

All Sarah MacFarland wants is to escape her fearful life in Boston and start fresh with a new identity. Answering an advertisement for a mail order bride seems like the perfect solution, until she meets her soon-to-be husband – a ruggedly handsome, strapping farmer who leaves her breathless on their wedding night. But is it possible that two tormented souls can find happiness, when all they know is betrayal, and when trust is the only way out of a tumultuous past that simply won’t stay buried? 

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – C

The mail order bride trope is a common one in Western Historical Romance, but up until now, I haven’t actually read or listened to one. When Julianne Maclean’s Prairie Bride – book one in her Dodge City Brides series – showed up with the excellent Charlotte North listed as the narrator, I decided it was time to give one a go.

Even though I have no direct experience with this trope, I’ve been around Romancelandia long enough to have been able to make a reasonable guess as to what the story would be about – and I was pretty much spot on. A young woman running from her past travels from the city to the back of beyond to marry a man she’s never seen, doesn’t expect quite the primitive standard of her new home but decides to make the best of it, falls for her husband (who is, fortunately, hot as hell) her past catches up with her, drama ensues – The End.

If by that you infer that the story is predictable – then you’re inferring correctly.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

How to Catch a Duke (Rogues to Riches #6) by Grace Burrowes

how to catch a duke uk

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‘I have come to ask you to kill me, my lord.’

Miss Abigail Abbott desperately needs to disappear-permanently-and the only person she trusts to help her do that is Lord Stephen Wentworth, heir to the Duke of Walden. Stephen is brilliant, charming, and-when he needs to be-absolutely ruthless. So ruthless that he proposes marriage instead of “murder” to keep Abigail safe.

Stephen was smitten the instant his sister introduced him to Abigail, a woman with the dignity and determination of a duchess and the courage of a lioness. When she accepts his courtship of convenience, he also discovers she kisses like his most intimate wish come true. For Abigail, their arrangement is a sham to escape her dangerous enemies. For Stephen, it’s his one chance to share a lifetime with the lady of his dreams-if only he can convince her his love is real.

Rating: B-

How to Catch a Duke is the sixth and final book in Grace Burrowes’ Rogues to Riches series about the members of the Wentworth family.  The first book – My One and Only Duke – saw a ducal title conferred upon Quinton Wentworth, a wealthy banker from extremely humble origins who grew up doing whatever jobs he could find in order to provide for his younger siblings, and subsequent books have followed the various family members as they’ve each found their HEAs.  The hero of How to Catch a Duke is Stephen, Quinn’s younger brother and heir whom we first met as a brilliant, mercurial teen whose insight and often biting wit was shadowed by melancholy, and whose frustrations over his disability – his abusive father smashed Stephen’s knee when he was a child and he needs a cane (sometimes two) to walk – came through strongly.  Ten years later, Stephen is still brilliant and mercurial; he’s also charming, loyal, generous and quite ruthless when he wants to be and hasn’t let his physical limitations stop him from shagging his way across the continent or from ‘dallying’ extensively in England with a variety of willing partners.

When this book opens, Stephen receives a visit from Miss Abigail Abbott, the enquiry agent who recently did some work for his sister Constance (The Truth About Dukes).  In a dramatic opening, Abigail tells Stephen that she has “come to ask you to murder me, my lord.”  – which is, of course, not what she means at all; what she wants is to disappear while she attempts to find out why someone – a marquess no less – is out to do her harm.  Abigail is cagey, but Stephen – being Stephen – quickly works out who it is and promptly offers to kill him instead.

The next morning over breakfast, Abigail explains that Lord Stapleton believes her to be in possession of some letters he wants returned – which she is unable to do as she no longer has them.  She refuses to answer Stephen’s questions as to the identity of the writer and recipient of the letters, simply saying that the marquess is not entitled to them and is clearly prepared to go to any lengths to get them.  Stephen recognises that Abigail – whom he already admires for her spirit and no-nonsense attitude (and lusts after for her other attributes) – is genuinely scared, and suggests that instead of faking her death, they should pretend to be engaged and that she should go to stay under Quinn’s protection at Walden House while they work out how to retrieve the letters or get Stapleton to stop hounding her – and preferably both.
I’m generally a fan of Grace Burrowes’ novels, although I’ve long since given up trying to keep up with them all! I enjoy her quirky writing style and the strong familial connections she creates in her stories, and although I haven’t read all the books in this series, I’ve read enough of them to be able to know who most of the characters are and how they relate to one another – so this isn’t the place to start with the Wentworths! But with all that said, I had a number of issues with the book that mean I can’t grade it more highly. The plot is stretched thin and moves very slowly until well into the second half, and I didn’t feel a great deal of chemistry between Stephen and Abigail, who become lovers very quickly, before they really know each other. And while I applaud Ms. Burrowes for writing a couple who talk frankly about sex and their past relationships, I found it hard to believe a young unmarried woman – even one who had had a lover – would have felt comfortable discussing such things with a man she didn’t know all that well. Then there’s the fact that Stephen makes no bones about the fact that he’s had intimate relationships with a few men as well as women, and Abigail takes that in her stride, too (as, it seems, do other members of the family). On the one hand, it’s great to see such a supportive, non-judgmental reaction, but on the other, their easy, unconcerned acceptance seemed too modern.

The best thing about the book is undoubtedly Stephen, probably the most complex and damaged character of all the Wentworths. He’s living with a terrible secret as well as a disability that has caused many to see him as ‘less than’ and has spent most of his life compensating for it in one way and another; not just in his legendary prowess between the sheets, but in many other ways, too, channelling what had been, in youth, self-destructive impulses into creative ones. The other thing I really liked was the new and greater understanding that develops between him and Quinn. Although Stephen had no wish to feel it, he couldn’t help resenting Quinn for being able to do things he couldn’t and for being able to escape their father’s cruelties, and Quinn has seen Stephen as somewhat spoiled, and self-indulgent, and has even been jealous of his intelligence. There’s never been any question that they’d do anything for each other, but they’ve always been a bit wary of each other, too, and I was pleased to see those misunderstandings finally laid to rest.

There’s a large-ish secondary cast of Wentworth siblings and in-laws I enjoyed re-visting, the villain of the piece is suitably nasty (although no match for Stephen), and the author skilfully weaves a realistic look at the plight of the less fortunate into the background of the story – whether it’s the soldiers returning from war to find there was no work and no help for them, or children, forced to work from the age of six as climbing boys or in mines and factories.

I liked many things about How to Catch a Duke, but unfortunately, the romance isn’t at the top of the list. I’ve been intrigued by Stephen since he first appeared in the book one, so I had high hopes for his book and I really wanted to like it more than I did, but even so, it’s certainly worth a qualified recommendation.

What the Devil Knows (Sebastian St. Cyr #16) by C.S. Harris

what the devil knows

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It’s October 1814. The war with France is finally over, Europe’s diplomats are convening in Vienna for a conference that will put their world back together, and London finds itself in the grip of a series of terrifying murders eerily similar to the shocking Ratcliffe Highway murders of three years before.

In 1811, two entire families were brutally murdered in their homes. A suspect – a young Irish seaman named John Murphy – was arrested. But before he could be brought to trial, Murphy hanged himself in his cell. The murders ceased, and London slowly began to breathe easier. But when the lead investigator, Sir Edwin Pym, is killed in the same brutal way, suddenly everyone is talking about the heinous crimes again, and the city is paralysed with terror. Was the wrong man arrested for the murders? Has a vicious serial killer decided it’s time to kill again?

Bow Street magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy turns to his friend Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, for assistance. Pym’s colleagues are convinced his manner of death is a coincidence, but Sebastian has his doubts. The more he looks into the three-year-old murders, the more certain he becomes that the hapless John Murphy was not the real killer. Which begs the question – who was?

Rating: B+

This sixteenth book in C.S Harris’ series of historical mysteries featuring aristocratic sleuth Sebastian St. Cyr is an entertaining page-turner which sees Sebastian investigating a number of particularly gruesome murders in and around London’s East End. As always with these books, the historical background is fascinating and incredibly well researched (it’s always worth reading the Author’s Note at the end; not only will you learn new things, you’ll learn just how skilfully Ms. Harris incorporates actual historical events into her stories), and the mystery is well-paced, with plenty of twists, turns and red herrings.

At the beginning of What the Devil Knows, Sebastian is called in by his friend, Bow Street magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy, to help investigate the murder of Shadwell magistrate, Sir Edwin Pym, whose body was found in a dank alleyway in Wapping with his head smashed in and his throat slit from ear to ear. Sebastian and Lovejoy are immediately reminded of the brutal slayings, three years earlier, of two families known as the Ratcliffe Highway Murders. A linen draper and a publican were the seemingly unconnected victims and although a man was arrested for the crime, he was found hanged in his prison cell the day before his trial and the investigation was closed. There were whispers at the time that the magistrates – of whom Pym was one – were too eager to blame a conveniently dead man, but the murders ceased and eventually, the gossip died down. But Pym and another man – a seaman named Hugo Reeves – who was murdered some ten days earlier, were killed in exactly the same way as the Ratcliffe Highway victims – and Sebastian and Lovejoy can’t help but wonder if they are the work of the copyist or an accomplice… or if they’re the work of the person responsible for the earlier murders, who managed to escape justice three years earlier.

After making a few inquiries and observations of his own, it doesn’t take long for Sebastian to become fairly sure that John Williams, the supposed culprit who hanged himself, was not only not guilty of the original murders, but that he was framed for them, and when another magistrate – Nathan Cockerwell from Middlesex – is found dead just days later, his head bashed in and his throat slit, Sebastian is more sure than ever that the two sets of murders are somehow connected. Discovering that both Pym and Cockerwell were part of an alliance between corrupt government officials and some of the city’s richest, most powerful brewers, who forced public houses to purchase their beer and spirits from them and would put them out of business if they refused, Sebastian slowly starts to piece together a bigger picture and to draw together the links between the three-year-old murders and the more recent deaths of Reeves, Pym and Cockerwell.

The story that follows is fast-moving and satisfyingly complex, as Sebastian moves from suspect to suspect, many of whom have much to hide and are rarely forthcoming.  As always, the author skilfully incorporates some of the lesser-known histories of London into her plot, and the way Sebastian pieces together all the snippets of information – and weeds out the lies he’s fed along the way – is superbly done, with lots of character interaction, investigative pondering and insightful observation about the huge disparity that existed between the haves and have-nots, and the injustices perpetrated on the lower echelons of society by greedy public officials and institutions that were supposed to exist for the betterment of all, not just a self-serving few.

Sebastian continues to be a compelling, sympathetic character, and one of the things I so enjoy about this series is watching him grow and change from the hot-headed younger man who was careless of his own safety to a devoted husband and father, a truly and deeply compassionate man who believes strongly in justice and in using his position and abilities to speak for those who are unable to speak for themselves.  His wife, Hero – daughter of the devious, formidable Lord Jarvis  – shares his interests and convictions; she is an investigative journalist who writes about what life is really like for London’s poor and less fortunate, and I love how in-tune they are and the way they are each other’s staunch support.  She has a relatively small part to play in this story, but her discoveries pack a considerable emotional punch as she interacts with young women making a living on the streets, telling stories about their lives and experiences that are far from pretty.

As with the last few books in the series, the standalone mystery takes precedence,  so a reader new to it could jump in here and not feel as though they’re missing anything.  This has been the case with the last couple of books; the long-running storylines concerning Sebastian’s search for the truth about his heritage – and particularly his search for his mother – his relationship with his father, and the machinations of the Machiavellian Lord Jarvis are present, but are simmering along on the back-burner.  Sebastian learns that his mother has been living in Paris, but that she’s recently removed to Vienna – where European heads of state are gathering to put “the world back together after the defeat of that Corsican upstart” – under an assumed name, but has no idea why; Jarvis’ relationship with the cunning and mercenary Victoria Hart-Davis (were ever two villainous characters so well suited to each other?) progresses, and changes are afoot in Sebastian’s household.  As the timeline of the series inches closer to Napoléon’s escape from Elba and to Waterloo, I become more and more intrigued as to what lies in store for Sebastian – and I certainly plan on sticking around to find out.

What the Devil Knows is another strong instalment in the Sebastian St. Cyr series.  The mystery is gripping and tightly-written and the author’s descriptive prose is – as always – so wonderfully evocative that the reader can feel the dampness of the creeping fog , see the crowded tap-rooms and hear the gulls screeching overhead around the docks.  Why is it not a DIK?  Simply because I’m starting to feel the need for a bit more movement on issues surrounding Sebastian’s history; this seems to have been pushed aside in the last few books in the series – and while I can sort of understand the author wishing to keep this particular mystery going a bit longer as she obviously has more stories to tell, cynical me can’t help but see the drawing out of it as a delaying tactic.

But don’t let that put you off; this series is one of the best (if not THE best) historical mystery series around, and What the Devil Knows is another fantastic read.

To Love and to Loathe (Regency Vows #2) by Martha Waters

to love and to loathe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

The only thing they can agree on is that the winner takes all

The widowed Diana, Lady Templeton, and Jeremy, Marquess of Willingham, are as infamous for their bickering as for their flirtation.

Shortly before a fortnight-long house party at Jeremy’s country estate, Diana is shocked when he appears at her home with an unexpected proposition.

After finding his latest mistress unimpressed with his bedroom skills, Jeremy suggests that they embark on a brief affair. He trusts Diana to critique him honestly, and she’ll use the gossip to signal to other gentlemen that she is interested in taking a lover.

Diana has bet Jeremy that he will marry within the year, and she intends to use his proposal to her advantage.

But in this battle, should the real wager be who will lose their heart to the other first?

Rating: B+

To Love and To Loathe is the follow-up to Martha Waters’ 2020 début historical romance, To Have and To Hoax.  AAR’s reviewer was less than impressed with it, citing problems with the premise and immaturity of the leads, and overall, reviews were mixed. With so many other books to review on my plate, I didn’t get around to reading it, so I can’t offer an opinion.  But I wanted to give the author a try, so I picked up this second book in The Regency Vows series, because I am a sucker for that whole Beatrice and Benedick sparring-couple-who-are-desperately-in-love-but-would-deny-it-to-the-death thing.  And I’m glad I did, because To Love and To Loathe is funny, clever and sexy, featuring complex, well-rounded characters and incorporating pertinent observations about the nature of privilege and the unfairness of the patriarchal norms and laws that deprived women of autonomy.

At the age of eighteen, the Honourable Diana Bourne is well aware that most men are fools, but a man doesn’t need to be clever to be possessed of a hefty fortune, which is exactly what she’s looking for.  Since the death of their parents, she and her brother have lived with relatives who have seen her as nothing but a burden and who resent the expense her presence incurs.  So Diana is determined to snare a wealthy husband so she will never have to worry about something as vulgar as money ever again.

The one tiny glitch in her plan is her brother’s best friend, Jeremy Overington, Marquess of Willingham, who while just as much of a fool as every other man, is nonetheless a massively enticing fool who has only to walk into a room to turn the head of every woman in it – and set Diana’s heart beating just a bit faster than she would like.  But no matter how handsome and charming Jeremy is (or how strongly she’s attracted to him), he’s irresponsible,  overly fond of drink and women, and – most importantly – almost broke, so he won’t suit Diana’s purposes at all.

A few years later, Diana is a wealthy widow and Jeremy is still cutting a swathe through the beds of the bored wives and widows of the ton.  Their inability to agree on anything is widely known throughout society, as is the fact they’re engaged in a game of one-upmanship involving a constant barrage of well-aimed barbs and cleverly chosen put-downs.  On one particular evening when Willingham again scoffs at the idea of matrimony, Diana impulsively wagers him that he’ll be married within the year – or she’ll pay him the sum of one hundred pounds.  Of course, Willingham accepts – and only afterwards does Diana realise it was perhaps not the wisest thing she’s ever done, because honestly, she can’t see him marrying in the next twelve months, either.

Shortly after the wager is made – and just before Diana is to travel to Jeremy’s country estate for his annual house party – he comes to her seeking her help on a very delicate matter.  His most recent mistress implied he couldn’t satisfy her in bed – and Jeremy can’t get her accusations out of his mind.  Looking for reassurance, he turns to the only woman he knows he can rely on to tell him the absolute truth – and suggests to Diana that they embark on a brief affair during the house party.  Diana isn’t inclined to agree to this – until he points out that a discreet affair with him will send the right signals to other gentlemen that she is interested in taking a lover.

“I’m not certain that the signal I’m looking to send is that I’ve joined the legion of women who’ve lifted their skirts for the Marquess of Willingham.  I’m surprised they haven’t formed a society. With matching hats.”

She’s still not convinced – until Jeremy points out:

“If nothing else, it would finally dispel whatever this is between us,” he added, waving his hand at the space between them… “And don’t tell me you don’t know what I mean… Because I know you do.”

Of course as any romance reader knows, the old let’s-do-it-once-to-get-it-out-of-our-systems chestnut never works the way the participants intend it to.  Diana and Jeremy are obviously head-over-heels for each other from the get-go and have been that way for years, but there are obstacles preventing both of them from fully acknowledging the truth of their feelings for one another – obstacles that feel authentic to who these two people are; flawed but immensely likeable characters who learn about themselves as they gradually reveal more of their true selves to each other.

I really liked that Diana and Jeremy were so clear-sighted about each other, even as they had things to learn about one another.  Jeremy viewed the younger Diana’s eagerness to marry as somewhat mercenary, but didn’t know the reasons behind it; Diana suspects Jeremy is hiding his intelligence behind the wastrel he presents to society, but hasn’t fully understood the depth of his grief and anger over the death of the older brother who left him with a title and responsibilities he’d not been brought up to and didn’t want.  They’re both perspicacious and fully up to each other’s weight when it comes to their ‘merry war’, and their chemistry as they snark and flirt their way towards their HEA is terrific.

I liked them individually and together.  Diana is clever and funny and her status as a widow means she’s allowed more freedom to do as she wants than an unmarried woman would be, so her reluctance to consider giving up her independence in another marriage is understandable. And I loved Jeremy, a decent, considerate, generous man who has spent years making certain no-one would ever expect anything of him or take him too seriously because of his deep sense of unworthiness.  Their inner conflicts are very well articulated and I loved watching them come to a greater understanding of one another.

I really enjoyed the book, but there are a few things that keep it just out of DIK territory.   Part of Diana’s plan to win the wager involves her trying to find someone else to get Jeremy married off to – and she decides to throw him together with Lady Helen, a young woman known to be desperate to find a husband and who is widely disliked.  Hints are dropped that Lady Helen is not what she seems, but Diana doesn’t know this and her determination to marry the man she loves (even if she isn’t ready to admit to it) to a young woman who is so patently wrong for him and would make him utterly miserable just didn’t sit right with me.  I get that it was a mark of Diana’s desperation not to admit to how she felt about Jeremy, but it felt childish and petty.

The Big Mis that occurs near the end is a misfire, and I wasn’t wild about the amount of time given to setting up a future book in the series, which interrupted the flow of the main narrative. It’s well done and skilfully integrated into conversation and multi-character scenes, but I could still have done with a bit less of it.

All in all however, To Love and To Loathe is great fun. The writing is crisp and clever, the characters are engaging and the dialogue sparkles.  For those of you who – like me –  have been struggling to find really good historical romance lately, I’m happy to say that it’s well worth a look.

A Lady’s Formula for Love (Secret Scientists of London #1) by Elizabeth Everett (audiobook) – Narrated by Elizabeth Jasicki

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

What is a Victorian lady’s formula for love? Mix one brilliant noblewoman and her enigmatic protection officer. Add in a measure of danger and attraction. Heat over the warmth of humor and friendship, and the result is more than simple chemistry – it’s elemental.

Lady Violet is keeping secrets. First, she founded a clandestine sanctuary for England’s most brilliant female scientists. Second, she is using her genius on a confidential mission for the Crown. But the biggest secret of all? Her feelings for protection officer Arthur Kneland.

Solitary and reserved, Arthur learned the hard way to put duty first. But the more time he spends in the company of Violet and the eccentric club members, the more his best intentions go up in flames. Literally.

When a shadowy threat infiltrates Violet’s laboratories, endangering her life and her work, scientist and bodyguard will find all their theories put to the test – and learn that the most important discoveries are those of the heart.

Rating: Narration – C+; Content – C

I’ve always loved historical romance, and although I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find historicals to enjoy (so much HR right now features twenty-first century people in costume) I still look out for new authors to try. Elizabeth Everett’s début romance, A Lady’s Formula for Love, was getting quite a bit of advance buzz, narrator Elizabeth Jasicki is experienced in the genre – although I don’t think I’ve listened to her before – so I decided to give this one a go, and… I really wish I could tell you it was great. But I can’t.

The widowed Violet Hughes, Lady Greycliff, is a brilliant chemist and the founder of Athena’s Retreat, ostensibly a social club for ladies, but really a place for them to indulge their passion for science and to undertake research, somewhere they can use their brains and display their intelligence freely without having their ideas belittled by men. But word has leaked out about the true purpose of the club, and Violet has received threats against her and the club that her stepson William, Viscount Greycliff (who is a government agent) suspects originate from a radical, anti-government group. Grey has to be away from London for a few weeks, so he engages Arthur Kneland, a former colleague and experienced protection officer, to act as bodyguard for Violet while he’s away.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Rogue to Remember (League of Scoundrels #1) by Emily Sullivan

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After enduring five interminable seasons, Lottie Carlisle has had enough of shallow London society, her boring little life, and her uncle Alfred’s meddling. When he demands she accept a proposal by the end of next season or else he will choose a husband for her, she devises a plan: create a scandal shocking enough to make her unmarriageable and spend her spinsterhood far enough away in the countryside where no one will ever recognize her.

Alec Gresham hasn’t seen Lottie since he left his childhood friend without a word five years ago. So he’s not surprised to find her furious when he appears on her doorstep. Especially bearing the news he brings: her uncle is dying, her blasted reputation is still intact, and Lottie must return home. As they make the journey back to her family estate, it becomes increasingly clear that the last five years hasn’t erased their history, nor their explosive chemistry. Can Lottie look past her old heartache and trust Alec, or will his secrets doom their relationship once again?

Rating; B-

This historical romance début from Emily Sullivan shows promise, but despite its good points (likeable characters with great chemistry and well-written love scenes) the book is ultimately derailed by a lack of focus and clear direction, uneven pacing, nonsensical plot points and some poor editing.  That the author’s ability to actually write shines through is what earns A Rogue to Remember book a (very) cautious recommendation – she’s worth checking out, because if those problems can be eliminated, then she could very well become an author to watch.

At twenty-four, Lottie Carlisle has had enough of London Seasons and the marriage mart.  After causing a scandal when she publicly rejected the suitor her uncle favoured (the heir to an almost bankrupt earldom who wanted her fortune), she decided enough was enough and set out to ruin her reputation so as to put herself beyond the pale.  Sent out of the country on a trip to Italy with a battleaxe of a chaperone – and also with a warning from her uncle that she’ll be married to a man of his choosing before the year is out – she gives the chaperone the slip and leaves behind a note saying (or strongly implying) that she’s run off with her Italian lover.  She hasn’t, of course; instead, she poses as a widow and heads for the cottage in the small Tuscan village where her late parents had spent their honeymoon.  She’s leased it for a year and intends to live a quiet but independent life there. (The fact she’s planned to live in Italy without being able to speak more than a few words of Italian bugged me right off the bat.)

Lottie has managed this quiet independent existence for a few months when, out of the blue, she receives a visit from someone she hasn’t seen in years – Alec Gresham, the boy she’d grown up with, and the young man who’d broken her heart when he left England without a word five years earlier.  Alec was her uncle’s ward, and was groomed by him for a career as a spy (Lottie’s uncle Sir Alfred appears to be a mild-mannered eccentric, but is actually a ruthless government spymaster) – even though Alec’s real interest was ancient history and he wanted to pursue an academic life.  Alec and Lottie were both orphans and they had something of an idyllic childhood, growing together as they grew up, and slowly falling in love.  But when Alec asked for permission to marry Lottie, Sir Alfred refused, telling Alec he’d ruin his life if he didn’t leave the country immediately and start working as one of his agents. Between the scandal of his birth and his complete lack of funds, Alec was convinced he could never give Lottie the life she deserved and scurried off with his tail between his legs.

Now, five years later, Alec has been sent to bring Lottie back to England because her uncle is seriously ill and probably dying.  Lottie isn’t happy to see him (even as she can’t deny that even after five years and serious heartbreak she’s still attracted to him) and is even less so to hear that the news of her flight with her imaginary lover has been hushed up and her reputation is still more or less intact. After many argumentative exchanges (all dripping with lust and longing), Lottie agrees to return on condition they stop off in Venice.

The next part of the story is the road-trip (and yes, there’s Only One Bed, accidental (post-bathing) ogling and lots of lusty imaginings – oh, and that one time Lottie can see “the sizeable bulge at the front of his trousers” even though Alec has his back to her. #editingfail.)  But in general, it’s nicely done with some good descriptive prose, and I appreciated the non-English setting.  When Lottie and Alec get to Venice, the author introduces one of Alec’s colleagues for no good reason (other than to signal ‘next hero’, I presume) together with a spy-plot in which Alec is ordered to cozy up to a French widow with connections to a German arms dealer.  There’s a fight to the death (well, almost) and a daring escape, but this subplot doesn’t really go anywhere, and while I suppose it’s intended to show us exactly why Alec is The Best Spy Evah (according to Sir Alfred, he has “the best instincts I’ve ever seen”) – it actually makes him seem rather inept.  And the final chapters, after Lottie returns to England, veer off into melodrama territory, with a dastardly plot to force Lottie into marriage and the introduction of a traitor who has been selling information to the enemy, a last-minute plotline that comes and goes so quickly it might as well have not been there at all.

Lottie and Alec are likeable individually and make a good couple, and the author writes their yearning for each other extremely well. The sexual tension between them is palpable, and the childhood friendship, while only glimpsed a handful of times comes across strongly.  I liked Lottie’s spirit and the way she challenges Alec without being one of those ‘look at how unconventional I am!’ heroines, and while Alec frustrated me at times, he’s a sexy, brooding hero (hello, hot history professor!), a decent man trying to do the right thing by the woman he loves.

I realise I’ve said quite a few negative things here, so you’re probably wondering why I’m giving this book a low-level recommendation.  Well… if you strip away the extraneous spy plot, there’s a decent romance here.  The pacing is uneven – the first half of the book is set-up and there’s too much introspection and not enough interaction – and the aforementioned nonsensical plot points and inconsistencies were annoying.  But it’s clear that Emily Sullivan can write and knows how to tell a story; what she needs to do now is work on honing that skill to sharpen her focus on the romance, incorporate fewer plotlines and weed out those inconsistencies I’ve mentioned.  A Rogue to Remember is a promising début despite its flaws, and I hope Ms. Sullivan is given the time and space to further develop her talent as a writer.

The Duke’s Runaway Bride (Regency Belles of Bath #3) by Jenni Fletcher

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From shopkeeper…

To Duke’s wife

When Beatrix, Duchess of Howden, writes to her estranged husband offering a divorce, she’s stunned when he arrives on her doorstep with a different proposition: a six-week marriage trial! Quinton Roxbury seems cold and inscrutable, but Beatrix gradually realises his rough exterior hides a heavy burden. As their connection deepens, dare she trust him with her own scandalous past and risk the marriage she never knew she wanted?

Rating: C+

Having really enjoyed the previous book in Jenni Fletcher’s Regency Belles of Bath series (Unexpectedly Wed to the Officer) I decided to continue on to book three – The Duke’s Runaway Bride – the story of a marriage-of-convenience that doesn’t quite go according to plan.  It gets off to a bit of a rocky start, but was quite charming once it hit its stride – only to go off the rails in the final quarter with the sudden appearance of a contrived sub-plot in order to create some last-minute conflict that felt like so much padding.

In the previous book we met ‘Belinda Carr’ a young woman who seemed down on her luck and was taken in by the ladies of Belle’s Biscuit shop.  Sensing there was more going on than met the eye, Henrietta and Nancy didn’t press Belinda for information, offering her friendship and a roof over her head.  At the end of the book, however, she told Nancy the truth – that she’s really Beatrix Roxbury, the Duchess of Howden, and that she’d run away on her wedding day, intending to stay with her former governess in Bath – only to find she’d married and moved away.  Beatrix explains the circumstances – her uncle sold her and her fortune to the duke in exchange for a title and consequence-by-association, and she was given no say in the matter.  She met the duke only once before their wedding day and although he seemed decent enough, she didn’t want to marry him.  Three months later, she feels guilty because he’s probably worried about her, so she writes to him (very much against Nancy’s advice) to tell him that she’s alive and well and living in Bath – and suggests they get an annulment or a divorce.

For Quinton – Quin – Roxbury, being Duke of Howden in the year since the death of his father has been a nightmare.  The late duke nearly bankrupted them and Quin is working hard to turn things around while also overseeing all the projects for improvement he can now afford thanks to Beatrix’s money. His younger brother seems set on becoming a wastrel like their father, his mother complains incessantly, his younger siblings fight all the time… he’s beset on all sides and the only way he can deal with it is by locking away his own emotions and presenting a calm, unruffled face to the world.

He located his errant wife some time before he receives her letter, but thought it best to wait for her to come to him.  Now that she has, he travels to Bath to see her and discuss her proposals, both of which are absolutely out of the question.

When she meets Quin again, Beatrix is completely thrown by his lack of anger and animosity towards her.  Instead, he listens to her and shows a clear understanding of her situation; he apologises for not paying more attention to her before their wedding and assures her he had no idea she was unwilling, but he is also honest and upfront about having been in desperate need of her fortune to save his family estates.  Not knowing how to react in the face of her husband’s calm demeanour, Beatrix confesses to a youthful indiscretion in the hope that it will encourage him to divorce her – but it doesn’t work.  Quin calmly reiterates that he will not seek a divorce and makes a counter-proposal.  Beatrix should come to live at Howden Hall for a period of three months – just so she can make sure she’s making the right decision (about staying in Bath) – and if, at the end of that time, she doesn’t want to remain, he will agree to a separation.  Quin obviously hopes he will be able to talk her into staying, but Beatrix’s mind is made up.  She wants her independence and her life at the Biscuit shop, among the people she’s come to regard as family – but she whittles Quin down to a period of six weeks and agrees to go, with no intention of allowing herself to be swayed.

I had trouble warming to Beatrix at first. There’s no question that she’s had a hard time of it; her uncle and aunt treated her like a commodity, she had no freedom, no friends – even her clothes were chosen for her.  Yet here’s Quin – who would technically have been well within his rights to have dragged Beatrix away kicking and screaming – taking her opinion into account and giving her options, and she isn’t prepared to even meet him halfway.  He understands her desire for independence and her misgivings about marriage – he even offers to return the rest of her dowry to her should they decide to separate.  The only thing he will not agree to is a divorce – and he has good reasons for not wanting to mire his family in the scandal a divorce would inevitably entail.  I found Beatrix’s intransigence to be a bit immature.

Once they arrive at Howden, however, and Beatrix sees what Quin is dealing with– especially from his mother who is a total bi-… er… gorgon – she starts to soften towards him and eventually to admit that while she wants to remain in Bath to bake biscuits, to be Quin’s duchess is to be a very lucky woman – not because of his material possessions, but because he’s a good, decent man who deserves to have the affection and support of those around him.

It will come as no surprise when I say that Beatrix and Quin do eventually fall for each other.  They have good chemistry and are a well-matched pair; but the will-she/won’t she go back to Bath question wasn’t enough to make for a particularly interesting romance.  The most vibrant parts of the story involved the brattish behaviour of Quin’s mother and sister – I came to look forward to watching them have tantrums because it livened things up a bit! Until Beatrix pulled a Mary Poppins and turned them into one, big happy family at one fell swoop.

But my biggest issue with the book as a whole is the fact that there just isn’t enough story to fill the page count.  The ILYs have been exchanged by three-quarters of the way through, and Beatrix’s decision as to whether she’s going to stay or not is clear. So the author introduces a last-minute conflict just for the sake of it – which is then resolved so easily that it needn’t have been there at all.

As in Unexpectedly Wed to the Officer, the final chapter sets up the next story in the series, which will feature the fiery Nancy and her would-be-beau, who have been striking sparks off each other like mad whenever they’ve appeared in the other books.  Here’s hoping those sparks will make for a stronger romance than The Duke’s Runaway Bride did.

Ruining Miss Wrotham (Baleful Godmother #5) by Emily Larkin (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

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Eleanor Wrotham has sworn off overbearing men, but she needs a man’s help – and the man who steps forward is as domineering as he is dangerous: The notorious Mordecai Black.

The illegitimate son of an earl, Mordecai is infamous for his skill with women. His affairs are legendary – but few people realize that Mordecai has rules, and one of them is: Never ruin a woman.

But if Mordecai helps Miss Wrotham, she will be ruined.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B+

Ruining Miss Wrotham is the third full-length book in Emily Larkin’s Baleful Godmother series of historical romances with a touch of fantasy. While characters from the other books do appear, it’s perfectly possible to listen to this one as a standalone provided you’re familiar with the basic premise; that each heroine receives a magical gift from their faerie godmother once they reach a certain age. The magical aspects in each book are fairly low-key though, so if you’re looking for witches and spellcraft and battles of magic, you won’t find them here. What you WILL find is a well-crafted and well-told road-trip romance imbued with warmth and sensuality featuring two engaging protagonists.

Eleanor – Nell – Wrotham is anxiously counting the days until her twenty-third birthday. This is when she is due to receive her visit from Baletongue, the devious, malevolent faerie godmother who is bound to deliver a supernatural power to the females of her family line as the result of an ages-old curse. Nell knows exactly which gift she will choose; the ability to find missing people. She’s impatient to receive it so she can locate her sister Sophia, who ran off with her lover four months earlier and has since gone missing. But when Nell receives a months-old note suggesting that Sophia is in London – in Seven Dials – she can wait no longer and even though she still has a few days to go before her birthday, she wants to go there immediately, regardless of the fact it’s one of the most dangerous areas of town. She asks her former fiancé – who jilted her after learning of her sister’s disgrace – if he will accompany her, but he refuses; and as she is storming out of his house, she bumps into the gorgeous but hugely disreputable Mordecai Black, bastard son of the Earl of Dereham – and the last man she’d ever have thought of turning to for help. But when he learns of her intention to venture into Seven Dials alone, help is exactly what Black offers, saying he’s willing to search on her behalf, but Nell will have none of it.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.