Contracted as His Countess by Louise Allen

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From a recluse secluded in a castle…

…to his Countess!

Cloistered away in a castle since birth, Madelyn Aylmer must now fulfil her eccentric father’s dying request: wed nobleman Jack Ransome! She has what Jack needs – land – and so he accepts their marriage of convenience, and vows to introduce this sheltered innocent into Society. But what Madelyn hadn’t expected was the way her body reacts to Jack, especially to his promise of a union filled with unbridled passion!

Rating: C-

Louise Allen is an author whose work I’ve enjoyed many times in the past, and I always look forward to a new release from her.  Contracted as His Countess is a standalone historical romance that puts a slightly different spin on a familiar trope, and the very different backgrounds of the two protagonists make for some interesting situations and conflicts.  But somewhere around the half-way point, the story loses focus and never really regains it; the romance is not well developed and even thought the eleventh-hour black moment is actually set up earlier in the book, it nonetheless feels flimsy and awkward.

Madelyn Aylmer is the daughter of a rather eccentric gentleman whose fascination with the gothic period went far beyond that of many of the other nineteenth century gothic revivalists.  He lived as a medieval nobleman in his own castle, complete with moat, drawbridge and portcullis, dressed in medieval attire, eschewed modern conveniences and even wanted his servants to dress the part. He brought up his only daughter with medieval values and sensibilities; indeed Madelyn has had very little interaction with the outside world and is, indeed, much like the ivory-tower bound princess in a fairy tale.  Now her father is dead, and she is duty-bound to fulfil his last request, which is to marry a man with bloodlines that can be traced back to before the Conquest, a man of impeccable breeding.

That gentleman is Jack Ransome, Earl of Dersington, who is commonly known in society as Jack Lackland because his is an empty title.  In fact, he styles himself plain Mister Ransome,  seeing no point in calling himself an earl because without lands, retainers or wealth, he has no power and therefore, no function as an aristocrat.  His profligate father and elder brother left nothing, and he supports himself by working as an enquiry agent.  He arrives at Castle Beaupierre in response to the invitation from Miss Aylmer, and is surprised at his reaction to the statuesque young woman dressed in clothes of a bygone age who greets him.  Madelyn Aylmer is not pretty by the standards of the day, but she’s most certainly and unconventionally attractive in her poise and serenity.  Plain by modern standards, yet somehow lovely and utterly remote.

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

A Wicked Kind of Husband (Longhope Abbey #1) by Mia Vincy (audiobook) – Narrated by Kate Reading

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It was the ideal marriage of convenience… until they met.

Cassandra DeWitt has seen her husband only once – on their wedding day two years earlier – and this arrangement suits her perfectly. She has no interest in the rude, badly behaved man she married only to secure her inheritance. She certainly has no interest in his ban on her going to London. Why, he’ll never even know she is there.

Until he shows up in London too, and Cassandra finds herself sharing a house with the most infuriating man in England.

Joshua DeWitt has his life exactly how he wants it. He has no need of a wife disrupting everything, especially a wife intent on reforming his behavior. He certainly has no need of a wife who is intolerably amiable, insufferably reasonable…and irresistibly kissable.

As the unlikely couple team up to battle a malicious lawsuit and launch Cassandra’s wayward sister, passion flares between them. Soon the day must come for them to part…but what if one of them wants their marriage to become real?

Rating: Narration – A; Content – A-

Mia Vincy’s début historical romance, A Wicked Kind of Husband, came out in the middle of 2018, but I didn’t get around to reading it until December – and was so impressed by it that it was a last-minute entry into my Best Books of 2018 list. Historical romance has been in a bit of a slump for the past couple of years, so it was a huge relief to find this gem, a very well-written, funny, tender and poignant marriage of convenience story featuring complex, well-drawn characters and peppered with superb-one liners and humour that never feels forced. In fact, even as I was reading it, I just knew that if the book ever came out in audio format, Kate Reading would be the ideal narrator; that dry wit and banter was just crying out for her wonderful deadpan delivery – and what do you know? Sometimes wishes really do come true!

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Beastly Kind of Earl (Longhope Abbey #2) by Mia Vincy

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An outcast fighting for her future…

Thea Knight loves a spot of mischief. She especially loves her current mischief: masquerading as her sister, while finalizing her scheme to expose the dastardly knaves whose lies ruined her life.

Then big, bad-tempered Lord Luxborough upends her game by maneuvering her into marriage. But it’s her sister’s name on the license, so the marriage won’t be valid. Thea’s idea? Keep pretending to be her sister until she can run away.

A recluse haunted by his past…

Rafe Landcross, Earl of Luxborough, has no love for mischief. Or marriage. Or people, for that matter. The last thing he wants is a wife—but if he marries, he’ll receive a large sum of much-needed money.

Then he learns that Thea Knight is using a false name. Rafe’s idea? Pretend he doesn’t know her true identity, marry her, and send her packing once the money is his.

A compelling attraction that changes their lives

But as passion ignites and secrets emerge, the mutual deception turns tricky fast. Rafe and Thea face irresistible temptations, unsettling revelations, and a countdown to the day when Thea must leave…

Rating: A

When I read Mia Vincy’s début historical romance, A Wicked Kind of Husband, near the end of last year, I was impressed and utterly captivated – it made my list of Best Books of 2018.  With its likeable, complex characters, witty dialogue and wonderfully perceptive writing, it stood out like a a highly-polished gemstone amid the generally poor showing made by HR last year, and I, like many fans of the genre, have been eagerly awaiting the author’s next book, hoping for more of the same.  So I’m delighted to report that with A Beastly Kind of Earl, Ms. Vincy is two-for-two; this story of a young woman determined to salvage her reputation after two so-called gentlemen maliciously ruin it, and a reclusive earl carrying a whole shedload of guilt is funny, charming and deceptively insightful, featuring two wonderfully rounded protagonists, an engaging secondary cast and a beautifully developed romance that just oozes sexual tension and chemistry.

About three years before the story opens, Thea Knight, the daughter of a wealthy tradesman, is disowned and sent away to live in quiet obscurity as companion to an elderly termagant after she is labelled a “sly, scheming seductress” and accused of attempting to trap a young gentleman into marriage. With her reputation in tatters, the only people not to turn their backs on her are her sister, Helen, and her friend, Lady Arabella Larke; even Thea’s own parents – a pair of social climbers – believe the lies told about her and are adamant that her blackened name must not be allowed to ruin her sister’s marital prospects. They wash their hands of her.

But Thea is not one to be so summarily squashed.  Somehow, she has retained her sense of fun and her natural optimism, and is determined to make sure that society learns the truth about Percy Russell, the son of Lord Ventnor – and to expose his lies.  To this end, she has been saving money in order to have a pamphlet telling her side of the story printed and circulated throughout society, and when the story begins, hopes to soon be able to make plans for its publication.  But first thing first; she has to aid Helen in  her scheme to elope with the young man she loves and has been forbidden to marry… who happens to be Beau Russell, Percy’s brother and Lord Ventnor’s eldest son. Helen and Thea meet at a small coaching inn in Warwickshire in order to switch places; Thea will join a small house-party at Lady Arabella’s home while Helen and her intended make for Gretna to be married.

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

His Wayward Bride (Romance of the Turf #3) by Theresa Romain

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Though their horse-racing family is as troubled as it is talented, all of the Chandler siblings have found love…except eldest brother Jonah. Married four years ago and abandoned after his wedding night, single-minded Jonah now spends his days training Thoroughbreds—while his lost bride is a family mystery no one dares discuss.

And that’s just the way Jonah and his wife, Irene, want it.

The biracial daughter of a seamstress and a con artist, Irene has built a secret career as a spy and pickpocket who helps troubled women. By day she works as a teacher at Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies; in spare moments she takes on missions that carry her everywhere from London’s elite heart to its most dangerous corners.

Jonah agreed to this arrangement for four years, until Irene’s family fortunes were made. After surviving on passionate secret meetings and stolen days together, now it’s time to begin the marriage so long delayed. But as these two independent souls begin to build a life together, family obligations and old scandals threaten to tear them apart…

Rating: B-

I enjoyed the first three books in Theresa Romain’s Romance of the Turf series, which focuses on a family of successful horse-breeders and trainers based in Newmarket.  One of the attractions of the series has been that there’s nary a duke or earl in sight – historical romance about non-aristocratic characters is relatively rare, so the author is to be applauded for writing about the gentry instead of the nobs.  It’s been a while since the last title in the series (Scandalous Ever After) was released, but  I did remember that the eldest of the Chandler siblings, Jonah, had appeared and/or been mentioned in the earlier books, and that he was married… but that his wife, for some unexplained reason, wasn’t around.

As it turns out, Irene Chandler – née Baird – is a teacher at Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies (as featured in the novella duo by Ms. Romain and Shana Galen), an exclusive boarding school in Marylebone that teaches classes in self-defence and pick-pocketing alongside the more traditional subjects.  Irene has been a teacher of geography and history there for six years, and loves it; but like some of her fellow teachers, she also carries out certain extra-curricular activities at the behest of Mrs. Brodie.  Irene is, in fact:

… a sort of spy. A thief.  A secret agent.  The headmistress of her academy had ties to prominent people across England, and she pulled strings to make sure their power was used for good.  Irene was, when needed, the physical hand who did the pulling.

As a biracial woman – her mother is a black Englishwoman, her father a white American – Irene knows only too well the feelings of powerlessness and helplessness in the face of injustice.  She loves the life she has built for herself and is fulfilled by it, even as she recognises that her work is of the sort that will never, ever be done when there are people who need the sort of help Mrs. Brodie can provide.  But she made a bargain four years earlier, one that is going to change the course of her life, and payment is now due.

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

One Perfect Rose (Fallen Angels #7) by Mary Jo Putney (audiobook) – Narrated by Siobhan Waring

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Can a woman with a past and a man with no future find lasting love?

Stephen Kenyon, Duke of Ashburton, has always taken the duties of his rank seriously – until a doctor’s grim diagnosis sends him running from his world of privilege. Traveling incognito, he yearns to experience life to the fullest in what time he has left.

When Stephen rescues a drowning child, he is drawn into the warm embrace of the Fitzgeralds, a family theatrical troupe brimming with laughter and affection. And their enchanting, compassionate daughter, Rosalind Jordan, stirs emotions he’s never known before.

Widowed young, Rosalind is happy organizing her exuberant, close-knit family. She doesn’t expect to fall in love with a quiet stranger, whose wit and kindness speak to her heart. When Stephen tells Rosalind the truth of his condition and proposes marriage, she accepts despite the shadow of inevitable loss.

Together, they find profound passion and companionship. Yet neither dares speak of love, for only a miracle will give them the future they desperately desire…

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B+

One Perfect Rose is the seventh and final book in Mary Jo Putney’s Fallen Angels series, and was originally published in 1997. Audiobook versions of the first two books appeared a few years ago (Thunder and Roses in 2013, and Dancing on the Wind in 2014), but the narration was fairly poor in both (I reviewed Dancing on the Wind, and it was horrible!), and production halted until earlier this year, when four of the remaining books were released (I can’t see that book four has been recorded), thankfully with a much better narrator at the helm. As a result, listening to One Perfect Rose was a pleasure rather than a chore!

Stephen Kenyon, Duke of Ashburton, is a quiet, reserved man who has always done what was expected of him. He’s taken his duties and his responsibilities towards family, dependents and title seriously, and he married – and was faithful to – the woman chosen for him, even though he didn’t love her nor she him. Now aged thirty-six, and with his stentorian, exacting father dead, his dukedom prospering and the mourning period for his late wife ended, Stephen is finally able to think about living for himself for a change. He plans to travel, to do things that make him happy – until his physician informs him that he has a tumefaction of the stomach and liver and has, at best, only three to six months to live.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Someone to Remember (Westcott #7) by Mary Balogh

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It’s never too late to fall in love . . .

Matilda Westcott has spent her life tending to the needs of her mother, the Dowager Countess of Riverdale, never questioning the web of solitude she has spun herself. To Matilda, who considers herself an aging spinster daughter, marriage is laughable – love is a game for the young, after all. But her quiet, ordered life unravels when a dashing gentleman from her past reappears, threatening to charm his way into her heart yet again.

Charles Sawyer, Viscount Dirkson, does not expect to face Matilda Westcott thirty-six years after their failed romance. Moreover, he does not expect decades-old feelings to emerge at the very sight of her. When encountering Matilda at a dinner hosted by the Earl of Riverdale, he finds himself as fascinated by her as he was the first day they met, and wonders whether, after all these years, they have a chance at happiness together. Charles is determined to crack the hard exterior Matilda has built up for more than three decades, or he will risk losing her once again . . .

Rating: B

Someone to Remember is the seventh (and penultimate?) instalment in Mary Balogh’s Westcott saga, which has followed the fortunes of the various members of the large and close-knit Westcott family after the discovery that the late Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale, had committed bigamy and that his second marriage was therefore invalid.  This discovery naturally had serious repercussions; his son and two daughters lost titles, fortunes and status; his widow couldn’t even claim to have been a wife, and the earldom diverted to a cousin who didn’t want it. Through six books, readers have followed the fortunes of various family members in the wake of these events, and now we come to Matilda, Humphrey’s older sister, a woman of mature years – fifty-six – who has appeared throughout the series as the dutiful spinster aunt who fusses over her mother because it’s something to do and has gradually faded into the background.

In order to understand the relationship in Someone to Remember, it’s necessary to refer back to the previous book in the series, Someone to Honor, so please be aware that this review contains spoilers for that book. Lieutenant Colonel Gilbert Bennington returned from fighting at Waterloo to discover his late wife had left their four-year-old daughter in the care of her parents, who are now refusing to return her to his care. Although Gil was an officer, his illegitimacy and humble origins made him unacceptable to his in-laws; his father was a nobleman – Viscount Dirkson – but his mother was the daughter of a blacksmith who refused all offers of support from the viscount, and allowed Gil to believe that he had washed his hands of them.  When Gil joined the army, Dirkson purchased a commission for him, but after that Gil made it clear that he wanted nothing more to do with him.

But when Abigail Westcott married Gil, the entire Westcott clan naturally became interested in the situation; and when Matilda learned that Dirkson was Gil’s father, she took the unprecedented – and rather scandalous – step of paying a call upon the gentleman at his home in order to ask him to speak for Gil at the upcoming custody hearing.  It was clear from the moment Dirkson’s name was mentioned that he and Matilda had some shared history, and it’s soon revealed that they had once been in love and hoped to marry, but that Matilda’s parents had opposed the match and persuaded her to give him up.

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

This Earl of Mine (Bow Street Bachelors #1) by Kate Bateman

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WILL A FALSE MARRIAGE

Shipping heiress Georgiana Caversteed is done with men who covet her purse more than her person. Even worse than the ton’s lecherous fortune hunters, however, is the cruel cousin determined to force Georgie into marriage. If only she could find a way to be . . . widowed? Georgie hatches a madcap scheme to wed a condemned criminal before he’s set to be executed. All she has to do is find an eligible bachelor in prison to marry her, and she’ll be free. What could possibly go wrong?

LEAD TO TRUE AND LASTING LOVE?

Benedict William Henry Wylde, scapegrace second son of the late Earl of Morcott and well-known rake, is in Newgate prison undercover, working for Bow Street. Georgie doesn’t realize who he is when she marries him—and she most certainly never expects to bump into her very-much-alive, and very handsome, husband of convenience at a society gathering weeks later. Soon Wylde finds himself courting his own wife, hoping to win her heart since he already has her hand. But how can this seductive rogue convince brazen, beautiful Georgie that he wants to be together… until actual death do they part?

Rating: C+

Kate Bateman – or K.C. Bateman as she was known then – made her début as an author of historical romance in 2016 and To Steal a Heart impressed me to such a degree that I counted her as one of the “finds” of the year.  To date, she’s published four historical romances and I’ve rated them all fairly highly, so I was really pleased to learn she was writing a new series – Bow Street Bachelors – and snapped up a review copy of the first book as soon as I could get my hands on one.  This Earl of Mine is very well-written, Ms. Bateman keeps the sexual tension bubbling nicely and I’m always up for a marriage-of-convenience plotline, but ultimately, this book lacks the spark and energy of her earlier ones. The leads are likeable but unmemorable, the same is true of the plot – and if I never again read a historical heroine in her early twenties who  learned the family business at her father’s knee and who has inherited it from him but never seems to do much by way of actually running it, it’ll be too soon.

The set-up, though, is cute, if rather implausible.  Twenty-four-year-old Georgina Caversteed, who now runs the shipping empire built by her late father, is desperate to avoid being trapped into marriage by her odious cousin Josiah, and decides upon an equally desperate course of action.  He can’t trap her if she’s already married; but having a husband will automatically mean losing control of the business, so she instead decides to find herself a convict who is due for execution and marry him.  After all, as a widow she’ll have more freedom than she would as a wife.  Her faithful servant, Pieter, has found the perfect candidate in Newgate – except that the man dies before the ceremony can be performed, and with no other felons sentenced to death available (!), Georgie is forced to make the best of a bad lot and instead ends up marrying a sailor sentenced to transportation.  She won’t be a widow, but her husband will be on the other side of the world, which is the next best thing.

Benedict Wylde, brother of the Earl of Morcott, served with Wellington’s army and following Napoléon’s defeat at Waterloo, is now working for the government trying to root out a group of smugglers who are plotting to rescue the deposed emperor from his prison on St. Helena.  He infiltrated the gang and was arrested and imprisoned with them in hopes of discovering more about their plans, but has so far found out little. He thinks the young woman who arrives at the prison offering him five hundred pounds to marry her must have taken leave of her senses, but has no way of evading the marriage without blowing his cover or getting a serious beating from the well-bribed gaoler. Ben doesn’t want to get married, but goes along with it, sure he’ll be able to find a way out of it later on.

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