Proud Mary (Roxton Family Saga #5) by Lucinda Brant

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Widowed and destitute, Lady Mary Cavendish is left with only her pride. Daughter of an earl and great-granddaughter to a Stuart King, family expectation and obligation demands she remarry. But not just any man will do; her husband must rank among the nobility. Falling in love with her handsome and enigmatic neighbor is out of the question. As always, Mary will do her duty and ignore her heart.

Country squire Christopher Bryce has secretly loved his neighbor Mary for many years. Yet, he is resigned to the cruel reality they are not social equals and thus can never share a future together. Never mind that his scandalous past and a heartbreaking secret make him thoroughly unworthy of such a proud beauty.

Then into their lives steps a ghost from Mary’s past, whose outrageous behavior has Mary questioning her worldview, and Christopher acting upon his feelings, and for all to see. The mismatched couple begin to wonder if in fact love can prevail—that a happily ever after might just be possible if only they dare to follow their hearts.

Rating: B-

I’m a big fan of Lucinda Brant’s and have enjoyed all of the books of hers I’ve listened to or read.  Which is why it saddens me to say that Proud Mary, the fifth book in her Roxton Family Saga, was something of a disappointment.

The proud lady of the title is Lady Mary Cavendish, whose husband, Sir Gerald, died two years previously.  Sir Gerald was a boorish brute of a man who did not treat Mary well and whose death has left his wife and ten-year-old daughter Theodora (Teddy) on the verge of destitution.  Were it not for the actions of the estate’s steward, Mr. Christopher Bryce, Mary and Teddy would have had to leave their home, but Bryce keeps the truth of their situation to himself and due to his astute management and assistance they continue to live as before.

Christopher Bryce has been steward of Abbeywell Farm for something like eight years, and has been quietly in love with Mary for just as long.  His good-looks and natural charm set hearts a-flutter among the local ladies, but he has eyes for none but Mary – even though he has little hope that she will ever return his affection.  She is the daughter of an earl and the great-grand-daughter of a king, and he is a mere country squire – albeit a successful and wealthy one – with a rather mysterious (and unusual)  past.

Having married once for the sake of family and duty and been utterly miserable, Mary is loath to remarry for the same reasons, but accepts that she will have to do so at some point.  Of late, however, she has been unable to prevent her thoughts going in a different – and not at all welcome – direction.  She and Christopher Bryce rarely see eye-to-eye about the estate, yet there’s no denying he’s an extremely attractive man and that when they aren’t at odds, he is kind and agreeable company, attentive to her wishes in a way she has never before experienced.

The first part of the book is lovely, beautifully chronicling the longing Christopher and Mary feel for each other and then showing Christopher becoming more determined in his pursuit as he attempts to show Mary that they are right for each other and that they could be happy together.  Mary, whose spirit has been squashed both by her obnoxious, snobbish mother and her abusive husband, takes a little time to come out of her shell, but with Christopher’s coaxing and support, she decides it’s time she allowed herself to experience pleasure and to have something she wants for herself, and spends an idyllic week with him squirreled away at his cottage by the river. Christopher and Mary are able to explore their physical attraction to each other discreetly, and are well on the way to making some decisions about their future, when the plot veers off in another direction, almost the entire Roxton clan reappears – and the story suddenly becomes more concerned with the progression of Antonia, Duchess of Kinross’ pregnancy, and various family issues, some of which are plot threads picked up from the previous book, Dair Devil.

I’m grateful the author resolved these threads.  But it comes at the expense of the romance between Mary and Christopher, which is pushed to one side in favour of a big Roxton reunion  and means we have to wait for almost half the book for Mary’s response to Christopher’s proposal.  When it finally comes, it is overshadowed by other developments.  I will, however, say that Mary’s long-awaited upbraiding of her horrible mother made me want to cheer.

Proud Mary is every bit as well-researched and well-written as Lucinda Brant’s other books.  Her research and attention to detail is superb and her ability to transport the reader to an earlier time and place – in this case the middle of the Eighteenth Century – really is masterful.  Those aspects of the book, whether it’s the outward trappings (fashions, furniture etc.) or the more important understanding and integration of custom and social convention are excellent and thoroughly enjoyable.  The two protagonists, too, are terrific, well-rounded characters with a lot of depth and complexity to them, who are, in spite of the vast differences in their social stations, obviously meant for one another.  But I wanted more of them together and more of the newly confident Mary who is happy and in love for the first time in her life.

I liked Christopher and Mary individually and together, and their histories – his as a man with things in his past he’s not proud of and hers as the wife of a neglectful and abusive husband and the daughter of an overbearing, status-obsessed woman – mean that they have a lot to work through before they can achieve their HEA.  But the intrusion of the larger family in the last third or so of the book wasn’t a welcome one. I’ve liked all the previous stories in the series and am familiar with the characters and relationships, but this book missed the mark, and it’s a shame, because the two protagonists are such great characters that I felt they were rather wasted amid the throng.

I can’t rate the book any lower than a B-/3.5 stars because the writing is excellent and the historical background is superb.  But I can’t rate it any higher because as a romance, it runs out of steam in the second half and in the end, falls rather flat.

The Wicked Cousin (Rockliffe #4) by Stella Riley

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Sebastian Audley has spent years setting every city in Europe by the ears and keeping the scandal-sheets in profit. Word that he is finally returning to London becomes the hottest topic of the Season and casts numerous young ladies – many of whom have never seen him – into a fever of anticipation.

Cassandra Delahaye is not one of them. In her opinion, love affairs and duels, coupled with a reputation for never refusing even the most death-defying wager, suggest that Mr Audley is short of a brain cell or two. And while their first, very unorthodox meeting shows that perhaps he isn’t entirely stupid, it creates other reservations entirely.

Sebastian finds dodging admiring females and living down his reputation for reckless dare-devilry a full-time occupation. He had known that putting the past behind him in a society with an insatiable appetite for scandal and gossip would not be easy. But what he had not expected was to become the target of a former lover’s dangerous obsession … or to find himself falling victim to a pair of storm-cloud eyes.

Rating: A-

The Wicked Cousin is the fourth book in Stella Riley’s Rockliffe series of historical romances set in Georgian England, in which she once again presents readers with a gorgeous hero, an admirable heroine and a well-written, strongly developed romance that simmers with sexual tension and is deliciously, well, romantic. Add to that a delightful cast of familiar secondary characters, witty dialogue, wonderfully written friendships and a gently bubbling secondary romance with great potential for a future book… and Ms. Riley has another winner on her hands.

The eponymous cousin is the Honourable Sebastian Audley, only son and heir of Viscount Wingham. Following the tragic death of his beloved twin brother at the age of eight, Sebastian was wrapped up in several suffocating layers of cotton wool, mollycoddled and over-protected to such an extent that when he was finally able to, he went more than a little wild in his determination to experience life to the full. There was no wager too risky, no lady too unattainable and no bottle too undrinkable for Sebastian, and tales of his exploits as he cut a dash through Europe have spread far and wide, shocking (but secretly titillating) the ladies and entertaining the men, most of whom think Sebastian is a jolly fine fellow and would gladly slap him on the back if ever he stayed long enough in one place to allow them to do so.

The problem with a reputation of such magnitude, however, it that it tends to be both inflexible and impossible to dislodge, as Sebastian quickly discovers when, after an absence of several years (barring his annual and very quiet flying visit) he returns to England for good when he learns that his father has suffered an apoplexy and that his life is in danger.

Truth be told, Sebastian’s hellraisng lifestyle has begun to pall and at the age of twenty-eight he is ready to embark on another phase of his life – to start to learn how to manage the family estates and to ready himself to take on the responsibilities that will be his when he eventually inherits his father’s title. But he knows that he faces quite the task in terms of convincing society that he has thrown off his hellion ways and wants to settle down; the minute he is known to be in London, he’ll be besieged by young bucks vying for his attention and attempting to get him to wager on the most outrageous things, and while he isn’t going to agree to any of them, it’s going to be difficult to keep on turning them down without causing offence.

Fortunately, Sebastian’s good friend, Adrian Devereux, Earl of Sarre (The Player) comes up with a solution to that particular dilemma. If they make a private wager, it will preclude Sebastian from accepting any others, thus giving him a legitimate reason for declining any others offered him.

Sebastian is therefore set for his re-entrance into London society which, given he’s handsome as sin and twice as charming, welcomes him with open arms.

Miss Cassandra Delahaye, whom we met in The Player is getting tired of hearing of very little other than the wicked Mr. Audley – who happens to be a very, very distant relation of her family – from her younger sister and her friends, all of whom are swooning over the tales of his exploits printed in the scandal sheets. While constantly hearing about the dashing, handsome rake, Cassie is trying to work out how to gently reject yet another suitor who has asked her to marry him simply because she’s exactly the sort of girl one marries – pretty, sweet and well-bred. She’s not silly enough to expect to be swept off her feet and fall madly in love with the man she will eventually wed, but she would at least like to be chosen for herself and not just because she is regarded as “eminently suitable”.

Her first – accidental – meeting with her so-called wicked cousin is not an auspicious one and at first she thinks him arrogant and conceited. But she is forced to concede her error when further encounters prove him to be neither of those things; he’s funny, kind and clever and she finds herself enjoying both his company and his conversation, which is interesting and enlightening. But even more than that, he is probably the first man to take an interest in her opinions and what she has to say; in short, to see and appreciate Cassie rather than the demure Miss Delahaye, and it isn’t long before she is thoroughly smitten with the genuinely decent man she is coming to know.

For the first time ever, Sebastian is in love, and, in a touching and beautiful scene at his brother’s graveside, talks to him about the strength of his feelings for Cassie and the task he faces in convincing the woman he loves that he is a changed man. More difficult than that, however, he is going to have to prove to her father that he can be trusted with his daughter’s heart and happiness. But Sebastian is not one to give up easily and is determined to win Cassie’s hand.

The Wicked Cousin is a character-driven romance which has, at its heart, a tender and romantic courtship that is not without a few heated moments. But there is a lot more to enjoy as well, not least of which is meeting characters from the previous novels. We get to see the Duke of Rockliffe as a besotted new father, to witness Caroline, Lady Sarre, giving Adrian’s mother a well-deserved set-down and Adrian’s first, sartorially-challenged meeting with his wife’s bluff, yet kindly grandfather. We catch up with Amberley and Rosalind, Rock’s sister, Nell … and there is still something brewing between his younger brother Nicholas and the lovely Madeleine Delacroix (sister of Adrian’s business partner, Aristide). It’s also incredibly refreshing to read a story in which the heroine’s family is kind, fond and well-adjusted, and while Sebastian and his father have clearly butted heads over his life-choices in the past, Ms. Riley has very wisely opted not to have them at each other’s throats, and to show instead that there is affection and respect between them and to point the way towards an improvement in their relationship.

That’s not to say that everything in the garden is rosy, however. Sebastian’s relationship with his oldest sister, Blanche, is very strained and has played some part in his estrangement from his family; and his rakish past comes back to haunt him in the form of one of his past lovers, who is obsessed with him and refuses to believe he is no longer interested in her. The “evil other woman” plotline can be a difficult one to pull off and is one which I know some readers dislike, but it works well here, clearly showing how Sebastian has changed and become aware of the inadvisability of many of his past actions, while also injecting a bit of drama into the story.

If I have a criticism of the book overall, it’s that while Cassie is a lovely heroine and perfect for Sebastian, she is somewhat overshadowed by him. She’s not a shrinking violent by any means – she’s charming, intelligent and not afraid to stand up for herself – but Sebastian is so vital and charismatic that he steals pretty much every scene he’s in. But for a hero-centric reader like me, that’s no problem at all, and I was more than happy to be completely charmed by him in all his red-headed, blue-eyed glory.

All in all, The Wicked Cousin is a delightful read and one which is sure to please fans of intelligently written, strongly characterised historical romance. It’s a self-contained story, but as it’s the fourth book in a series, characters from the previous books are mentioned and many make cameo appearances, so if you haven’t read the others you might want to familiarise yourself with who is who. Or just read the first three books, which are every bit as enjoyable as this one.

More, please, Ms. Riley!

Sinful Scottish Laird (Highland Grooms #2) by Julia London (audiobook) – Narrated by Derek Perkins

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Widowed and forced to remarry in three years’ time or forfeit her son’s inheritance, Daisy Bristol, Lady Chatwick, has plenty of suitors vying for her hand – and her fortune. But a letter from a long-lost love sends Daisy and her young son to her Scottish Highland estate to buy time for his return. Along the way she encounters the powerful Cailean Mackenzie, laird of Arrandale and a notorious smuggler, and she is utterly – though unwillingly – bewitched.

Cailean has no use for any Sassenach in his glen. But Daisy’s brazen, flirtatious nature and alluring beauty intrigue him. When her first love appears unexpectedly at her estate, Cailean knows that a passionate woman like Daisy cannot marry this man. And to prevent the union, Cailean must put his own life at risk to win her heart.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B

This second book in Julia London’s Highland Grooms series, Sinful Scottish Laird, is an enjoyable, character-driven romance that takes place over thirty years after the events of Wild Wicked Scot, and in which the hero is the eldest son of Laird Arran Mackenzie and his English wife, Margot. Cailean Mackenzie spends most of his time at his own estate of Arrandale, working on the house he is building; and when he’s not doing that, he and his younger brother, Aulay, are braving the excise men and crossing the sea to France in order to bring back cargoes of the essential goods that shortages and high rates of taxation have put beyond the reach of the ordinary Scot – as well as the wine and brandy they can sell at a profit.

Out riding with a group of his men one day, Cailean comes across a broken-down carriage carrying an assortment of Englishmen and women, most of whom, it seems, are terrified and would quite happily shoot him. Only one person among them doesn’t appear to share that fear, a lovely woman that Cailean learns is Lady Chatwick, on her way to visit the lodge at Auchanard which is part of her young son’s inheritance. Cailean has long sworn off romantic entanglements – a youthful love affair gone wrong decided him that marriage wasn’t for him and he’s content with his solitary life – but there’s something about the way the woman seems quite oblivious to the fears of those around her and the way she looks at him that Cailean finds intriguing – against his better judgement.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge: The Wagered Widow by Patricia Veryan

the-wagered-widowThis title may be purchased from Amazon.

HE INSISTED ON TREATING HER LIKE A TROLLOP!

… and Rebecca Parrish, a most respectable young widow, found him utterly odious. What right had this supercilious rake, Trevelyan de Villars, to incessantly force his attentions on her? Rebecca far preferred Trevelyan’s charming friend, the noble Sir Peter Ward. Indeed, her dreams of handsome Sir Peter aimed straight for the altar!
What Rebecca soon discovered duly horrified her. For her dear Sir Peter and the contemptible Trevelyan had formailzed a bet – that Trevelyan could seduce the very proper widow within a month’s time.

Still, Trevelyan’s attentions grew ever more passionate. And Rebecca found (to her horror!) that she thrilled to his touch. As her heart strove to resist this irresistible cad, she suddenly saw what he really was: A libertine no more – now at last and forever in love!

Rating: B

Although I’ve been aware of Patricia Veryan for a number of years, up until recently, her books were out of print and the only way to obtain them was to find rather tatty second-hand paperbacks. Fortunately, many of her books have now been made available digitally, meaning that I was able to make her my “new to me author” for February’s TBR Challenge prompt.

I’ve often seen her work likened to Georgette Heyer’s, and although I think that Heyer fans are likely to enjoy Ms. Veryan’s books, they are quite different in certain essentials.  For one thing, almost all Ms. Heyer’s books are set during the Regency, while only around a third of Ms. Veryan’s are; most of her books are set more than fifty years earlier in the Georgian era.  In fact, the cover of the paperback edition (1984) of The Wagered Widow proudly proclaims it to be A Regency Romance, whereas it’s actually set almost seventy years before the Regency, in 1746, just a year after the Battle of Culloden.  And for another, her books usually have a political element; Ms. Veryan’s series of romantic adventures – The Tales of the Jewelled Men, The Golden Chronicles and the Sanguinet Saga (which is set during the Regency) all use the Jacobite rebellion and Battle of Culloden as important plot points and feature characters who are in some way connected with both events.

The Wagered Widow is a standalone book that also works as a prequel to The Golden Chronicles, which I definitely intend to read now they’re all available as ebooks.  It tells the story of a lively young woman who has just finished her year of mourning for her late husband – who has left her in impecunious circumstances and with a six year old son to look after.  Rebecca Parrish is petite, lovely, vivacious and well aware of her tendency towards hoydenish behaviour.  She is also aware that, if she is to secure a well-to-do second husband who will be able to keep her and Anthony more than comfortably, she is going to have to tone down her liveliness a little and be a little more demure; after all, no man wants a wife who could be labelled ‘fast’.

When she makes the acquaintance of Sir Peter Ward, a wealthy gentleman who also happens to be extremely handsome and not too much older than she is, Rebecca thinks she has found the solution to her problems.  She knows it’s mercenary of her, but she has her son and his future to think of, and she decides to fix Sir Peter’s interest and secure an offer of marriage from him.  It’s true that he’s rather reserved and a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, but he’s kind and attentive and Rebecca knows she could do a lot worse than wed a man who will care for and look after her, even if there is no great passion or love between them.  The problem is that his friend, the darkly attractive Trevelyan de Villars knows exactly what Rebecca is about, and takes every opportunity he can to tease her about it.  De Villars has the blackest reputation and is widely known to be a rake of the first order, something Rebecca won’t let him forget.  His wickedly humorous, flirtatious teasing is often very funny; she devises various epithets for him in her head – The Brute, The Lascivious Libertine, The Wicked Lecher…  he infuriates her,  she amuses him and the sparks fly.

The plotline might not be very original, but it’s well-executed, with lots of humour and fun dialogue, an entertaining secondary cast (especially the foppish Sir Graham Fortescue who is definitely more than he seems) and a touch of drama in the later stages.  The way that Rebecca very gradually comes to see just which of the two gentlemen is the right one for her is nicely done;  we watch her slowly shedding her prejudices about de Villars at the same time as he finds it increasingly difficult to maintain his coolly cynical persona around her, and the few scenes in which he interacts with Rebecca’s son, who very shrewdly notes that “… his eyes say different to his words”  – are utterly charming.  The couple doesn’t progress past a few kisses on the page, but there’s a nice frisson of sexual tension between them, and it’s clear that these are two people who are passionately in love.

The writing is witty and spry and makes use of expressions and idioms that feel authentic, and there is plenty of detail about the fashions, décor and customs of the day, so those of us who like a bit of history in our historical romance certainly won’t be disappointed.  But one of the things I was most pleasantly surprised about in this book was the characterisation.  In some of the older romance novels I’ve read, it’s sometimes fairly thin, but that is most definitely not the case here.  Rebecca is a fully-rounded character who own up to her flaws and while Trevelyan is perhaps not quite so well-developed, his feelings and motivations are easy for the reader to discern and through them, we get a clearer picture of the real man beneath the outer layer of world-weary ennui.

The Wagered Widow is a light-hearted, frothy read overall and is firmly rooted in the time in which it is set by the addition of the secondary plotline that revolves around the continuing search for Jacobite fugitives.  I really enjoyed it and am looking forward to reading more of Ms. Veryan’s work.

Wanted, A Gentleman by K.J. Charles

wanted-a-gentleman

This title may be purchased from Amazon

By the good offices of Riptide Publishing
KJ Charles’s new Entertainment

WANTED, A GENTLEMAN
Or, Virtue Over-Rated

the grand romance of

Mr. Martin St. Vincent . . . a Merchant with a Mission, also a Problem
Mr. Theodore Swann . . . a humble Scribbler and Advertiser for Love

Act the First:

the offices of the Matrimonial Advertiser, London
where Lonely Hearts may seek one another for the cost of a shilling

Act the Second:

a Pursuit to Gretna Green (or thereabouts)

featuring

a speedy Carriage
sundry rustic Inns
a private Bed-chamber
***
In the course of which are presented

Romance, Revenge, and Redemption
Deceptions, Discoveries, and Desires

the particulars of which are too numerous to impart

Rating: B+

This new novella from the pen of K.J. Charles is a Regency Era road-trip undertaken in order to foil the elopement of an heiress and her unsuitable beau.

The couple has been corresponding secretly by placing messages in the pages of the Matrimonial Advertiser, a news-sheet dedicated to publishing what we would today call Lonely Hearts advertisements, and run by Mr. Theodore Swann, a jobbing writer who owns and runs the paper as well as scribbling romantic novels on the side.

Into his dingy City office one day, bursts Mr. Martin St. Vincent, a well-built, well-dressed and obviously well to-do black man, who is trying to discover the identity of the man who has been corresponding with the seventeen year-old daughter of his former owner. He’s blunt and not in the mood for humour, small-talk or any of Theo’s sales patter – and quickly cuts to the chase by asking Theo to put a price on his assistance.

Before he can discover the man’s identity however, the young lady elopes with her swain, and the family turns to Martin for help. A former slave, his relationship to the Conroys – who, by the standards of the day treated him well – is a difficult one, but he used to play with the young woman when she was a child and read her stories… and it’s for her sake that he agrees to try to find her and bring her home safely.

Realising he’ll need help – and having been reluctantly impressed with Theo’s quick wits and sharp tongue (among other things) – Martin asks Theo to go with him – and after they have agreed on a large fee, Theo agrees.

This is a novella of some 150 pages, but K.J Charles does such a superb job with the characterisation of her two principals and adds such depth to their personalities and stories that I came away from the novella feeing – almost – as though I’d read a full-length novel. There’s a spark of attraction between the two men from the start, and this builds gradually as they travel and get to know each other better, but what is so wonderful is the way the relationship between them grows alongside it. Martin is a former slave, and while he doesn’t feel he owes anything to his former master, he can’t help resenting the fact that he has been very lucky when compared to so many others:

“I was kept in the household, and freed on such generous terms that I have been able to prosper ever since, and how can I resent that?”

“That sounds to me the kind of generosity that could kill a man.”

“It is. It sticks in my throat like thistles, it chokes me.”

And Theo gets it. He sees Martin as a person, he believes he’s entitled to be angry:

“I, uh, feel strongly about gratitude. Forced gratitude, I mean, the kind piled on your debt as added interest. To be ground underfoot and then told to be thankful the foot was not heavier – I hate it.”

Their conversations are insightful and often humorous, showcasing many of the things I enjoy so much about this author’s work. Her research is impeccable and I always like the way she doesn’t just gloss over the social issues of the day. There wree moves towards abolition in England at this time, but there were still many people making money out of slavery; there was serious social inequality and no safety net for those who couldn’t afford even the most basic of life’s necessities; yet all these issues are addressed in a way that is not preachy or dry history lesson. Instead they arise naturally out of the direction taken by the story, the lives of the characters and the situations in which they live.

Both protagonists are attractive, likeable characters, although Theo is probably the more well-developed of the two, with a bit more light and shade to his persona. He’s quick witted, devious and sarcastic; and I really liked that his lady novelist alter-ego, Dorothea Swann, gives Ms. Charles the opportunity to make a few tongue-in-cheek observations about romantic fiction but also allows Theo to save the day.

Wanted, A Gentleman is beautifully written, the dialogue sparkles and Theo and Martin simply charmed me.

My only complaint is that the book ended too quickly.

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

duke-of-pleasure

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.

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.