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.

Veiled in Blue (Emperors of London #6) by Lynne Connolly

veiled-in-blue

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Governess Eve Merton would have fallen into serious trouble on her walk home if a handsome stranger had not stopped to help her. But when Mr. Vernon gives her a lift on his horse, he makes no secret of his attraction. As a well brought-up young lady, Eve does her best not to notice, but when he sets about courting her, she knows she’s in trouble. For she has a secret: she is the daughter of a deposed king, which means not only is she without a dowry, but also that her life is in danger…

Little does Eve know that Mr. Vernon has secrets of his own. In truth, his name is Julius, Lord Winterton, and he’s well aware that Eve is the offspring of the Old Pretender. In order to save his sister, he must convince Eve to wed—though he wants nothing to do with love. But as the two grow closer and an attempt is made on Eve’s life, Julius may realize that fighting his heart’s true desire is a battle most pleasurably surrendered…

Rating: B-

This sixth book in Lynne Connolly’s Emperors of London series is one I –and I suspect other readers who have followed the fortunes of the titular emperors thus far – have been waiting for since fairly early on. Julius Vernon, the Earl of Winterton has appeared in all the previous books as a powerful but somewhat distant and enigmatic figure; heir to a dukedom, he is, in effect, the head of his large family when it comes to its many and varied business interests and political dealings. I’ve read the first four books in the series and have enjoyed them to varying degrees (somehow, I missed book five, Dilemma in Yellow Silk), and while it probably helps to have some idea of the background to the series, Veiled in Blue works well as a standalone.

I have to say up front that the romance has been the weakest element in some of the earlier books. These aren’t long novels, and looking back at my other reviews, I see I’ve made similar complaints about insta-lust and relationships not being allowed time to properly develop. However, I found the romance in Veiled in Blue to be much more successful, even though things do move rather quickly. But what has kept me coming back to the series in spite of a couple of disappointing books early on, is twofold: one is the fact that the setting of 1750s England is not a common one for historical romance; and the other is that Ms. Connolly’s overarching plot-thread of the search for the illegitimate children of the Old Pretender (the son of the deposed king, James II) and the political intrigue and tensions that were rife in England makes for an interesting backdrop to the personal stories of each emperor.

The series is set almost forty years after the advent of the Hanoverian monarchy, and there are still factions among the nobility who favour the Jacobite cause and are secretly working to restore the Stuarts to the British throne. It was revealed earlier in the series that there were in existence a number of children born to the Old Pretender, Charles James Stuart (son of James II) and a woman he had legally but secretly married. The legitimacy of these children thus poses a threat to the Young Pretender (also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie), who is attempting to track them down to dispose of them, while another Jacobite faction wants to find them and arrange marriages for them within their families so as to strengthen their own position and, possibly, gain the throne.

One of these children is Eve Merton, who lives quietly with her widowed mother in the village of Appleton in Somerset.  Eve is aware of her parentage, but doesn’t see that it should make any difference to her life.  She is being courted by the local squire and is resigned to the marriage, having abandoned thoughts of falling in love and seeing it as a way to secure her future and provide for her mother.  The arrival of a handsome stranger in the vicinity changes all that however, when he comes upon her trudging home along a deserted lane and insists on escorting her home.

Julius, the Earl of Winterton, is a widower with a six year old daughter and knows it’s time for him to remarry.  His mother has a number of suitable ladies in mind and has invited them all to the house-party he is expected to attend.  But Julius is not ready to fall in with the duchess’ plans, and decides to take a detour – incognito – to assure himself of the safety of the most recently discovered member of the Stuart family.  But the moment Julius sets eyes on Eve, things become much more complicated as he finds himself in the grip of an intense attraction the like of which he’s never felt before.

Julius’ first marriage was a passionate one, but his young wife was impulsive and increasingly unstable. After her death, Julius determined to eschew strong emotions, so he is unnerved by the strength of what he is beginning to feel for Eve.  And Eve, who had never expected to feel romantic love or passion is swept off her feet by the charming Mr. Vernon who, in spite of his being a mere man of business, seems well able to support a wife and family.

Their romance develops fairly quickly, but is nicely done nonetheless and the couple gets to spend time together discovering that their affinity goes beyond simple sexual attraction.   It’s obvious, however, that there is going to be some fall out to be dealt with as a consequence of the fact that Julius doesn’t make Eve aware of his true identity until after they are married. At first he conceals the truth about himself because he doesn’t want to arouse any suspicions about Eve, but after that, he begins to worry that while she loves Julius Vernon, perhaps she will reject the Earl of Winterton in spite of his immense fortune and powerful position.  I rather liked seeing this vulnerable side of Julius who has, until now, seemed completely unflappable and in control at all times, and I enjoyed meeting the man behind the exquisite tailoring and impeccable manners.

Eve’s strength of character, good sense and quiet dignity make her a great match for Julius and her backbone of steel enables her to hold her own when she is finally introduced to the rest of the Vernon family.  I appreciated that Ms. Connolly allows Eve and Julius to work through their issues in a mature and realistic manner that shows the true depth of their feelings for each other.

There is more emphasis on the romance in Veiled in Blue than on the machinations of the Jacobites attempting to locate the Stuart children, but I didn’t mind that. In every series there is a character whose story is the most anticipated, and in this case that character is Julius, so it’s right that in his book the focus is on him and the journey towards his HEA.  The romance works and the sex scenes (of which there are several) are sensual – but the book falls down near the end, which is very rushed and which sees the inclusion of a final twist that is incredibly anti-climactic and left me somewhat dissatisfied.  That has caused me to lower my grade a little, but even so, this is a strong addition to the series, and the best of the bunch when it comes to the romance.

Once Upon a Moonlit Night (Maiden Lane #10.5) by Elizabeth Hoyt

once upon a moonlit night
This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Hippolyta Royle is running for her life. Pursued by hounds on a cold rainy night, the heiress flags down a passing carriage and throws herself at the mercy of the coach’s occupant. Whoever this handsome traveler may be, he is her only hope to escape a terrible fate. But should he agree to escort her to safety, he’s in for much more than he bargained for . . .

At first Matthew Mortimer doesn’t believe Hippolyta’s story, that she’s a fabulously wealthy heiress who’s been kidnapped. He assumes she’s a beggar, an actress, or worse. But once his new travel companion washes the mud from her surprisingly lovely face, and they share a breathtaking kiss, there is no turning back . . .

Rating:B-

Readers of Duke of Sin, the recently released tenth book in Elizabeth Hoyt’s hugely popular Maiden Lane series will recall that one of the many nefarious plots engineered by the Machiavellian Duke of Montgomery was the kidnapping of Miss Hippolyta Royle, the wealthiest heiress in England. In that book, she was freed by the Duke’s housekeeper, the enterprising Bridget Crumb, who helped her to escape onto the moors – and then we heard nothing more of her. I admit, that loose plot-thread did seem rather strange, but fortunately, anyone wondering what happened to Miss Royle after she fled Ainsdale Castle can put their minds at rest, as her fate is revealed in the novella, Once Upon a Moonlit Night.

She stumbles into the path of an oncoming carriage, which – fortunately – stops so that its angry occupant can ask her what the hell she’s playing at. Dirty, bedraggled and smelling of sheep rather than roses, Hippolyta’s assertion that she is a wealthy heiress is promptly dismissed by Matthew Mortimer, explorer, cartographer and newly minted but improverished Earl of Paxton. He’s tired from his journey home from the Indian Ocean, disgruntled because he had to make it at all and in no mood to humour a down-on-her-luck actress/thief/tart.

The first part of the novella is a road-trip romance in which the two protagonists get off on completely the wrong foot but, during the course of a few days, come to realise that perhaps there is more to the other than meets the eye. The sparks fly from the get-go and the air between them crackles with sexual tension, even though Matthew is pretty abrasive for the first part of the journey and makes no bones about the fact that he believes Hippolyta to be a whore. By the second day, however, they really start talking to each other and he starts to wonder if perhaps he’s misjudged her. But before he can really make his mind up, the two of them are discovered in the yard of a coaching inn by her father who is outraged at the idea that his daughter has spent several days unchaperoned with a man, leaving Matthew with little option but to ask for her hand.

The story then fast-forwards a couple of weeks to the hasty wedding – and the wedding night – and the reappearance of a figure from Hippolyta’s past who threatens to expose a buried family secret (that isn’t much of a secret to anyone who has read Duke of Sin) which could ruin her in society.

Once Upon a Moonlit Night is an entertaining, quick read that is as well-written as one would expect from this author, but it does suffer from “novella-itis” in that it feels rather rushed, especially in the second half. The central characters are reasonably well drawn, and while Matthew is a bit of a grouch to start with, in his favour, he’s the type of hero who, once he realises what he wants, doesn’t dither or deny, he goes for it. But I couldn’t quite work out what happened to Hippolyta, who has been an intriguing, exotic figure in the earlier books in which she has appeared. She begins this tale as spirited and able to give as good as she gets, but then turns into a wimpy damsel in distress immediately after her wedding night. She receives a blackmail note and just runs off instead of having a simple conversation with Matthew, and I thoroughly disliked the use of such an obvious contrivance to create dramatic tension.

Ultimately, this is a story of two … not quite halves. The first, in which the author develops the relationship between Hipployta and Matthew and skilfully brings the sexual attraction between them to the boil gets a B, but the second, which is a bit of a let-down, gets a C, hence my overall grade. I enjoyed the novella and I’m glad Ms. Hoyt took the opportunity to tie up the loose ends of Hippolyta’s story, but I think it needed a bit more time and space in which to play out.

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Stormswept by Sabrina Jeffries

stormswept

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

The first wedding night that Lady Juliana St. Albans spent with the dark and daring Rhys Vaughan was intoxicating, the heady culmination of her new husband’s driving hunger and her own awakened sensuality. When he mysteriously disappeared the next morning, she waited for him in hope and desperation. And when he was finally proclaimed dead in a shipwreck, she bitterly mourned the loss of her love.

The second wedding night that Juliana spent with Rhys Vaughan was six years later, after he returned to claim her just as she was about to wed another. This Rhys was different—bolder, harder, and convinced that she’d betrayed him. Only their blazing passion remains from their years apart. But is it enough to light their way through the maze of mystery, menace, and mistrust—to the love they once shared and would have to find again?

Rating:B-

Sabrina Jeffries’ Stormswept is a revised reissue of a novel initially published in 1995 under the name of Deborah Martin. According to the publisher’s blurb, the novel has been newly revised for today’s audience; I haven’t read the original, so I can’t make comparisons, but I can say that there is definitely an “old skool” feel to many of the hero’s actions (nothing rape-y, I hasten to add) which is often extremely frustrating and there are a couple of minor plot points I didn’t particularly care for. That said, however, the book as a whole proved to be surprisingly readable, and while I can’t say that I loved it, I also can’t say that I feel I wasted the time I spent reading it.

When Lady Juliana St. Albans, daughter of the Earl of Northcliffe, meets Rhys Vaughan, it’s love – or at the very least, lust – at first sight. But she is the daughter of an English peer and Rhys is Welsh, a race whose culture and language are looked down upon by the English and seen by them as little more than barbaric. Then there’s the fact that Rhys’ father lost his estate, Llynwydd, in a card game – to the earl – depriving Rhys of his birthright. Even so, and with young love being what it is, the couple meets secretly for a couple of weeks, at the end of which Rhys proposes and asks Juliana to run away with him. Juliana never finds the right time to tell Rhys that his father lost Llynwydd to hers and that her father has given the estate to her, but then figures it doesn’t matter anyway; they love each other and things will all come right. Unfortunately, however, her idyll is shattered almost immediately after the highly enjoyable consummation of her marriage when Rhys suddenly disappears and her brothers show up, telling her that her husband got what he wanted – Llynwydd – and has abandoned her. The truth is that her eldest brother, Darcy, whose political ambitions will be ruined should it be discovered his brother-in-law is a Welsh activist, has sold both Rhys and Rhys’ closest friend to a press-gang, but not before telling Rhys that Juliana changed her mind about her hasty marriage and begged her brothers to get her out of it.

Dejected, Juliana allows herself to be taken home, but she refuses to be brow-beaten into submission by her father or brothers, who are pushing her to get her marriage annulled. Having discovered that Rhys has been impressed and knowing there is little prospect of escape for him, she agrees to keep her marriage a secret while she waits for him to return, but only if her family allows her to live independently at Llynwydd. The years pass and she hears nothing from Rhys, until some five years after his disappearance, she is told of his death.

One year later, at the party being held to announce her betrothal to a marquess, an unexpected guest turns all her plans upside down and inside out. Three years at sea followed by three years as a privateer and fighting as a mercenary in America have made Rhys a rich man and gained him some influential friends. And now, an older, harder and furious Rhys is determined to claim back what is his – and that includes the wife who betrayed him.

I enjoy second chance romances, and the premise of Stormswept is a good one that provides an excellent opportunity for the development of a romance between two people who have spent years apart and who have undergone significant character growth in those years. That is certainly true of Juliana; she begins the book as a somewhat immature twenty-one year-old who gets herself into situations from which she needs rescuing, but when we meet her again, she has become a confident young woman and proved herself to be a very able manager, renovating and restoring Llanwydd and bringing it into profit once again. Rhys is a different matter, however, and that’s the big sticking point. When he reappears at the beginning of the story, he confronts Juliana in front of her brothers and throws her betrayal in her face. Juliana naturally insists she did no such thing, but even in the face of her denials and Darcy’s blatant lies, Rhys persists in believing the worst of her, which he does for practically the entire book. It’s true that he was thrust into life-threatening circumstances and forced to endure some truly horrific treatment, and this makes his anger and his almost overwhelming desire for revenge understandable. But what isn’t understandable is the way he directs that anger in completely the wrong direction time and time again, even given what he knows about Darcy’s propensity for underhandedness and in the face of his closest friend’s belief in Juliana’s innocence.

Rhys’ refusal to listen or to admit the possibility that Juliana is telling the truth is what I meant when I said there is an “old skool” feel to the book; he’s intractable, goes out of his way to be unpleasant and quickly deprives Juliana of her responsibilities and the freedoms she has enjoyed, insisting that until she does exactly what he wants, she will have no say in what goes on at Llanwydd. Fortunately, Juliana’s quiet dignity and her determination to prove him wrong and regain his trust provide a balance in terms of the story; she’s no doormat, but she is prepared to fight to save her marriage and to wait for Rhys to realise that he is wrong about her. Yet it’s difficult at times to see anything in Rhys – other than his hotness, of course – that would make Juliana want to remain with a man who insists on thinking the worst of her. I don’t think it’s giving away too much to say that he does eventually see the error of his ways and that the realisation is handled well, but if you’re someone who likes heroes of his type to grovel big-time, then you’re going to be disappointed.

There are a couple of secondary plotlines in the book that kind of fizzle out part way through, and which would perhaps have benefitted from a little more attention during the revision process; but on a positive note, I liked the Welsh setting and the glimpses we are given of the uneasy political situation between England and Wales at this point in history.

The overall tone of Stormswept is rather different to that of the author’s recent books, but the writing is strong and while Juliana is perhaps a little too good to be true, I really liked her level-headedness and strength of character. There is a raw quality to the emotion that works in the context of this particular story, but there is less humour and a definite emphasis on angst which might not be to all tastes. Yet in spite of my reservations, I was engaged enough to want to keep reading to see how everything was going to work out, which is probably testament to Ms. Jeffries’ ability to tell a good story and to create an interesting conflict between her characters.