Christmas With His Wallflower Wife (Beauchamp Heirs #3) by Janice Preston

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A convenient bride

Can he be the groom she deserves?

Lord Alexander Beauchamp has protected Lady Jane Colebrooke since childhood. So seeing she’s about to be forced to wed, he steps in with a proposal of his own! But Alex had underestimated the closeness that taking Jane as his bride demands – something he expected never to give. As Christmas approaches, he knows he must confront the dark secrets that shadow their marriage…

Rating: B+

Christmas With His Wallflower Wife is the sixth and final book in Janice Preston’s two trilogies featuring two generations of the Beauchamp family, and it focuses on Alex, younger son of the Duke of Cheriton and his struggle to find out the truth of his mother’s death almost two decades earlier. If you’ve read any of the other books in the series, you’ll know that Alex is a very troubled young man whose relationship with his father is strained and who has deliberately distanced himself from the other members of his family for reasons that have never been fully explained. In presenting Alex’s story, Ms. Preston does an excellent job of slowly unpacking his damaged soul and bringing to light the truth of the trauma he suffered that prompted his withdrawal from his family; Alex is both flawed and compelling, and while there were times I wanted to tell him to get over himself and stop behaving like an idiot, his thoughts and motivations are so very well examined that it was easy to sympathise with him even as I was disagreeing with his methods and seeing the pitfalls marking the horizon.

It’s been several years since Alex visited the family seat, Cheriton Abbey. When he was just seven years old, Alex discovered his mother’s dead body in the summer house by the lake there, and was so severely traumatised that he didn’t speak for a year afterwards. Even though he’s now in his twenties, Alex still avoids the place like the plague and continues to maintain the emotional distance he has painstakingly manufactured between him and the rest of his family. But he’s persuaded to return there for a garden party at which all his family members will be present – a rare occurrence – intending to leave as soon as he can. Another of the guests is his oldest friend, Lady Jane Colebrooke, who is present with her father and dragon of a stepmother, who dislikes Jane and is determined to marry her off to the odious Sir Denzil Pikeford by hook or by crook. It seems that she’s chosen the latter option when Alex hears screams coming from near the lake and immediately dashes to the rescue to discover Jane struggling under the weight of an inebriated Sir Denzil. Jane’s stepmother gleefully insists that Jane must marry Pikeford or be ruined, but Alex won’t hear of it. He’s always liked Jane, they get on well and have many interests in common… he’ll need to get married at some point, so why not marry a woman he already knows and likes? Jane has loved Alex for years and is aghast at the idea of his being forced to marry her, but he manages to overcome her objections and the couple is married without delay.

One of my favourite things about this sort of story is seeing how the relationship develops between  two people who had had no thought of being married, watching them adjust to life as part of a couple and learning to compromise and take another’s feelings and wishes into account.  Not surprisingly, it’s often the man who has most to learn about compromise and adjustment in these situations, and that’s true here.  Ms. Preston writes the early days of Jane and Alex’s marriage very well indeed, showing them developing an awareness of each other and enjoying each other’s company.  Alex is surprised at how well his marriage is turning out – Jane is a wonderful companion, an enthusiastic lover and he’s clearly very fond of her.  But the rot sets in when he begins to experience nightmares in which Jane’s ordeal at the hands of Pikeford and the death of his mother start to overlap, and later, starts experiencing waking visions, flashes of memory about the past which seem to contradict the story he’s always believed – that he found his mother’s body.  Jane wants desperately to help him, but recognises the signs of the return of the ‘old’ Alex, the one who keeps everyone at arm’s length and allows nobody to truly know him – and can only watch as he retreats farther and farther away from her, the relaxed and more open Alex she’s come to know disappearing under the weight of his burdens.

As I said at the outset, Ms. Preston does a marvellous job of conveying Alex’s increasing confusion over what his dreams and flashes of memory might mean, his fears that maybe he’s losing his mind and his desperation to keep it all bottled up for fear of being thought weak.  Jane is presented equally well, her fears for Alex, her refusal to give up on him and desperation to help him… all of them portrayed with subtlety and nuance.  I was thoroughly engaged by the story and eager to get back to it, although somewhere around the middle of the book the pacing slowed and I felt that we were treading water for a while, waiting for the next phase of the story to start.  I also realised around the same time that while Alex’s story is, without doubt, an extremely well-written and interesting one, the romance is very much in the back seat.  This is the story of a young man finding out the truth about a traumatic event which has shaped his life – which, to be fair, he probably wouldn’t have done without Jane’s staunch support – rather than one about two childhood friends falling in love.  It’s clear that Alex thinks highly of Jane and there’s no doubt he’s sexually attracted to her but there’s not a great deal beyond that sexual attraction for most of the book; there’s no real indication he thinks of her as anything more than a great friend he happens to lust after, and I never really felt him as a romantic hero.

Christmas With His Wallflower Wife isn’t really a Christmas story – it ends at Christmas but the bulk of the action takes place before, so don’t go in expecting lots of Christmas cheer and festive spirit!  It is, however, the engrossing tale of a man’s battle against what we might today call PTSD in an era where therapy was unheard of and men were expected to be strong and protective and to never show any sign of weakness.  I’m  giving the book a hearty recommendation because, even though the romance is perhaps not quite as strong as I’d have liked, the story as a whole held my interest and I was completely invested in discovering how everything would turn out.

Any Old Diamonds (Lilywhite Boys #1) by K.J. Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by Cornell Collins

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Lord Alexander Pyne-ffoulkes, the younger son of the Duke of Ilvar, holds a bitter grudge against his wealthy father. The Duke intends to give his Duchess a priceless diamond parure on their wedding anniversary – so Alec hires a pair of jewel thieves to steal it.

The Duke’s remote castle is a difficult target, and Alec needs a way to get the thieves in. Soldier-turned-criminal Jerry Crozier has the answer: He’ll pose as a Society gentleman and become Alec’s new best friend.

But Jerry is a dangerous man: controlling, remote, and devastating. He effortlessly teases out the lonely young nobleman’s most secret desires, and soon he’s got Alec in his bed – and the palm of his hand.

Or maybe not. Because as the plot thickens, betrayals, secrets, new loves, and old evils come to light. Now the jewel thief and the aristocrat must keep up the pretence, find their way through a maze of privilege and deceit, and confront the truth of what’s between them…all without getting caught.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – A-

Any Old Diamonds is the first of two novels set in late Victorian England featuring a pair of jewel thieves known as the Lilywhite Boys, and in it, K.J. Charles relates a thoroughly entertaining story of murder, betrayal, revenge, intrigue… and love found in the unlikeliest of places.

Lord Alexander Greville de Keppel Pyne-ffoulkes, younger son of the Duke of Ilvar, has supported himself for the past eight years, working – as plain Alec Pine – as an illustrator for books and newspapers. As the son of one of the wealthiest men in the country it’s far from the life he was born to, but he and his older brother and two sisters were cut off by their father following a massive falling out that had been brewing for years. After their mother’s death, the duke married – with indecent haste – the woman with whom he’d been having an affair, and when Alec and his siblings refused to kowtow to the new duchess as their father demanded, he disowned them.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Contracted as His Countess by Louise Allen

This title may be purchased from Amazon

From a recluse secluded in a castle…

…to his Countess!

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

Rating: C-

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

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

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

Jack is even more surprised when she tells him the reason for her invitation.  Over the years, her father had searched out and acquired every scrap of the lost Dersington lands, and these will of course be returned to Jack upon their marriage.  He is stunned – and then angry at the idea that this young woman thinks she can buy him… but also feels an unexpected hope at the prospect of regaining his family’s property, and after thinking it over – and admitting to himself that his unaccountable attraction to Madelyn will at least make the act of begetting heirs a pleasant one – he agrees to the match.  But with the condition that Madelyn must live in the present and not the past, and that she will learn how to conduct herself appropriately in nineteenth century society.

The marriage of convenience for money is a common enough trope, but Madelyn’s unusual upbringing and Jack’s rejection of his title – and the widespread disapproval of his peers that incurrs – opened up the potential for some different sorts of conflicts to those usually found in this type of story, and I eagerly raced through the first few chapters.  Jack finds Madelyn someone to help her to learn all the rules that govern society and its interactions, from learning how to act as hostess to what clothes to wear.  Madelyn is determined to do her best to fit in, Jack’s intentions are good in providing her with someone to guide her, and so are those of her mentor, but those good intentions basically translate to Madelyn finding herself wearing unflattering clothes in colours that do not suit her and feeling as though she is being forced to give up her individuality.  I sympathised with her; she wanted to be a credit to Jack but was being pushed in directions that made her anything but, and I was pleased when she took a stand and decided to find a compromise that would work for her and for Jack.  I was very much on her side in this – until she did something silly as a way of demonstrating her ability to make sound judgments about how to behave, which was not only dumb but out of character.

The biggest problem with the book though, is the romance. Or rather, the lack thereof.  Ms. Allen is capable of creating terrific sexual tension between her heroes and heroines and is very skilled at developing a believable romance in the relatively short page count of a category romance.  Here, however… well, let’s just say she must’ve been having an off day (or several), because there’s no chemistry between Jack and Madelyn, and other than a few references to the fact that Jack is surprised he’s attracted to her because she’s not his type (and we’re reminded rather too often that she’s not conventionally attractive), and that Madelyn finds Jack very handsome, there’s very little in the way of attraction, and the kisses and single (rather tame) love scene are damp squibs rather than fireworks.

So I’m marking Contracted as His Countess down as one of those books that had a lot of potential that was ultimately not realised.  It’s a shame when an author whose work you normally enjoy lets you down, but it happens; and although I can’t recommend this, I hope to enjoy more of Ms. Allen’s books in the future.

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

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: Narration – A; Content – A-

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

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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

This title may be purchased from Amazon

An outcast fighting for her future…

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

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

A recluse haunted by his past…

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

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

A compelling attraction that changes their lives

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

Rating: A

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

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

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

Rafe Landcross had no thought of inheriting the title of Earl of Luxborough, and certainly didn’t want it at the cost of the lives of his father and two elder brothers.  A large, dark and dour man, he bears the scars of a Jaguar attack sustained in the forests of New Spain (part of Mexico today) and, a keen botanist, much prefers the company of his plants to society.  His reclusiveness and curt, abrasive manner have led to all sorts of rumours circulating about him – including one that he murdered his wife, Lord Ventnor’s daughter.

The subject of nasty rumours herself, Thea is sure this cannot be true, but even so, has no desire to meet Luxborough – which is unfortunate as he, too, is to be a guest at the small party at Arabella’s home. Even though he rarely – if ever – leaves his estate, the earl has been tempted to do so by the prospect of obtaining some rare plant specimens being conveyed there by Lord Ventnor.  But Ventnor wants a favour in return, namely that Rafe should keep Beau away from that “social-climbing seductress Helen Knight”.  Having an agenda of his own, Rafe agrees to this, telling Ventnor that he will marry Helen – but he is fully aware of Thea and Helen’s scheme and has no intention of preventing the match between Helen and Beau.  Instead, he will go along with the deception and marry Thea (as Helen) and gain control of the ten thousand pounds left in trust by his mother.  Because Thea will marry him under a false name, she will not actually be his wife, so Rafe gets what he wants – money to continue his botanical research – doesn’t get what he doesn’t want – a wife – and Ventnor will be apoplectic with rage into the bargain.  Win win.

But he’s reckoned without Thea, her vitality, her enthusiasm and optimism, which are undimmed even in the face of the unkind and unjust treatment she’s been subjected to by those who should have been her staunchest supporters. He initially believes her to be the scheming jezebel gossip says she is, but he cannot reconcile that picture with the winsome and mischievous young woman who gives back every bit as good as she gets.

“We’ve barely met and you’re not very nice.”

“True, but I am an earl.”

“And?”

“Are you saying you do not find me interesting?”

“Not nearly as interesting as you find yourself.”

And Thea can’t help but be fascinated by Rafe, who is as different from the gossip about him as she is from the gossip about her.  He’s gruffly charming and adorably grumpy in a way that makes her yearn to know more about the man she glimpses only briefly, one who is kind, affectionate and funny – and to know why he locks that side of himself away.  His backstory is one marked by tragedy; he blames himself for his first wife’s death and genuinely grieves the father and brothers whose deaths paved his way to the earldom.  The heir who inherits unexpectedly is a frequently seen character in historical romance, but this is one of the few times I can recall that character being so eaten up with grief and guilt and convinced of his own unworthiness.

A Beastly Kind of Earl could be described as one of those buttoned-up-hero-loosened-up-by-free-spirited-heroine tales, but the author has once again managed to put her own spin on a familiar and well-used trope in such a way as to come up with something refreshingly different that transcends it.  The writing is clever, insightful and delightfully nimble, the dialogue sparkles with wit and humour and the author’s shrewd observations about the social conventions that constrained female behaviour are accurate and conveyed with amazing subtlety.  I laughed out loud at Thea’s reaction to mansplaining:

“Oh. You’re going to educate me. Very well.”

She folded her hands and waited politely.

“You don’t sound thrilled,” he remarked.

“On the contrary, my lord. I’m always thrilled when a man wants to tell me all the important things he knows… and if I’m very lucky, you’ll explain at length how you know more about it than anyone else.”

Then this had me laughing even harder;  Rafe and Thea discuss the etymology of the word ‘orchid’ – which is apparently derived from the Greek word for testicles!

“Allow me to confirm that I have understood correctly,” she said, her puzzlement overriding her nerves. “Here is this gorgeous, magnificent flower, and some man – who for unknown reasons is put in charge of naming it – he looks at this gorgeous, magnificent flower and he says ‘By George, that looks like my bollocks’.  And then he says, ‘You know what the world needs now? The world needs more things named after my bollocks.’ So he names this gorgeous, magnificent flower after his bollocks and all the other men look at it and say, ‘How excellent.  It is named after our bollocks.’”

His expression was unreadable as he studied her.  She would not be surprised if he stalked off in disgust at her unladylike speech.

“I must admit,” he finally said, “that us men are immensely fond of our bollocks.”

This is a funny book no question, but the humour never upstages the serious situations faced by the principals or the emotional connection between them.  Thea’s helplessness in the face of the determination of the men who ruined her reputation is a horrible realisation, and Rafe’s backstory, revealed gradually, is truly heartbreaking.  But watching these two wronged people find each other, fall in love and realise they belong together is pure joy; and the icing on the cake is the fact that the chemistry between them is simply scorching.

If you read Ms. VIncy’s début novel, then you’ll probably need no convincing to pick this one up.  But if you’re a fan of historical romance and haven’t yet read her work, then you should get on it right away!  Although this is listed as the second book in the Longhope Abbey series, it works perfectly well as a standalone, and the books can be read in any order.  A Beastly Kind of Earl is, without doubt, one of the best books of 2019.

TBR Challenge: The Hidden Heart by Gayle Buck

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Unrequited love: The Earl of Walmesley does the unthinkable. He asks a dear friend to risk her reputation to save him from a matrimonial trap. Lady Caroline Eddingotn has always loved Miles Trilby. She would do anything for him. But – enter into a false betrothal? She is mad to agree. She risks more than her place in society. She risks her heart.

Rating: D+

I often find myself reaching for a Traditional Regency when it comes to the “Sweet or Spicy” prompt.  Most of the romances I read these days contain sex scenes, so I tend to interpret the “spicy” part of the prompt to mean something beyond that, like erotica or erotic romance, and I don’t have anything from either genre on my TBR – hence my gravitating to the “sweet” side of the prompt.

The Hidden Heart was originally published by Signet in 1992, and is billed as a fake-relationship story wherein the hero, Miles, Earl of Walmesley (who is, for some reason also referred to throughout as Lord Trilby which confused me at first, as I thought the author was talking about two different characters!), needing to forestall his imposing great aunt’s plans to wed him to a young lady he has never met, asks his best friend, Lady Caroline Eddington, to pose as his betrothed for the duration of his aunt’s upcoming visit. Lady Caroline has – of course – been in love with Miles for years, but has abandoned any hope of anything more than friendship, while Miles is  – also of course – completely oblivious to her feelings.  Caroline is a great heroine, but overall, The Hidden Heart was a bit of a disappointment.  Caro and Miles spend very little time together on the page, and the romance is practically non-existent; in fact, it feels as though the author got to the end of the book and thought “Oh no! I forgot to get Caro and Miles together – I’ve got a couple of pages left, so I’ll do it now!”

When Miles initially asks Caro to act as his fiancée during his great aunt, the Grand-duchess of Schaffenzeits’ visit, she turns him down, fully cognizant of the detrimental effect such a thing could have on her reputation if it’s ever discovered.  Miles does realise he’s asking a lot (but he asks anyway) and isn’t completely surprised by his friend’s refusal – but when the duchess arrives early, he asks again – and this time Caro, in a moment of weakness engendered by the continual and highly unpleasant sniping of her aunt and the importuning of an unwanted and far too persistent suitor (who can’t understand that no means no) agrees to help Miles out.

The predictability of the story is countered somewhat by the character of Caro, who does not waste her time pining for Miles or allow herself to be bullied by her aunt.  She is cool and capable most of the time, able to squash her aunt’s pretentions and turn her barbed remarks back on her with poise and ease, even though it’s clear that she does find her presence difficult to deal with at times; in fact, watching Caro deal with her aunt was one of the things I enjoyed most about the book!  I also liked the fact that the author doesn’t turn Caro’s new sister-in-law into a complete bitch who wants Caro out of the house because she doesn’t want any competition.  The Grand-duchess is a wily grande dame, but Miles himself is poorly characterised and is actually hardly present in the story.  He failed to make much of an impression on me; all I really knew about him was that he had a reputation for being a bit irresponsible, and that he’s being pretty selfish when he asks Caro to pretend to be engaged to him.  When he and Caro do finally fall into each other’s arms at the end of the book, he spins her a yarn about how seeing a friend destroyed by love caused him to never want to experience it and then uses that to explain why he never showed any sign of feeling more for Caro than friendship, it was utterly ridiculous and came completely out of nowhere.  I suppose Caroline got what she wanted in the end, but no way was Miles good enough for her.

TL:DR. The Hidden Heart was a dud.  I liked the heroine, but pretty much everyone else –including the hero – was awful.  There are better Trads out there than this one.

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

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

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

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

Rating: B-

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

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

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

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

Jonah Chandler is the eldest son of Sir William Chandler and, since the illness that has confined his father to a wheelchair, has taken over many of the duties involved in running the family business.  Unlike his siblings Nathaniel and Kate (whose stories were told in the previous books), Jonah has been the one to stay at home, to follow the path laid down for him, going from home to school to the stud farm and while he loves his work, he wants more from his life.  Four years earlier, at Newmarket, he found that something – or rather someone – when he met Irene Baird (in rather unusual circumstances).  After a whirlwind courtship, they married quietly, but haven’t lived together since, only meeting a few times a year when they could both snatch the time to spend a few days or hours together – because Irene needed to remain in London and at her post until her younger brother was thirteen and old enough to be sent away to the prestigious boys’ school at which she has, with Mrs. Brodie’s help, secured him a place.  With those four years almost up, Jonah comes to London in order to ask Irene to return to Newmarket with him as agreed.  He loves her and misses her and wants to make a family with her; he’s a decent, steady and compassionate man and had been content to be Irene’s convenient husband, but now he wants to walk his own path… and he wants to do it with his wife at his side.

Irene is horribly torn.  She loves Jonah and wants to be with him, but she’s also reluctant to give up the life she’s built for herself and worries that she is in danger of losing herself if she does so.  Theresa Romain does a terrific job of articulating Irene’s many shifting thoughts and emotions; is she being selfish by wanting things to stay the same; how she can give up teaching and her missions when there are always going to be people who need help; how can she be fair to Jonah and to herself; is she good enough for him? – presenting Irene as a multi-faceted and very real character as she wrestles with these and many other problems.

Jonah is a lovely beta hero who has never wanted Irene to be anything but herself and has recognised – and admired – her spirit and independence and appreciated the importance of her work. But now he has seen what she does with his own eyes, and sees the difference she makes, he understands, more than ever, how difficult a choice he has presented to her.  But a choice is inevitable.  And he doesn’t want to “not be your choice anymore.”

Ms. Romain has clearly done a lot of research into horse breeding and training and into the London of the 1820s, presenting it as a cosmopolitan place, with areas of the City of London and East End home to many businesses owned, operated by and employing people from all over the world, and people of colour specifically.  She has clearly given a lot of thought to depicting the way Irene and her family members are viewed by some and the casual prejudice they encounter – which, while distasteful to read, was – and sadly, continues to be – found in people from all walks of life.

But even with the number of very positive things the book has going for it, I can’t deny that it fails to deliver one really important thing.

A romance.

Irene and Jonah met before this story starts, so the falling-in-love part of their story is over and done by the time we meet them.  I liked the fact that they’re a couple who isn’t estranged for the usual reasons found in romance novels (family pressure, infidelity, deception etc.) and that they are both as in love with one another now as they were when they first met.  Most romance novels end at the HEA and readers rarely glimpse those couples again (other than in cameo roles in other books in the same series) and once again, I applaud Ms. Romain for tackling a situation that doesn’t crop up all that often in the genre.  But the problem – for me – is that I am recognising all these really good things with my head and my brain; the writing is excellent, the dilemmas faced by the characters are really well put forward, the research is impeccable… but I didn’t FEEL anything of the romantic chemistry and spark I look for between the principals when reading a romance.  I also can’t deny thinking that perhaps Irene didn’t love Jonah as much as he did her; she has set aside ideas of her own happiness in favour of securing the happiness of others, which, in turn, gives her a sense of purpose and satisfaction – but when the ‘other’ whose happiness she could secure is her own husband’s… well, she doesn’t give him the same consideration she affords everyone else.

There are several sub-plots in the book  – all of which are tidily wrapped up – one might say too tidily – by the end, some of which have little bearing on the overall story and are, I think, loose plot threads from earlier in the series that needed to be tied up.  In fact, one of them felt as though it belonged in a completely different book.

To sum up… I came away from His Wayward Bride unsure as to how I felt about it.  It’s got a lot going for it, but the superb insight and beautiful prose can’t quite disguise the fact that, for me at least, the book lacked an emotional centre and real… for want of a better word, ‘heart’.  That said, I think there are many out there who will enjoy this tale more than I did, and for that reason, I’m giving it a qualified recommendation.