TBR Challenge: The Wedding Journey by Carla Kelly

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Set against the vivid historical background of the Napoleonic Wars, “The Wedding Journey “is the unforgettable story of Captain Jesse Randall, assistant surgeon of Marching Hospital Number Eight, and his undying love for beautiful, young Nell Mason. A battlefield is no place to wage a campaign of love, and even if it was, Jesse is far too shy to ever confess his love to Nell, who helps the surgeons in the field hospital.

Her father, Captain Bertie Mason, is a compulsive gambler, and when Nell’s mother dies, he desperately agrees to marry her to the despicable Major William Bones to relieve his crushing gambling debts. To prevent such a fate, Jesse hastily weds Nell. He doesn’t dare hope she’ll ever return his devotion.

A marriage on the front lines of the Napoleonic Wars would be difficult enough, but now Major Bones is out for vengeance. As the British army retreats from Burgos for Portugal, Jesse, Nell, and a handful of the sick and stragglers are left behind to fend for themselves. The newly married couple must now draw on all their strength to survive and save their small band, and somehow nurture a love that can endure the most trying of journeys…

Rating: B+

For June’s prompt of Favourite Trope, I turned to Carla Kelly’s The Wedding Journey, the story of a marriage of convenience made during wartime in order to protect the heroine from the threat of being sold off in marriage to pay her father’s debts.  In the hands of this author, however, the story is so much more than the story of two people thrust unexpectedly into marriage; set amid the slaughter and chaos of the Peninsular War, it’s also a story of the struggle to survive against the odds and of how the most ordinary person can call on reserves deep inside to achieve the truly extraordinary.

Elinore Mason  – Nell – has followed the drum for as long as she can remember.  Her father, a captain, is a hard drinker and gambler who doesn’t spare a moment’s thought for his wife and daughter – other than for what they can do for him – and the time Nell doesn’t spend with her ailing mother is spent in the hospital tent, tending to the sick and wounded and helping however she can.  Captain Jesse Randall is a highly competent surgeon, widely respected, well-liked, but quiet and shy – and has been hopelessly in love with Nell for years.

The smarmy Major William Bones also has his eye on Nell, but his intentions are not at all honourable.  After Nell’s mother dies, her father, who is deeply in debt to Bones, agrees to give Nell to him as payment – but to prevent this, Jesse steps up and offers to marry her instead.  He doesn’t have any hope that Nell will ever return his love, but he knows she likes him well enough; and in any case, they can have the marriage annulled at a later date.

Bones, furious at having Nell snatched away from him exacts his revenge in a most appalling way.  With the army preparing to retreat from Burgos into Portugal, Marching Hospital Number Eight is packed up and ready to go the next morning – and awakens to discover that they have been abandoned thanks to Bones’ machinations.  The unit’s commanding officer, Major Sheffield, Jesse and Nell are left with a handful of sick soldiers and army stragglers to fend for themselves and make their own way into Portugal without transport, supplies or protection – and with the French army not far behind them.

The Wedding Journey is probably the most unusual marriage of convenience story I’ve ever read.  Jesse and Nell are both likeable, sensible and determined people and there’s never really any question that they are meant to be together, but the circumstances in which they find themselves continually test them and the bonds they forge as they face danger, sickness, great tragedy and even a madman are perhaps all the stronger for everything that they are forced to go through together.

As is the case with all of Carla Kelly’s books set during the Napoleonic Wars, she doesn’t sugar-coat the difficulties her small band of brothers are facing and nor does she pull her punches when it comes to gritty reality, unafraid to show the terrible consequences of war in all its dirt, blood and horror.  But while the odds against Jesse and Nell are overwhelming, Ms. Kelly still manages to find time for them to talk and learn about each other and even to share the odd joke to lighten the mood.

The book is narrated almost entirely by Jesse, who is, quite simply, the most adorable beta hero.  He’s a ginger-haired Scot, with a dry sense of humour – his inner monologue with Hippocrates is funny and allows us to learn quite a lot about him – he’s resourceful, kind and protective, and is thoroughly dedicated to doing the best for those under his care.  He’s also got a steel backbone and an innate authority that he doesn’t use very often and didn’t really know he had, but which makes him a natural leader and someone who inspires trust in others and makes them want to do their best for him. With the bulk of the story told from his PoV, the reader is able to really connect with him and to see and understand the depth of his compassion and his love for Nell, whom he would do absolutely anything to keep safe.

We don’t spend as much time in Nell’s PoV, so she feels a little less well-developed, but it’s easy to see that she’s clever, strong and resilient and that she’s a little bit smitten with Jesse, but, believing herself to have nothing to offer him besides bad luck and a wastrel father, hadn’t ever thought to look for anything more than friendship.  But as they journey through a Spain laid waste by two opposing armies, she comes to love him as he loves her, the respect and admiration she has long-felt for him morphing into something far deeper.

I suppose the one criticism I can level at the book is that the adventures and misadventures of Marching Hospital Number Eight overshadow the romance somewhat.  Jesse and Nell have so much to deal with that although they spend a lot of time together and clearly make a great team, they don’t have a lot of time to explore their feelings for each other or their new relationship.

The Wedding Journey encompasses high-stakes drama, tragedy, trauma and a very realistic portrait of the sufferings wrought by war, but at the same time, it’s uplifting and imbued with warmth and humour.  The love story between Nell and Jesse is tender and sweet and the writing is intelligent and devoid of sentimentality and yet emotionally satisfying.

TBR Challenge: Atrophy (Atrophy #1) by Jess Anastasi

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

No one on Erebus escapes alive…

Twelve years on the prison planet Erebus makes a man long for death. The worst part for Tannin Everette is that he was framed for murder. He’s innocent. When the ship Imojenna lands for emergency repairs, Tannin risks everything to escape…only to find himself face to face with the captain’s undeniably gorgeous sister.

Zahli Sherron isn’t planning on turning Tannin in. In fact, she actually believes him. Sure, he’s sexy as every kind of sin, but he’s no criminal—so she hides him. But no one escapes from Erebus and lives to tell about it. With every day that passes, Zahli further risks the lives of the entire crew…even as she falls in love with a man she can never have for herself.

Rating: B+

When I saw this month’s prompt was to read Something Different, I knew pretty much exactly which genre and which book I was going to choose. Last year sometime, one of my fellow reviewers at AAR reviewed a Sci-Fi romance called Quantum, which was the second book in Jess Anastasi’s Atrophy series. I really liked the sound of it and it struck me that while I’m actually a fan of Sci-Fi in TV and film, I don’t read it – so I picked up the first book in the series, Atrophy for the May prompt.

I admit that I hadn’t realised, going in, that it’s part of a series in which there is an overarching story that runs through all the books (there are three so far). Still, it’s a thumping good read and I’m sufficiently invested in that particular plotline to want to read the other books – when I can find the time! I also liked that the book is very much an ensemble piece, with a handful of principal characters to start and a few new ones introduced along the way. There’s a romance with an HEA to be sure, but that’s not the primary focus of the story and I was perfectly okay with that; there’s plenty of action and the gradual emergence of a really intriguing plot, all of it skilfully woven together into a rip-roaring, enjoyable yarn.

Due to the latest in a string of mechanical failures, the cargo freighter Imojenna is forced to land on the prison planet, Erebus in order to pick up spare parts and make repairs. On duty when the ship applies for permission to land is Tannin Everette, one of the number of inmates who is allowed to work in the prison administration. Twelve years earlier, he was convicted of a murder he did not commit, and when the chance of escape presents itself, he takes it, planning to stow away aboard the Imojenna. He’s not without misgivings; the penalty if he gets caught will be heavy and he’ll be a fugitive for the rest of his life. But on balance, it’s a risk he’s willing to take.

Crew member – and captain’s sister – Zahli Sherron, is in the marketplace buying supplies for the next leg of the Imojenna’s journey when she is approached by an officer and taken into a deserted building. Knowing the officer for one with an unpleasant reputation where women are concerned, Tannin is immediately suspicious and follows the sounds of a struggle only to come upon the young woman kneeling on the officer’s body with her hands around the knife in his chest. Tannin helps Zahli escape – and she later returns the favour by sticking up for him when he is discovered aboard the ship. There’s an instant attraction thrumming between them, but her immensely scary brother makes it clear that Zahli is firmly off-limits; and ship’s captain Rian Sherron reminds Zahli that while she’s his sister, as a member of the crew the same rules apply to her as to everyone else – which includes the non-fraternization policy.

Tannin is a likeable character, a whizz-kid hacker who somehow managed to keep the authorities on Erebus from finding out about his mad hacking skillz. These make him very valuable to Rian, who has his own reasons for choosing to captain a rickety freighter instead of returning to the military where he could be hero-worshipped until the end of his days. I liked the way the author shows Tannin’s loyalties becoming more conflicted the more time he spends aboard the ship; he’s falling for Zahli and he owes her his freedom and his life, but Rian, once he’s realised that Tannin has useful skills, has allowed him to stay on board and in effect given him a home of sorts. Tannin wants to be with Zahli but owes Rian, too, and doesn’t want to repay the trust he is gradually being given by directly disobeying orders.

I didn’t warm to Zahli all that much, though. She’s supposed to be kick-ass and competent, but even she sometimes questions her position among the crew, seeing herself as someone who just deals with the finances and does the shopping. I suppose she’s the crew’s peacemaker, sometimes standing between them and Rian and frequently calling her brother on his shit the way no-one else can. The sibling relationship is quiet well done, but she’s rather a bland character on her own.

The romance between Zahli and Tannin works well-enough for all it’s based on insta-lust, but the thing which really captured my interest is the plotline that is clearly going to run through all the books concerning Rian, a former military officer with a reputation for bad-assery of the highest order. Three years before the end of the Assimilation war, he disappeared without trace and was presumed dead, and then, just as suddenly, he reappeared and single-handedly ended the war with one daring, completely mad and potentially suicidal act. But he returned a changed man, bitter, reckless and distanced, always careful not to let anyone see the bleak darkness inside him, the intense and barely-leashed rage that he battles daily to contain. Ever since his return, he has been set on achieving one goal – to hunt down the shape-shifting aliens who captured and tortured him and make them pay. His quest for revenge sees him sometimes making questionable decisions, ones which could have disastrous outcomes for him and his crew, but he makes them anyway, putting nothing ahead of his achieving his goal. One such decision is to accept another shipment of cargo from a known shady-dealer, which turns out to be a woman, more specifically, high-priestess Miriella from the planet Aryn. The Arynian priestesses are known to have powerful psychic abilities and it’s immediately clear to Rian she could be a valuable bargaining chip, weapon or both. But he’s wary of her; her telepathic abilities unsettle him and he keeps his distance, although there’s definitely a spark there which I really hope is going to be explored in future books.

Ms. Anastasi weaves a fast-paced, complex (but not unintelligible) and enthralling story with nary a dull moment as the Imojenna wends its way across the skies, evading pursuers, avoiding traps and generally making more enemies than friends along the way. The various crew members are engaging and have important parts to play; these are secondary roles, but they are all clearly defined as characters and all contribute to the overall feeling of camaraderie among this closely-knit bunch.

While there are a few things that didn’t quite work for me – there’s a situation near the end which is resolved in a way that feels like a bit of a cop-out, for instance – on the whole Atrophy is a terrific read and one I’d certainly recommend. The world-building is excellent and while there are quite a few characters and plotlines introduced, I was never confused as to who was whom or who was doing what. Lucky for me, there are two more books in the series (Quantum and Diffraction) available with a fourth book, Entropy, coming in 2018.

TBR Challenge: The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin by Maisey Yates

This title may be purchased from Amazon

You will be my wife…

Esther Abbott was backpacking across Europe when she was approached about being a surrogate. Desperately in need of the money, Esther agreed. But when the deal falls apart, she’s left pregnant and alone, with no one to turn to… except the baby’s father!

Learning he is to have a child with a woman he’s never met is a scandal Italian billionaire Renzo Valenti can’t afford. Following his recent bitter divorce and with an impeccable reputation to maintain, Renzo has no choice but to claim the child… and Esther as his wife!

Rating: B-

I haven’t read a Harlequin Presents (or Mills and Boon Modern, as we call them here in Blighty) for quite a while, so I picked one up for the April’s TBR Challenge prompt of Contemporary Romance.

Sometimes, a girl just needs to get sucked into that glitzy world of rich, alpha playboys who are eventually tamed by love that the Presents line does so well, and The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin certainly didn’t disappoint on that score.  Maisey Yates also comes up with one of the most believable reasons for her twenty-three year old heroine being a virgin that I’ve come across. It must be harder and harder these days to convincingly write about a young woman in her twenties who has no sexual experience whatsoever (outside of Inspirationals, perhaps), but making Esther Abbott the product of a strict upbringing in a commune that allowed no contact with the outside world makes her inexperience  completely plausible.

Esther left the commune and her family following a confrontation – in front of everyone – with her incredibly strict father during which he told her she could denounce all the ‘evil’ things (like books and CDs) she had brought in from the outside or be thrown out – and she left.  Determined to make her own way and her own life, her ambition is to go to college, but for now, she is travelling and working abroad with the intent of seeing a bit of the world while she makes sufficient money to support herself through her studies.

But she’s not earned enough yet, and has run out of money in Rome, where she is currently working at a bar waiting tables. Completely out of the blue, she is approached by a woman about becoming a surrogate for her and her husband – and the amount of money involved convinces Esther to agree to the idea.  But just a few short weeks later, the woman tells Esther that her plans have changed and that she wants her to terminate the pregnancy.  Esther baulks at this, believing that the father should at least have some say in the matter.  Which is how she ends up on Renzo Valenti’s doorstep, explaining that she’s carrying his child.

Renzo is astonished and – not unreasonably – extremely sceptical.  It seems that his ex-wife had planned the whole thing without his knowledge (and here I had to stop to wonder if doing something like that without the consent of both potential parents is even possible), but even knowing this, he finds himself unable to believe such a ridiculous story, and Esther leaves, believing she’s at least done the right thing by telling him. But over the next few days the thought that she might possibly be carrying his baby nags at Renzo, and he eventually seeks her out at the bar and insists she accompanies him home.

Renzo is heir to the vast Valenti business empire and is the product of a fairly strict, old-fashioned upbringing.  His disastrous marriage to the most unsuitable woman he could find was made, in part, to spite his father for something that happened a long time ago, and partly out of Renzo’s deep-seated feelings of worthlessness.  At the age of sixteen, he fathered a child as the result of a brief affair with a married woman, but was forced to give up all claim to his daughter and to agree never to acknowledge her.  He hates himself for the ease with which he allowed himself to be manipulated – although he was only sixteen, which poses the question as to what he thought he could have done instead? – but it makes him even more determined to keep Esther’s child – or, as it turns out, children.  He pretty  much tells her they’re going to get married, but when Esther turns him down flat, he realises he’s going to have to tread more carefully.  He very reasonably points out that she will be able to do all the things she wants to do – travel, go to college – if she marries him, and makes it clear that he will not interfere; but the only marriages Esther has ever seen are ones in which the husband has complete control and in which the love they profess isn’t love, but a way of exerting that control.  Even her father’s supposed love was a way of tying her down and that’s something she certainly doesn’t want.  When Esther refuses Renzo’s proposal of a marriage of convenience, he plans a seduction instead – something that certainly won’t be a hardship for him considering that he is already attracted to Esther –  fully confident that he can make her fall in love with him and agree to marry him. They strike a bargain; Esther will move in with him and act the part of his fiancée until the babies are born, which will afford Renzo the necessary time to convince her that marrying him is the best way forward… and to put his planned seduction into action.

I won’t deny that the premise is more than a bit implausible. Surrogacy is illegal in Italy, but the author gets around that by having Esther travel across the border to undergo the procedure; and I can’t deny that I rolled my eyes at the throwaway line about Renzo’s ex-wife getting his sperm from a condom!  But if you can get past the unlikely set up, then the story is a reasonably enjoyable rags-to-riches tale buoyed up somewhat by Esther, who, despite her upbringing, isn’t a doormat and isn’t prepared to just roll over, do what she’s told and put up with Renzo’s crap.  He’s got issues of his own, too, although I didn’t really  buy that whole “I married a crazy-pants woman because I’m not worth anything better” thing; he’s thirty-two now and I was puzzled as to why he’d waited so long to pull that particular stunt.

Overall, however, Renzo and Esther make an engaging pair.  He admires her spirit and finds her innocence and lack of artifice refreshing, while she can’t help falling for this man who, she realises, is much more than the rich playboy he is widely believed to be.

The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin satisfied my temporary craving for a quick, fairytale-like fix and I enjoyed reading it.  It’s not something I’m likely to pick up again, but it did the job, and I think perhaps other HP devotees may enjoy it.

TBR Challenge: My Dearest Enemy by Connie Brockway

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Connie Brockway’s novel of unexpected love begins with a series of letters between a world-weary adventurer and the beautiful suffragette whose passion calls him home.

“Dear Mr. Thorne, For the next five years, I will profitably manage this estate. I will deliver to you an allowance and I will prove that women are just as capable as men.” Lillian Bede is shocked when she is tapped to run the affairs of an exquisite country manor. But she accepts the challenge, taking the opportunity to put her politics into practice. There’s only one snag: Lily’s ward, the infuriating, incorrigible globe-trotter Avery Thorne.

“My Dear Miss Bede, Forgive me if I fail to shudder. Pray, do whatever you bloody well want, can, or must.” Avery’s inheritance is on hiatus after his uncle dies—and his childhood home is in the hands of some domineering usurper. But when he finally returns, Avery finds that his antagonist is not at all what he expected. In fact, Lily Bede is stunning, exotic, provocative—and impossible to resist.

Rating: B+

March’s prompt for the TBR challenge is “comfort read”, which is defined as a book that uses a favourite trope or setting, or is by a favourite author.  I’ve chosen something from my TBR that everyone seems to have read except me – Connie Brockway’s My Dearest Enemy, which combines two of my favourite things, an enemies-to-lovers romance and a story in which letters play an important part (I do love an epistolary novel!).  It’s a gloriously romantic, character-driven story set at the end of the 19th century, in which our hero – a famous explorer – and heroine – an advocate of women’s suffrage – butt heads over the home they both love, sniping and pushing each other’s buttons as the attraction between them deepens.

Avery Thorne finds himself all but disinherited upon the death of his uncle Horatio, who, believing Avery to be a weakling and in need of discipline and humility, has granted stewardship of his home and lands to the illegitimate daughter of his late wife’s sister, nineteen-year-old Lilian Bede.  Miss Bede is to take possession of the property for a period of five years, and at the end of that time, if the farm and land are profitable, the house will belong to her fully.  Avery is furious, but he can do nothing, and opts to leave England rather than watch someone else take possession of the only home he has ever known.

Lily Bede is astonished to find herself the recipient of a house, and does worry that if she accepts the bequest, she will be doing the legitimate heir – whom she has never met – a bad turn.  But she doesn’t really have an alternative; with her parents both dead, she is living pretty much hand-to-mouth, and the prospect of having a real home – even one that might end up being temporary – is too much to resist.  And besides, the alternative, receiving a small income instead, but one she will lose unless she publicly denounces the Women’s Suffrage movement… well, that just isn’t going to happen.  Taking the house is, as far as Lily is concerned, the lesser of two evils.

During the five years of Avery’s absence, he and Lily exchange a series of letters, that are full of biting sarcasm (without being nasty), humorous banter and, sometimes, emotional honesty.  Avery has gained a reputation as an adventurer and explorer, and has also made himself a lot of money by writing up the stories of his exploits which are serialised in a popular newspaper.  Yet he still carries with him his ideal of home and is still determined to claim Mill House when he returns to England.

In that time, Lily has had some success in turning a profit, but she’s not in the clear yet. She’s economised considerably, reducing the staff to a bare minimum and doing a lot of the work herself; it’s her only chance to have a house and home of her own, as she doesn’t ever want to get married, so she’s worked hard and is determined to keep the house that has become her home.

Even though she and Avery have been corresponding for nearly five years by the time he returns home, Lily is in no way prepared for the way he affects her from their first meeting.  Having been led – by descriptions of those who knew him before, and from his portrait – to expect a rather scrawny and unprepossessing individual, she is stunned to come face to face with the most handsome man she’s ever seen, one who radiates confidence and masculinity to such an extent he nearly takes her breath away.

Avery is just as surprised to discover that instead of the dried up spinster he’d expected, Lily is an exotic, feminine beauty, albeit one that strides around the place in tweed bloomers.  Of course they’re both smitten – but we knew that from reading their letters and especially from Avery’s reaction to the one Lily sent him after the death of a close friend.

Their romance is beautifully written and developed as both of them try to get the upper hand in order to prove they have a right to the house while coming to appreciate each other’s sterling qualities.  Avery is a truly swoonworthy hero without being stereotypical; he’s handsome, competent and confident, but he’s more of a beta than an alpha.  He’s not vastly experienced with women, he loves his home and wants to marry and have a large family.  He’s protective without being suffocating, and I loved the way he treats Lily as an equal and lets her do things for herself whereas many men of the time would have attempted to step in and do things for her.  The way he – and the reader – is shown the extent of Lily’s care of the estate and the prejudice she has encountered on account of her gender and her illegitimacy, is masterfully done, with one moment in particular almost reducing me to a quivering wreck.  His insistence on being a gentleman is very sweet – especially as his view of what is gentlemanly tends to be somewhat fluid – but the subtle message, that the mark of a true gentleman lies in the truth and honour of his actions rather than in his manners and the adherence to convention is expertly and effectively conveyed.

Lily, too, is a great character, and I liked her very much even though there were times I wanted to shake some sense into her near the end of the book. For most of it though, she’s terrific – witty, clever, sarcastic and perfectly able to hold her own against Avery’s barbs; it’s much more difficult for her to conceal how strongly attracted to him she is than it is to find the words to get under his skin.  My main criticism of Lily is that while her reasons for not wanting to marry are sound and very well explained (her mother’s husband took away her children after she left him and she never saw them again – it’s a heartbreaking story), she has chained herself to a dead woman’s grievances and made a crusade of her mother’s pain to such an extent that she has blinded herself to the truth of what’s standing in front of her – a man who loves and respects her deeply and will never hurt her.

There is a small but very well-drawn cast of secondary characters, most intriguing of whom is Horatio’s unmarried sister, Francesca, a fading beauty who fills her life with frivolity and, it’s implied, men, but who is characterised by an underlying sadness.  Bernard, Avery’s twelve-year-old cousin is a delight; a boy becoming a man, intent on protecting his womenfolk while he also suffers from the severe asthma which affected Avery as a child (and continues to do so in certain circumstances). The relationship that evolves between the pair is just lovely.

My main criticism of the book as a whole is that the ending is very abrupt, and, given all the angst that has gone before it, the tiniest bit anticlimactic. There is an epilogue set around a decade afterwards, but I needed a little more closure on the original story rather than a glimpse into the future.

But even so, My Dearest Enemy is a gem of a book, and I’m really glad I finally got around to reading it.  It’s witty and clever, with some moments of true poignancy near the end which had me quite choked up – plus Avery is one of the most wonderfully romantic heroes I’ve ever read.

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.

TBR Challenge: His Christmas Countess (Lords of Disgrace #2) by Louise Allen

his-christmas-countess

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A Christmas baby…

Grant Rivers, Earl of Allundale, is desperate to get home in time for Christmas. But when he stumbles upon a woman all alone in a tumbledown shack, having a baby out of wedlock, it’s his duty to stay and help her.

…leads to unexpected wedding vows!

Grant knows all too well the risks of childbirth, and he’s witnessed enough tragedy to last a lifetime. So once he’s saved her life Grant is determined to save Kate’s reputation too… if she will consent to marrying a stranger on Christmas Day!

Rating: A-

His Christmas Countess is book two in Louise Allen’s most recent series, The Four Disgraces, in which the heroes are a group of young men who earned that sobriquet as a result of their daring exploits at school and university.  For some reason, I read the first, third and fourth books when they came out and missed this one – which was a mistake, because while I enjoyed the others and rated them highly, this is the best of the lot.

It’s Christmas Eve and Grantham Rivers is on his way from Edinburgh to Northumberland, where he hopes to get to the bedside of his dying grandfather in time to say his final goodbyes.  When his horse goes lame, and with the weather worsening at every moment, he has little alternative but to take refuge in a shepherd’s  hut or “bothy”  – and is astonished to discover that he is not the only one stranded in the middle of nowhere while waiting for the storm to pass.  A heavily pregnant woman is sheltering there, too, and Grant who, while not a doctor, has studied medicine – recognises the signs of early labour.

Kate Harding was all but pushed into the arms of the man who ruined her by her unscrupulous brother, who now intends to blackmail her child’s father.  Threatening to take Kate’s baby from her in order to ensure her co-operation, her brother sent her to Scotland until the birth, but when – at last – the chance to escape arose, Kate took it, and made her way to the nearest coaching inn.  But her money was stolen, leaving her penniless; the weather is closing in and she is alone, friendless and scared, with no alternative but to wait out the coming snowstorm in a nearby bothy.  But it seems someone else has had the same idea.  The man who enters is tall, dark, handsome and somewhat severe, but he quickly reassures her, telling her he is a doctor and that he will make sure she is safely delivered.

Grant, a widower, has a young son by from his first – disastrous – marriage, and is well aware that six year old Charlie needs a mother.  He is also heir to an earldom – something he neglects to tell Kate, understandably in the circumstances – and has been feeling guilty about the fact that he has neglected to do the one thing his grandfather had asked of him, and marry again.  Impulsively, and as Kate nears the end of her long labour, he suggests that they marry – he needs a mother for his son, her child will need a father – and as they are in Scotland, all they need do is declare their intent to wed before witnesses.  A couple of passing shepherds are pleased to perform that service, and Grant and Kate are married, shortly before her daughter, Anna, makes her way into the world.

Given the remoteness of Grant’s home, and the fact that as a medical man, he is unlikely to move in the same circles as her brother, Kate believes she has found the perfect refuge. So when they arrive at Abbeywell Grange and she hears Grant addressed as “my Lord”, she is shocked.  Grant tiredly explains that his grandfather – who just passed away – was the third Earl of Allundale, and that he (Grant) is now the fourth earl, and Kate is immediately worried. An earl will be expected to spend some of his time in London and Kate has no wish to return to the scene of her disgrace or to risk an encounter with her brother.   But what’s done is done, and she recognises she is in no fit state to think about much more than caring for her daughter and taking comfort in the warmth and safety of her new home.

Shortly after his grandfather’s funeral, Grant tells Kate that he must go to London to consult with his solicitor and to see to various other matters of business.  He ends up being away for almost six months, and finally returns home to find things much changed. The wife he had left a tired, pale shadow is now a pretty, vibrant young woman with a quick wit and keen intelligence; and Grant is not a little surprised at the strength of the attraction he feels towards her.

Grant’s first marriage was a passionate love match – or so he’d thought, until his beautiful wife began to show signs of mental instability that turned into hatred.  He is still haunted by the manner of her death and clams up every time Kate tries to get him to tell her what happened.  But Kate is persistent. She never bullies or demands and eventually Grant realises that she deserves the truth.  The one black mark I can make against Kate is that while Grant shares the truth of his past with her, she does not do the same, causing him to continue to believe that she is still carrying a torch for Anna’s father.  Kate knows she needs to come clean, but, not wanting to jeopardise their marriage, makes some poor decisions and tries to deal with her brother herself.  But those are my only criticisms of what is an otherwise excellent book.

As the story takes place over a year – we get two Christmases for the price of one! – the romance is allowed time to develop and we watch Kate and Grant progressing from physical attraction to a deeper emotional connection. The love scenes are sensual and romantic; nicely steamy but not over the top for this type of story, and written with an extremely sure hand.

Louise Allen has crafted a wonderful story about two strangers thrown together by circumstance who progress from mutual friendship and respect to passionate attachment.  They have to get to know each other and both of them make mistakes and say and do things that annoy the other, yet they are both mature enough to be able to own up to those missteps, apologise for them and move on.  Even though both are keeping secrets, there’s an honesty to their relationship that is refreshing, and a sense that these are two people who are going to make a go of things, no matter how shaky the start to their life together.  All in all, His Christmas Countess is a superbly written, beautifully paced romance and it’s going right onto my keeper shelf.

TBR Challenge: Imprudent Lady by Joan Smith

imprudent-lady

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Is she an innocent or not? Prudence Mallow, weary of the poor relation role, discovers her calling in writing novels. Modest, sincere novels, not the scandalous fare of Lord Dammler’s Cantos from Abroad. Drawn by the rakish marquis into the hotbed of London society, Prudence finds herself in way over her head—and heart.

Rating: B+

The Historical prompt for the TBR Challenge is a bit of a Busman’s Holiday for yours truly, but even so, I still enjoy going through my books to find something I haven’t read yet.  This time round, I settled on a traditional Regency from 1978, Joan Smith’s Imprudent Lady. Many authors have had books likened to those of Georgette Heyer, and while that is a comparison that’s always going to draw my eye, I’ve been disappointed on many an occasion.  Not so here.  Imprudent Lady is an utterly delightful rake-meets-bluestocking story full to the brim with sparkling dialogue, beautifully observed wit and deftly drawn characters that has at its centre a warm, charming romance between a rakish, Byronic poet and an authoress with a talent for writing sharply observed characters and situations.

Miss Prudence Mallow and her mother have been left in reduced circumstances and have gone to live with Mrs. Mallow’s brother, Mr Clarence Elmtree, an amateur artist with a hugely inflated idea of the extent of his skill.  In order to earn a little money, Prudence does some work as a copyist for publisher, Mr. John Murray, and in the course of her work starts penning stories of her own.  Murray is impressed with her writing style and her strong observational skill and humour, and undertakes to publish The Composition, even though it is not in the current vogue for exciting romantic adventures à la Walter Scott.

The book sells steadily, and Prudence is soon at work on a second novel, and then a third.  Her work is well-regarded and she finds herself coming into contact with some of her favourite authors, such as Fanny Burney, but does not make much of an impression on them.

The literary world and English society is set abuzz is the return to England of Lord Dammler, whose Cantos from Abroad, thinly disguised tales – full of over-blown action, adventure and romance – of his three years travelling the world have become an instant success.  The handsome, aristocratic Dammler is society’s golden-boy, although he quickly finds that being constantly in the spotlight and the subject of endless sycophancy is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Along with the rest of society, Prudence has been enthralled by Dammler’s tales of derring-do, and is bowled over by his dark good looks.  Enthused by a brief meeting, she is moved to send Dammler an autographed copy of The Composition – and is hurt when she discovers he passed it on to his aunt without reading it. In a fit of pique, she dismisses Dammler’s writing as “nothing but a totally incredible novel in rhyme.”

Learning of this, Dammler takes up Prudence’s novel and is surprised to find it engaging and witty. When the two meet again, he is immediately intrigued by Prudence’s no-nonsense manner and the fact that she doesn’t simper and flirt like every other woman he meets.  Because her clothes are drab and she sports the sort of lace cap usually worn by older ladies, he at first takes her to be older than her twenty-four years and fails to mind his tongue, talking quite freely to Prudence about matters that are considered too “warm” for the ears of a younger lady.  But Prudence doesn’t really mind; in fact, Dammler’s discourse, while it might shock her at times, is eye-opening for her in many ways, and they strike up a friendship based on professional affinity – they’re both writers, they have the same publisher – and he begins to introduce her to people of influence and to advance her career.

The romance between this unlikely couple is very well done, with the bulk of the story focusing on Dammler’s gradual transition from rakehell to a man deeply in love.

He admired and respected Miss Mallow’s books and brains initially, then he began to like her dry wit, her understatement, her way of not pretending to be impressed with his past (and present) affairs, which he coloured bright, to shock her.

When she wore her new bonnets, he thought she was rather sweet looking, in an old-fashioned way.  They talked and laughed together for hours.  If anyone had told him they were well suited, he would have been shocked.

Dammler is all one could want in a romantic hero – handsome, clever, confident, but self-aware enough not to take himself too seriously.  Yet for most of the book, he has no idea that what he is feeling for Prudence IS love, although the reader sees the progression from professional interest to friendship to love through some of the wittiest banter I’ve read in a long time. And while Prudence is aware of the nature of her feelings, she believes the fact that Dammler talks so openly to her means that he sees her as another male friend, or – just as bad – a sister.

“I didn’t go out at all last night.  Stayed home and got the second act written in rough.”

This was the second time he had mentioned in a seemingly casual fashion the innocent nature of his nights, and Prudence decided to chide him about it.  “I wasn’t hellraking last night, either, but I hadn’t meant to brag to you about it.”

“Oh, what a heartless wench she is!  You complained loud enough when I was out carousing. Won’t you say a kind word on my improvement?”

“I did not complain!  Don’t cast me in the role of guardian of your morals.”

“Well, I hoped to please you by improving.  No one else ever was kind enough to worry about me, or care whether I ran to perdition.”

“What a plumper!  Your mama cried for two hours when you got drunk.”

“But she’s been dead for ten years.  I started drinking young.  And my father has been dead for fifteen years.  Just a poor orphan waif, really.  Couldn’t you pat my head and bless me, or must I lie on the floor and hold my breath to excite any interest?”

“Indeed it is not necessary to choke yourself.  Good boy,” she reached out and patted his head, and felt sorry for him in spite of his shameless bid for pity.

There are, of course, a couple of hiccups along the way in the form of some unsuitable suitors, one of whom is a particularly odious misogynist.  The final section, which takes place in Bath, lacks some of the earlier sparkle, but by that time, I was so firmly rooting for Dammler and Prudence to resolve their differences that I didn’t really mind.

Imprudent Lady is the perfect pick-me-up read; quick, funny and clever, with a nicely done romance and some great secondary characters, not least of which is Prudence’s uncle Clarence, the truly awful artist.  Somehow, Joan Smith keeps this running joke fresh, as Clarence expounds – frequently – upon various aspects of his art:

“I think Lawrence could pick up a trick of two from me, but he is quite spoilt with attention…  I blushed for him, poor fellow, to see everyone praising such likenesses.  He had a wart on Lady Cassel’s nose.  You’d think anyone who calls himself an artist would have panted it out.  But his sensitivity is entirely lacking.  He can only paint a pretty picture if he has as pretty subject.”

If you’re in the mood for a light-hearted, tender romance full of sharply observed witty banter, add Imprudent Lady to your TBR.  You won’t regret it.