Surrender of a Siren (Wanton Dairymaid #2) by Tessa Dare (audiobook) – Narrated by Gabrielle Baker

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Desperate to escape a loveless marriage and society’s constraints, pampered heiress Sophia Hathaway jilts her groom, packs up her paints and sketchbook, and assumes a new identity, posing as a governess to secure passage on the Aphrodite. She wants a life of her own: unsheltered, unconventional, uninhibited. But it’s one thing to sketch all her wildest, most wanton fantasies, and quite another to face the dangerously handsome libertine who would steal both her virtue and her gold.

To any well-bred lady, Benedict “Gray” Grayson is trouble in snug-fitting boots. A conscienceless scoundrel who sails the seas for pleasure and profit, Gray lives for conquest—until Sophia’s perception and artistry stir his heart. Suddenly, he’ll brave sharks, fire, storm, and sea just to keep her at his side. She’s beautiful, refined, and ripe for seduction. Could this counterfeit governess be a rogue’s redemption? Or will the runaway heiress’s secrets destroy their only chance at love?

Rating: Narration: B; Content: C

Originally published in 2009, Surrender of a Siren is the second book in Tessa Dare’s Wanton Dairymaid trilogy, and is her second published novel. It was released in audiobook format earlier this year, and although I’ve never listened to narrator Gabrielle Baker before, I decided to pick it up for review. In fact, the narration turned out to be the best thing about the listening experience; Ms. Baker’s delivery and speech patterns reminded me very much of Mary Jane Wells (who is narrating Ms. Dare’s current Girl Meets Duke series), and although I had issues with certain aspects of her performance, I enjoyed listening to her and will definitely seek out more of her narrations. When it comes to the story, however… well, it’s an early work and it shows, especially in terms of the plot and the characterisation of the heroine, who annoyed me for something like ninety percent of the book.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Marry in Secret (Marriage of Convenience #3) by Anne Gracie

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Lady Rose Rutherford—rebel, heiress, and exasperated target of the town’s hungry bachelors—has a plan to gain the freedom she so desperately desires: she will enter into a marriage of convenience with the biggest prize on the London marriage mart.

There’s just one problem: the fierce-looking man who crashes her wedding to the Duke of Everingham — Thomas Beresford, the young naval officer she fell in love with and secretly married when she was still a schoolgirl. Thought to have died four years ago he’s returned, a cold, hard stranger with one driving purpose—revenge.

Embittered by betrayal and hungry for vengeance, Thomas will stop at nothing to reclaim his rightful place, even if that means using Rose—and her fortune—to do it. But Rose never did follow the rules, and as she takes matters into her own unpredictable hands, Thomas finds himself in an unexpected and infuriating predicament: he’s falling in love with his wife….

Rating: C

I enjoyed the first two books in Anne Gracie’s Marriage of Convenience series – in fact, the first, Marry in Haste, was a DIK (Desert Isle Keeper) at AAR – but this third book proved to be something of a disappointment.  The premise – a young woman about to make an advantageous, but loveless, marriage is unexpectedly confronted by the man she married years before and believed dead – sounded as though it might make for a good read, but sadly, after the initial excitement of the opening chapters, things fizzled out.  The main characters were bland and didn’t grab my interest, and instead of a rekindling relationship, I got a couple who, after a bit of angsting over whether they wanted to be together, resumed their marriage and shagged a lot, and a story that revolved more around a rather weak whodunnit than a romance.

Twenty-year-old Lady Rose Rutheford is due to marry the Duke of Everingham in what has been hailed as the match of the year. Her sister Lily and cousin George (Georgiana) aren’t happy about the match; Everingham is handsome, wealthy and titled, for sure, but he’s a cold fish and they think Rose is making a huge mistake.  But Rose is adamant.  She doesn’t want a love match and she and the duke have reached an agreement – she will give him his heir and he will give her the freedom to live as she wants.  When, however, the ceremony is interrupted by a gaunt, dirty and dishevelled man insisting that Rose is already married – to him – the reasons for Rose’s choice become apparent.  When she was sixteen and still away at school she met and fell in love with Thomas Beresford, a young naval officer.  They married secretly just a couple of weeks before Thomas was was due to go to sea  – and just a few weeks later, Rose learned that his ship had been sunk and everyone aboard had died.  Numbed with grief, and concerned for her sister Lily, who was recovering from a serious illness, Rose doesn’t tell anyone about Thomas or their short-lived marriage, and the more time passes, the more she thinks there’s no point in saying anything.

The first quarter or so of the story captured my interest.  Rose, shocked beyond belief, doesn’t know how to feel or what to do while her brother Cal and her snooty Aunt Agatha insist Thomas is nothing but a liar and schemer out to get his hands on Rose’s fortune.  When Rose fails to acknowledge him – to be fair, she doesn’t deny him either – Thomas is hurt and angry, and is determined to stand his ground and claim his wife.  But after Rose says she doesn’t want the marriage annulled and that she will honour her marriage vows, he starts to see that perhaps he’s wrong and that staying married to him – especially give how much he’s changed over the past four years – isn’t the best thing for Rose. After this, Thomas tries to discourage Rose from her determination to remain his wife while Rose – who has miraculously turned back into the lively, headstrong and flirtatious young woman he met four years earlier (and whom her family believed had disappeared) – seems to grow only more intent on remaining by his side (and getting him into her bed!)

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

Wicked Delights of a Bridal Bed (Byrons of Braebourne #4) by Tracy Anne Warren (audiobook) – Narrated by Rebecca de Leeuw

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

To her surprise, Lady Mallory Byron finds herself walking down the aisle with the last man she ever expected to ask for her hand….

Everyone knows the Byron brothers are “mad, bad, and dangerous.” Now their sister shockingly discovers she’s the newest talk of the Ton when she marries the scandalous Earl of Gresham. Faced with a tragic loss, she’d sought comfort from him as a family friend. But soon consolation turned to passion, scandal – and a wedding! In the bridal bed, she finds pleasure beyond her wildest dreams. But can nights of wicked delight change friendship into true love?

Charming rakehell Adam, Earl of Gresham, has secretly loved Mallory for years. He lost her once to another man, but now he has a second chance to win her love – and plans to do so by any means necessary. Will Mallory’s heart give him what he so dearly desires? Or is the past too much to overcome?

Rating: Narration: B; Content: C

Tracy Anne Warren’s Byrons of Braebourne series about the five Byron siblings (four male, one female) was originally published between 2009 and 2011, but was only released in audio format recently. Rebecca de Leeuw is the pseudonym of a narrator I’ve enjoyed listening to a couple of times before, so I decided to pick up one of the books for review. I chose book four, Wicked Delights of a Bridal Bed, because I enjoy friends-to-lovers stories and because according to the synopsis, the hero has been secretly in love with the heroine for years; I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for romances in which the hero is a total goner for his lady-love.

Mallory Byron has spent the last year mourning the death of her fiancé, Michael Hargreaves, who was killed in battle during the Napoleonic Wars. Her large, close-knit family is worried about her; it’s been over a year since Hargreaves was killed but Mallory continues to avoid social gatherings and family events and none of them is quite sure what to do or how to help her to start to put her grief aside and move on with her life. But there’s one person who might be able to get through to her and help her to start living again, Adam, Earl of Gresham, a family friend of long-standing who has always been especially close to her.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Determined Lord Hadleigh (King’s Elite #4) by Virginia Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

He’s got iron control…

But she might be his undoing!

Part of The King’s Elite. Haunted by Penny Penhurst’s courage on the witness stand, meticulous barrister Lord Hadleigh offers her a housekeeper position at his estate. Despite trying to stay detached, Hadleigh is charmed by her small child and surprised by how much he yearns for this proud woman! Can this he break through his own – and Penny’s – barriers to prove he’s a man she can trust…and love?

Rating: A-

As there is an overarching plotline running through this series, there are spoilers for the earlier books in this review.

This final book in Virginia Heath’s enjoyable King’s Elite series shifts focus somewhat and concerns itself mostly with the aftermath of the unmasking and apprehension (in the previous book) of The Boss, the head of a widespread and dangerous smuggling ring that was channeling funds to Napoléon and his supporters with a view to restoring him to power. The Determined Lord Hadleigh rounds the series out nicely and follows a thoroughly engaging central couple on their sometimes rocky path to happiness.

The eponymous gentleman describes himself as an honorary member of the team of crack government spies knows as the King’s Elite, which is fair enough, as unlike them, he’s not an agent working for the Crown, but rather is the man whose job it is to prosecute and help convict those they apprehend. He’s a brilliant barrister, a fair and honourable man, and a friend of the other members of the group – and now it’s his turn to step into the limelight. Hadleigh appeared briefly in the other books in the series, and now it’s up to him to make sure the Crown’s case against the Boss is watertight. When the novel opens, he is in the midst of the trial of Viscount Penshurst, one of the Boss’ closest associates, and is questioning his current witness, the young Lady Penshurst, whose honesty and quiet dignity in the face of the nasty gossip and blatant scorn of the public impresses him and whose story strikes a chord deep inside him. Hadleigh sees many similarities between the life the viscountess describes and that endured by his mother, who was abused and then killed by his father a decade earlier – and he still carries the guilt that he didn’t do enough to protect her. That guilt engenders a protectiveness made all the stronger when he learns that the viscount’s title, wealth and estates have been transferred back to the crown, meaning his innocent wife and son will be left with nothing.

After the trial and her husband’s death in prison, Lady Penshurst changes her name and takes lodgings in Cheapside with her not-quite-two-year-old son, Freddie. Her closest friend Clarissa – who is married to Seb Leatham (The Mysterious Lord Millcroft) – has offered to house them both for as long as Penny wants, but Penny is insistent that she wants to stand on her own two feet. After three years trapped in an abusive marriage with a man who wanted to control her every move, she’s determined to slough off the easily cowed, powerless and subservient woman she became during those years and to find herself again, to take back control of her life. So when she discovers that someone has been helping her out behind the scenes, paying bills and rent, she’s furious. Her first thought is that Clarissa has gone behind her back and asked Seb to do it, but when Clarissa assures her that she values their friendship too much to go against her express wishes, Penny believes her. Worried that perhaps one of her late husband’s associates has done it as a way of intimidating her, Penny asks Clarissa to find out what she can about her mysterious benefactor.

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

A Rogue by Night (Devils of Dover #3) by Kelly Bowen

a rogue by night

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Baron. Physician. Smuggler. Sir Harland Hayward is living a double life as an aristocrat by day and a criminal by night. As a doctor, Harland has the perfect cover to appear in odd places in the dead of night, a cover he uses to his advantage to bring in all sorts of illicit cargo from across the English Channel. He’s chosen this life to save his family from financial ruin, but he draws the line at taking advantage of the honest and trustworthy Katherine Wright.

Katherine has returned to Dover to find that her family is working for a mysterious new crime boss. Growing up in a family of smugglers, she knows it’s only a matter of time before they are caught—and killed. So after her brother is shot, she convinces her family to move away and start over. After they honor their last contract, of course. With her injured brother and elderly father unable to work, Katherine reluctantly steps back into the life she had left behind. And straight into the path of the merciless Harland Hayward.

Rating: B

I’ve read and enjoyed a number (nearly all?) of Kelly Bowen’s historical romances, and have particularly admired her ability to create strong, determined heroines who manage (mostly) to operate within the conventions of the time period in which her novels are set.  Yes, they have unusual professions or ambitions – a fixer, a bounty hunter, a professional gambler – but they’re not generally obvious about it and don’t go about proclaiming their unconventionality.  The same is true of the heroine of A Rogue in the Night, Katherine Wright, a young woman born into a family of smugglers who became very good at that particular ‘craft’ until she fell in love and followed her lover to war, where it appears she developed her knowledge of the healing arts to become a highly competent surgeon.  But this time around, I couldn’t quite buy into it.  I know there were women who disguised themselves as men in order to train as doctors, so I’m not saying it could never have happened; my problem with it here is that I was just asked to accept that she’d been a battlefield surgeon and was told nothing about how she became one other than that the army surgeons were grateful for the help so hadn’t minded that she was a woman – which seemed rather… convenient.  It was easier to believe that the hero – having two independent sisters and, as both a peer and a doctor, being unconventional himself – could so quickly and unquestioningly accept Katherine’s abilities, but the fact that he insisted on introducing her as Dr. Wright, when he surely must have known no woman could actually hold that moniker (and anyway, surgeons in the UK are addressed as Mr./Miss not Dr.) came across as gimmicky.

Harland Hayward, Baron Strathmore, is an unusual peer of the realm in that he is a doctor and surgeon who served on the battlefields during the Napoleonic Wars.  Society frowns upon the idea of a nobleman actually having a profession, but Harland doesn’t care – being a doctor is more than a job to him, it’s who he is. Faced with the ruin of his family’s shipping business after a number of terrible losses, Harland made a deal with King, the enigmatic, ruthless crimelord who has appeared in several of Ms. Bowen’s other books (and whose story I continue to await with bated breath!), which saved the business and his family, but at quite a cost.  Harland now works for King, co-ordinating smuggling runs off the Kentish coast and secretly acting as a liaison between the smugglers and purchasers.  Katharine’s brother Matthew is a member of one of these gangs, and when he’s shot while on a run, she’s surprised when Harland – Lord Doctor, as she calls him at first – turns up at their cottage to offer his help.  She’s suspicious of titled men and she’s wary of him, even though she’s attracted to him, too.

But when Harland not only helps treat her brother but also hides him from the soldiers who arrive to search the cottage, Katherine starts to unbend a little, and agrees to allow him to transport Matthew back to Avondale House (where the summer school run by his sister Clara, Duchess of Holloway operates) so he can be properly cared for.  He hits on the idea of asking Katherine to teach the medical students at the summer school – an idea Clara supports enthusiastically – and Katherine, after her initial surprise, is pleased to accept.

Not long after this, however, Harland receives a dangerous commission from King, and knowing he’s likely to need a skilled medical practitioner to help him, asks Katherine to accompany him.  The pair embark upon an adventure which carries them from London to the French coast and back as they dodge bullets, hide from soldiers and face up to past mistakes. The plot is fast-paced and well-executed, but ultimately, all the action in the story detracts from the romance between Harland and Katherine, which is of the insta-love variety and not nearly as well-developed as I’ve come to expect from this author.

I liked both characters, particularly Harland, a dedicated professional who is determined to do his best for his family no matter the heavy price.  (And I would completely dispute the adjective “merciless” applied to him in the synopsis!) Katherine is similarly motivated, her talent and competence making her a good match for Harland, but there isn’t a great deal of chemistry between them and the sex scenes seemed forced and ‘for the sake of it’ as a result.

Given the current deplorable state of the historical romance sub-genre, it was a pleasure to read a novel featuring well-developed characters and an intriguing plot by an author capable of penning focused, satisfying prose. I enjoyed A Rogue in the Night and liked it considerably more than the previous book (Last Night With the Earl), but the under-developed romance was a disappointment.

The Claiming of the Shrew (The Survivors #5) by Shana Galen

This title may be purchased from Amazon

What happens when a marriage of convenience isn’t so convenient?

Lieutenant Colonel Benedict Draven has retired from the army and spends most of his days either consulting for the Foreign Office or whiling away the hours at his club with his former comrades-in-arms. He rarely thinks about the fiery Portuguese woman he saved from an abusive marriage by wedding her himself. It was supposed to be a marriage in name only, but even five years later and a world away, he can’t seem to forget her.

Catarina Neves never forgot what it felt like to be scared, desperate, and subject to the whims of her cruel father. Thanks to a marriage of convenience and her incredible skill as a lacemaker, she’s become an independent and wealthy woman. But when she’s once again thrust into a dangerous situation, she finds herself in London and knocking on the door of the husband she hasn’t seen since those war-torn years in Portugal. Catarina tells Benedict she wants an annulment, but when he argues against it, can she trust him enough to ask for what she really needs?

Rating: B-

Shana Galen’s series featuring The Survivors, a group of men who survived being part of a specially selected suicide squad during the Napoleonic Wars, continues with The Claiming of the Shrew, which tells the story of the squad’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Benedict Draven, and his Portuguese wife, Catarina.  I’ve read the first couple of books in the series – although I missed the last two – so I knew who Draven was and was eager to read his story, especially as he’d been present but rather enigmatic  in the other novels and was clearly highly respected and well-regarded by his men. Plus, he’s in his mid-forties and I’m always up for a romance featuring a more mature hero.

In her introduction to the novel, Shana Galen explains that it began life on her website/newsletter as a short story showing how Draven met and married Catarina.  That is included in The Claiming of the Shrew as a kind of prologue, with the story then continuing five years after the couple parted following their hasty marriage in Portugal.

Amid the battlefields of Portugal in 1814, Benedict Draven has orders to create a company of thirty men who will be used to go on the most dangerous of missions.  He knows it’s akin to forming a suicide squad, but orders are orders, and he sets about making a list, putting Major Neil Wraxall (Earls Not Allowed) in command.  Draven already feels weighed down by guilt at the prospect of sending many of these men to certain death, and a bad day is made worse when a young woman manages to sneak into his tent, points a gun at him and demands that he marry her.

Catarina Neves is desperate to escape marriage to the older, abusive man her father has chosen for her simply because he’s equally desperate to get her off his hands.  The father of five daughters, the custom that the younger cannot marry until the elder does infuriates him, because Catarina is so independent and outspoken that no man will have her – making it impossible for his other daughters to marry.  Catarina has no wish to hold her sisters back, and having glimpsed Draven out riding with his men, and then watched him for a few days, has decided he is well able to stand up to her father and a far better prospect than the man chosen for her.  And in any case, once they are married, they can go their separate ways and need never see each other again.

Of course, Draven refuses Catarina (having guessed the gun isn’t loaded) and sends her on her way, but has reckoned without her tenacity.  When he finds her in the camp again, he’s about to turn her away, but when sees the horrible bruises on her arms inflicted by her would-be suitor, a strong  protective instinct kicks in and he decides to help her in the only way he can; they’re married later that night and then part ways.

Five years later, Draven (now retired from the army and working for the British government) is surprised – to say the least – when Catarina shows up at his rooms to ask for an annulment.  Their marriage is on shaky ground anyway seeing that she’s Catholic and he isn’t, but regardless of that, Draven is suspicious of Catarina’s explanation for her sudden appearance (that she’s fallen in love with and wants to marry someone else), and finds he isn’t prepared to let her go that easily.  They may not have seen each other for five years, but he hasn’t forgotten her or the sweetness and heat of the kiss they’d shared after the hasty ceremony – and seeing her again, realising she’s scared and lying to him brings back all the old protectiveness and more.  In five years he hasn’t been able to look at another woman – but now she’s back, Catarina is all he can think about.  All he has to do now is remind her why she trusted him all those years ago, and hope that she will ask him for the help she so obviously needs.

I liked both central characters a great deal, and the age gap between them – twenty years – didn’t bother me, although Draven refers to it quite a few times.  He’s a thoroughly decent man, strong, protective and deeply loyal, he can be stubborn but isn’t afraid to admit when he’s wrong, and his disinclination to waste time playing games or denying his desire for Catarina is very refreshing.  Catarina, too, is an attractive protagonist, a determined, spirited woman who works hard to make a good life for herself and becomes a much sought-after maker and designer of lace.  I enjoyed Draven’s gentle courtship, and the author writes the attraction between them well, but there’s an element of insta-love in Draven’s sudden realisation that he doesn’t want an annulment that really didn’t work for me in the context of the whole novel.  Also, Catarina’s decision that he’s the man she wants to marry is based pretty much on what he looks like on horseback  – and from a distance: “she’d seen this officer and known instinctively that she could trust him.”  – and I found it too flimsy a reason to buy into.

The plot – Catalina is being blackmailed by a business rival – is nicely handled, and I was relieved when Ms. Galen sidestepped an obvious plot-manœuvre towards the end.  Unfortunately, she then proceeds to manufacture a last-minute conflict which happens so quickly that it feels completely fake and there-for-the-sake-of-it, and I found it rather jarring and it pulled my final grade down a bit.  All in all though, The Claiming of the Shrew is an easy, undemanding read featuring an intelligent, independent heroine and a loving and devoted hero. Despite its missteps, it makes for an engaging continuation of The Survivors series.

The Disgraceful Lord Gray (King’s Elite #3) by Virginia Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A spy on a mission…

Until he meets this heiress!

Miss Theodora Cranford’s learned to keep her impetuous nature locked away. She won’t be deceived by another man who can’t see past her fortune. She wants an honourable, sensible sort – not a self-assured scoundrel like her new neighbour, Lord Gray. Although she’s sure there’s more to him than meets the eye… But after that first captivating kiss, she’s certainly left wanting more!

Rating: B

Virginia Heath bounds back into form with The Disgraceful Lord Grey, the third book in her King’s Elite series about group of gentlemen spies charged with putting a stop to the activities of a particularly elusive and dangerous smuggling ring with links to Napoléon. With the ring’s operations now brought to a halt, all that remains is to cut off the head, so to speak, and unmask the person who’s been pulling the strings, known only as The Boss.  The investigations of the King’s Elite have narrowed this down to one of two people – and in this story, Lord Graham Chadwick – Gray – travels to Suffolk accompanied by Lord Fennimore, the head of the King’s Elite, in order to infiltrate the small social circle of Viscount Gislingham in continuance of the investigation.

Unfortunately, however, he doesn’t get off to the best of starts when Gislingham’s niece happens upon him cavorting naked in the stream on the estate – and then his huge dog, Trefor (Gray is of Welsh descent, or at least he grew up there) knocks her in as well.

Oops.

Miss Thea Cranford has lived with her uncle and aunt since the death of her parents, and at twenty-three, remains unmarried.  She’s heiress to an enormous fortune and a youthful infatuation for a man whose affection turned out to be for her money and not for her has made her very cautious when it comes to men, and guilt over her impulsive behaviour in the past has caused her to lock the side of herself she terms “Impetuous Thea” in a box and throw away the key.  Her closest friend, the widowed Lady Harriet Crudgington – who is vivacious, funny and intent on living life to the full – regularly encourages Thea to loosen the tight rein she has on herself, but with little (or no) success.

Virginia Heath turns the spirited-heroine-meets-buttoned-up-hero trope on its head here, as Thea tries to maintain a show of indifference to Gray while everything in her yearns to respond to his gentle flirtations and humorous banter.  He’s a truly charming hero who, while being an inveterate flirt, is never pushy or overly familiar with Thea; he’s kind, compassionate and very level-headed and self-aware in a way few romantic heroes are.  An incredibly irresponsible action a decade earlier ruined him financially, caused a huge scandal and as a result, he left England and travelled the world on merchant ships.  Older and wiser now, he recognises that those events were the making of him and even though he can’t deny he’d rather not have beggared himself and been disowned by his family, he’s not one for brooding over the past and things he can’t change.

When Fennimore suggests that Gray’s scandalous past may be just the thing to recommend him to the subject of their investigation, Gray is surprised to find himself somewhat dismayed at the idea of having to play up to his reputation as a bit of a ne’er do well, especially given Thea’s obvious reluctance to have anything to do with him. He’s smitten with her and he knows it – and the last thing he wants is for her to believe him to be the sort of reprobate she’s had dealings with before, a man interested only in her money… but that’s the part he’ll have to play if he’s to uncover the identity of The Boss, impress Fennimore, and earn a much desired promotion.  He must put aside all thought of Gislingham’s gorgeous – albeit repressed – niece and get on with the job at hand.

The Disgraceful Lord Gray is an entertaining, very readable historical romance featuring a pair of attractive, well-matched characters, a strongly drawn supporting cast, a secondary romance and a large and affectionate dog (!)  in which Gray is – as he should be – the star of the show. He’s a thoroughly decent chap, he’s comfortable in his own skin and he’s learned from his mistakes; he’s funny, insightful and a little bit naughty (as all good heroes are!) and refreshingly different from all those damaged, darkly brooding heroes we’re so  used to in the genre.

Thea, on the other hand, is a little generic, although I liked her sense of humour and her intelligence.  I did find her tendency to refer to herself in the third person –  “Impetuous Thea” –  a little irritating, but that’s a really minor niggle, and not something that detracted from my enjoyment of the novel as a whole.

Virginia Heath’s agile, witty and insightful writing shines once again, and I’m pleased to recommend this latest King’s Elite novel to fans of character-driven historical romance.