TBR Challenge: The Tyburn Waltz by Maggie MacKeever

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Julie expects she will end up dangling on Tyburn gallows,hanged as a thief.

Ned expects he will die on the battlefields of the Peninsula, hanged as a spy.

But then Julie takes on the trappings of a lady, and Ned unexpectedly becomes an earl, both players in a deadly game that will take them from the heights of London society to the depths of the Regency underworld — a game in which not only necks are risked, but hearts as well.

Rating: B

Finding a book in a series to read for this month’s prompt proved a bit harder than I’d anticipated.  Oh, I’ve got plenty of series books, but I realised that most were in series I’d either completed or not started yet, so my option was pretty much limited to picking up the first in a series.  I was going back and forth on my Kindle trying to work out what I fancied reading and actually started one or two other books before finally settling on Maggie MacKeever’s The Tyburn Waltz.  Ms. MacKeever has a fairly large backlist of traditional regencies, but this book – the first in her Tyburn Trilogy (which has yet to be completed) – dates from 2010 and is a little bit sexier and somewhat darker than her trads.

When she’s just fourteen – as near as she can guess, anyway – street urchin Jules is caught stealing some silver teaspoons, imprisoned in Newgate and will most likely hang for the crime.  But she’s offered a deal; release in exchange for working for the infamous Cap’n Jack – the mysterious, seemingly omnipotent lord of London’s criminal underworld.  It’s Hobson’s Choice; Jules agrees, and for the next four years, she lives comfortably, and is given lessons in refinement and deportment so that she can move easily among the upper classes.

Ned Fairchild, Earl of Dorset, is a rather reluctant earl, having come into the title upon the unexpected death of his cousin.  Until then, he’d been an Exploring Officer (a spy of sorts) in Wellington’s army in Spain, a dangerous life, but one he’d relished.  Back in England, he and his closest friend, Kane, Lord Saxe, are still working for the government – but mostly Ned is bored by the round of balls, parties, visits to clubs and his mistress that seem to comprise his life and longs for something more.

He returns home late one night to find his fifteen-year-old sister, Lady Clea, out of bed and waiting for him, proudly showing him what looks to be a young woman wrapped in a curtain and tied to a chair in his library.  Clea explains that she – with the help of his batman, Bates – caught a housebreaker; Ned sends her to bed, intending to find out what he can about the young woman’s intentions, but she’s too quick for him, and knocks him over the head with an ornamental statue before absconding out of the window – with the statue, and without the curtain.

Shortly after this, Jules is manoeuvred into a situation as companion to Lady Georgiana Ashcroft.  As Miss Julie Wynne, she accompanies her mistress to a number of society events, where she’s instructed to steal various items from the hosts. She has no idea to what end, just knows that she’s got to follow Cap’n Jack’s orders quickly and without drawing attention to herself.  She’s engaged in stealing a glove from the bedroom of the wife of the French Ambassador when she’s confronted by the Earl of Dorset who idly wonders if she’s lost something.  She tries to bluff her way out of it, but quickly realises its futile; he’s recognised her and he’s clearly not going to let her get away this time.  She’s worried he’s going to report her to the authorities and is surprised when he doesn’t, instead asking her to meet him again so they can talk further.  Ned quickly realises there’s more going on that meets the eye, and assigns Bates to keep an eye on Julie, to protect her from whomever has her under his control.

The romance between Ned and Julie is a fairly slow-burn, and the author does a great job of building the attraction that thrums between them from their very first meeting. They’re both extremely likeable; Ned is a terrific hero – handsome, clever and compassionate, he’s impressed by Julie’s tenacity and gumption as much as he’s attracted to her and is determined to keep her safe at all costs. Julie has an old head on her young shoulders – not surprising, considering she grew up on the streets – she’s quick-witted and independent, although she’s sensible enough to recognise when she needs help and to ask for it.  Their interactions are lively and entertaining, they have great chemistry and their relationship moves at a good pace, while they’re also trying to work out exactly who Cap’n Jack is and what he’s up to.  The mystery element of the novel is intriguing and unfolds gradually, with the reader finding clues and information at the same time as the characters, which certainly helps to build the suspense.

The story is set against the backdrop of the state visit which doesn’t really have a lot to do with the plot, although it does provide a number of events at which our heroes can interact, and allows the injection of a little light comedy in the forms of Lady Georgiana and Ned’s cousin, the dowager Countess, who are sworn rivals and always trying to score points off each other.  There are some other intriguing secondary characters as well; Ned’s friend Kane is a notorious rake, his sister, Clea is clever, vivacious and has a Latin quote handy for every occasion, and the coolly collected and lovely French spy, Sabine worked with Ned and Kane during the recent war.

After all those positives however, comes the negative; the final quarter of the book doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the rest of it.  The reveal about Cap’n Jack is weak and anti-climactic, and although everything is neatly wrapped up – and it’s not all rainbows and happy bunnies – the book seems to have run out of steam, and the author throws in a couple of plot points (like the one about Ned’s cousin pushing him to get married) which add little (if anything) to the story as a whole.

The Tyburn Waltz is, on the whole, a well-executed, funny and sensual romantic adventure story, and even with the reservations I’ve expressed, I enjoyed it and plan to read the other books in the trilogy.

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Romancing the Scot (Penningtons #1) by May McGoldrick

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Hugh Pennington – Viscount Greysteil, Lord Justice of the Scottish Courts, hero of the Napoleonic wars – is a grieving widower with a death wish. When he receives an expected crate from the continent, he is shocked to find a nearly dead woman inside. Her identity is unknown, and the handful of American coins and the precious diamond sown into her dress only deepen the mystery.

Grace Ware is an enemy to the English crown. Her father, an Irish military commander of Napoleon’s defeated army. Her mother, an exiled Scottish Jacobite. When Grace took shelter in a warehouse, running from her father’s murderers through the harbor alleyways of Antwerp, she never anticipated bad luck to deposit her at the home of an aristocrat in the Scottish Borders. Baronsford is the last place she could expect to find safety, and Grace feigns a loss of memory to buy herself time while she recovers.

Hugh is taken by her beauty, passion, and courage to challenge his beliefs and open his mind. Grace finds in him a wounded man of honor, proud but compassionate. When their duel of wits quickly turns to passion and romance, Grace’s fears begin to dissolve…until danger follows her to the very doors of Baronsford. For, unknown to either of them, Grace has in her possession a secret that will wreak havoc within the British government. Friend and foe are indistinguishable as lethal forces converge to tear the two lovers apart or destroy them both.

Rating: Narration – A- : Content – B-

Romancing the Scot is the first book in writing duo May McGoldrick’s series of Regency-era novels about the Pennington siblings. In this story, Hugh – Viscount Greysteil – a decorated former army officer and widower of eight years, meets his match in the form of a mysterious young woman who arrives unexpectedly and in a most unusual manner at his estate of Baronsford near the Scottish border.

Ms. McGoldrick provides an interesting historical backdrop to her tale and in Hugh, has created a progressive, forward thinking hero whose position as a Lord Justice of the Scottish Courts gives him ample opportunity to observe the inequalities and injustices faced by so many of the underprivileged around him. He takes his responsibilities – to his estates and in upholding the law – very seriously and does his utmost to help those in need and to ensure that justice is well-served.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Why Kill the Innocent (Sebastian St. Cyr #13) by C.S. Harris

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London, 1814. As a cruel winter holds the city in its icy grip, the bloody body of a beautiful young musician is found half-buried in a snowdrift. Jane Ambrose’s ties to Princess Charlotte, the only child of the Prince Regent and heir presumptive to the throne, panic the palace, which moves quickly to shut down any investigation into the death of the talented pianist. But Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, and his wife Hero refuse to allow Jane’s murderer to escape justice.

Untangling the secrets of Jane’s world leads Sebastian into a maze of dangerous treachery where each player has his or her own unsavory agenda and no one can be trusted. As the Thames freezes over and the people of London pour onto the ice for a Frost Fair, Sebastian and Hero find their investigation circling back to the palace and building to a chilling crescendo of deceit and death . . .

Rating: A

C.S. Harris has maintained a consistently high standard throughout her long-running Sebastian St. Cyr series of historical mysteries, but the last two or three books, in particular, have been outstanding – which is quite remarkable when one considers that this latest instalment, Why Kill the Innocent, is number thirteen.  The individual mysteries are extremely well-constructed and set against a superbly researched and realised historical background; and so far, each one has been self-contained, so that each book could be read as a standalone.  Notice I used the word could – because actually, this isn’t a series I would recommend dipping in and out of or reading out of order, because there are overarching plot threads that run from book to book you really don’t want to miss out on.  But unlike the other books in the series, the previous one – Where the Dead Lie –  left some aspects of the mystery unsolved and readers wondering whether the main villain of the was ever going to be made to pay for his crimes.  As we’re at book thirteen of a fifteen-book series, I’m guessing the answer is yes, but we’re going to have to wait a little while longer to see it!

Why Kill the Innocent is set in the winter of 1814, which is on record as being one of the coldest ever experienced in England.  On her way back from a charitable visit in the East End, Sebastian’s wife Hero stumbles – literally – on a body lying in the street, and is surprised to recognise the dead woman as Jane Ambrose, a talented musician who taught piano to a number of the children of the nobility – including Princess Charlotte, daughter of the Regent and Heir Presumptive to the throne.   It’s immediately obvious that Jane was murdered – she died from a blow to the head – and that the lack of blood around her indicates she was killed elsewhere. Hero immediately sends for her husband and for Henry Lovejoy, the magistrate from Bow Street who has aided Sebastian on a number of investigations and has become a friend; all of them know that once the news of Jane’s death is made public, the palace machinery will move fast to prevent any scandal being attached to the princess by covering up the truth and preventing any further investigation into the matter.  Or trying to – because Sebastian isn’t about to allow the brutal murder of a young woman to go unnoticed or her murderer to evade justice.

I don’t want to say much more about the plot, which is utterly compelling and kept me turning the pages into the small hours. Although Jane Ambrose is dead when we meet her, the picture built up of her through the eyes of others is poignant and intriguing. A musical genius at a time when ladies were never supposed to excel at anything other than being decorative, Jane had to supress her gift for performing and composing and instead spend her time teaching others. Her marriage was not happy, and her husband’s infidelities and abuse, coupled with death of her two children from illness a year earlier eventually led to a profound change in the woman who had previously been a model wife. She was clearly a woman driven to the edge, but who, instead of falling over, found or rediscovered an inner strength that gave her the will to stand up and fight for herself and others. Her desire to protect Princess Charlotte from an enforced marriage to a man bound to make her miserable meant that Jane put herself in the middle of what proved to be deadly palace intrigue and political manoeuvring – most of it masterminded by Hero’s father, Lord Jarvis, a cold, ruthless man who will do whatever it takes to maintain his position as the power behind the throne.

As usual, Sebastian finds himself baulked at many a turn of the investigation; everyone has secrets they are determined to keep and nobody can be trusted… and those in positions of power are actively trying to prevent him from uncovering the truth which, of course turns out to have implications far more wide-reaching than he could ever have suspected.

One of the many enjoyable things about this series has been Ms. Harris’ obvious love for and knowledge of the period in which it is set. She has a splendid grasp of the volatile political situation of the time, and makes very good use of that knowledge to provide a solid historical background to her stories. In this novel, however, I think the author has outdone herself. The background to the tale, the terrible relationship between the Prince Regent and his daughter, how he almost hated her for her popularity and tried to control every aspect of her life… it’s all true. The Regent really did treat his wife in the appalling manner described, and his paranoia, his excesses, his narcissism and lack of interest in the people he ruled are all matters of record, gleaned from correspondence with friends and family. Many of the secondary characters in the story are real, or are closely based on historical figures, and many of the events – such as Princess Charlotte deliberately procrastinating over an unwanted betrothal – actually happened. All these things – and more – are seamlessly and skilfully incorporated into the story without the reader ever being subjected to info-dumps or a static history lesson – which just goes to show that truth really is stranger than fiction at times.

The setting of a London so cold that the Thames froze over is hard for the modern Londoner to envisage, but Ms. Harris’ descriptions of a city blanketed in white and the Frost Fair on the river are wonderfully evocative and paint a detailed picture in the mind of the reader of what it must have looked like. But as well as the Christmas-Card imagery, she takes care to show us the other side of the pretty picture; of the extreme hardship faced by the poor when the extraordinary weather conditions led to shortages of food and fuel.

The reparation of Sebastian’s relationship with his father continues apace, and I loved watching Sebastian’s interactions with his young son. He and Hero are obviously very much in love and are devoted to each other – yet they don’t live in each other’s pockets. They know each other very well, and the trust and confidence Sebastian places in his wife is admirable, while Hero’s ability to listen and understand have become his bedrock.

The long running plot thread concerning Sebastian’s parentage doesn’t get much screen time here and the threads left over from the previous book are also not forgotten, but both are passing mentions, which I thought a wise move given that there is more than enough here to keep the reader glued to the story. There is also, clearly, more to come from the recently widowed Jarvis and Hero’s manipulative cousin Victoria, and I can’t wait to see how things pan out.

The murder mystery is satisfyingly complex, the historical detail is fascinating and I continue to adore Sebastian St. Cyr, a character who has come such a long way since we first met him as an angry, damaged and resentful veteran of war. With its masterful storytelling, intricate plotting and intriguing characters, Why Kill the Innocent is a truly gripping read and I’m sure that fans of the series need no endorsement from me to be waiting to pounce on it upon release.

TBR Challenge – Some Brief Folly (Sanguinet Saga #1) by Patricia Veryan

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The Napoleonic wars are at their height on the Continent when Miss Euphemia Buchanan, young, much sought-after, and unattainable, decides to journey from London to Bath with her brother Simon and her young page Kent to spend the Christmas holidays with Great Aunt Lucasta. Along the way, she entreats Simon to detour past the imposing lines of Dominer, the palatial country estate of Garret Hawkhurst, the appallingly dangerous rake responsible (or so it is rumored) for the deaths of his own wife and child.

But disaster strikes in the form of a landslide, and the Buchannan’s coach is overturned and brought within inches of complete destruction. It is only through the bravery and immediate efforts of a passing gentleman that Euphemia and her wounded brother and page are rescued at all. But Euphemia’s grateful thanks turn to horror when she realizes her rescuer is none other than the infamous Garrett Hawkhurst, and that she has no recourse but to help Simon and Kent convalesce within the walls of Dominer itself…

Rating: B+

Patricia Veryan wrote around thirty-five historical romances set in the Georgian and Regency periods between 1978 and 2002, and until recently, they were all out of print.  Fortunately, over the last few years, many have been made available digitally, and I read The Wagered Widow for one of last year’s TBR Challenge prompts.  Ms. Veryan’s books are often compared to Georgette Heyer’s, and on the strength of the couple I’ve read, I’d certainly say they’re worth checking out if you’re a Heyer fan.  Ms. Veryan seems to have had a similar gift for writing observational humour and sparkling dialogue, and for creating interesting characters who operate within the societal norms of the period. But while the vast majority of Heyer’s books are set in the Regency, many of Patricia Veryan’s take place in the Georgian era ; two series  – The Golden Chronicles and Tales of the Jewelled Men – are set in the early-mid 18th century, and I certainly plan on reading those as soon as I can find the time.

My choice for March’s Prompt of Sugar or Spice was Some Brief Folly, which IS set in the Regency and is the first (loosely linked) book in the author’s Sanguinet Saga.  It’s one of those rake-of-blackest-reputation-meets-spunky-heroine stories, and there’s definitely a more than a little of Venetia’s Damerel in our hero, Garret Hawkhurst, and The Grand Sophy’s titular character in our heroine, Miss Euphemia Buchanan. But that isn’t to call Some Brief Folly derivative – I think most of the cynical rakes in historical romance owe something to Damerel anyway – because it’s definitely got a life of its own, and one of its storylines takes a particularly unusual direction.

Euphemia – Mia – Buchanan is delighted when her brother, Lieutenant Sir Simon Buchanan comes home on a long medical leave, owing to a serious shoulder injury sustained while fighting with Wellington’ forces in Spain.  With Christmas approaching, they make plans to travel to Bath to spend the festive season with their Aunt Lucasta and other members of their family, but what is supposed to be a brief detour to take a peek at Dominer, the grand residence of Garret Hawkhurst – an infamous rake widely believed to have killed his wife and son – leads to a serious accident in which their coach is overturned.  Fortunately, help arrives quickly in the form of the dangerous Hawkhurst himself and his servant, but while Euphemia and Simon are quickly dragged from the wrecked carriage, Euphemia’s page, Kent (whom she had rescued from a cruel chimney sweep some months earlier) has been thrown over the edge of a steep cliff, and is barely hanging on for his life.  To Euphemia’s astonishment, Hawkhurst immediately sets about a rescue, endangering his own life by climbing down the cliff at the end of a makeshift rope to bring the boy back up – and then offers them hospitality at Dominer.

Mia knows the rumours about Hawkhurst – Hawk – of course, and over the course of her stay at Dominer gleans further information about his past, but she has already realised that the rumours and the reality of the man she sees every day are vastly different.  For sure, Hawk is quick tempered and intensely cynical, but beneath that is a compassionate, honourable man who cares deeply for his family and who possesses a sharp, sometimes wicked sense of humour, and Euphemia – whose string of admirers have nicknamed her “The Unattainable” – can’t help falling for him.

The rumours surrounding the death of Hawk’s wife and son are so heinous that any attempts to refute them proved so impossible that he eventually gave up trying and retreated to his country estate, where he now lives with his two aunts, his cousin (who is his heir) and his younger sister, Stephanie.  Euphemia is unlike the women who so often set their caps at him – or rather, at his wealth; she’s funny, down-to-earth and doesn’t flinch at his bad moods and sharp tongue.  She used to follow the drum with her father, so it takes a lot to faze her; a characteristic which proves invaluable, especially in the later part of the story.

Their relationship is nicely done – they have cracking chemistry and their verbal exchanges are effervescent, simply bubbling with wit and attraction, but of course nothing is ever that simple.  Hawk’s name is mud and he has no wish to bring Mia down into the dirt with him – and it seems that while both admit they have finally found the love of their life, Hawk’s intransigence on this point looks set to part them.

Some Brief Folly is an enjoyable read that fairly bowls along and boasts an engaging cast, an interesting secondary romance and two very well suited central characters, but it’s a book of two halves.  The first – which concentrates on the romance – is wonderful, as Hawk and Mia strike sparks off each other and his true nature is revealed.  He’s still a bit of a grouch – with good reason, as we learn later – but it’s clear that it’s a surface crustiness and that underneath is a warm and caring man who has been dealt a tough hand.  The second half, though, is devoted more to solving the mystery of who is trying to kill Hawk and why, and while it’s well done, it’s a bit too busy, and there’s one plot point that’s been foreshadowed throughout which is perhaps a stretch of credulity too far.

The secondary characters in the story are very well drawn; scatty, accident-prone Aunt Dora is a hoot, Stephanie is a sweet, kind girl with a steel backbone, Colley (the heir) is a young man trying to find his place who worships his cousin even though they are frequently at odds, and Simon is a decent man caught between a rock and a hard place who has to make some hard choices.  His is the interesting direction I mentioned earlier; he’s married to a woman who married him for money and status who, when the book opens, has just given birth to a second child Simon can’t have fathered.  He wants a divorce and she won’t give him one – although the author has tripped up here, because I believe that at this time, if a man wanted to divorce his wife and had sufficient money and influence to do so, he didn’t need her to agree to it.  I won’t spoil the story, but Ms. Veryan doesn’t follow the obvious path here, and while that plotline isn’t completely successful, I nonetheless appreciated the attempt to do something a bit different.

Had the book continued along the lines of the first half, Some Brief Folly would have been an easy A grade/DIK, but the change of direction in the second half pulls it back somewhat.  Even so, it’s well-written and engaging, and certainly something I’d recommend to historical romance fans who don’t mind sacrificing steam in favour of witty banter and good ol’ sexual tension.

The Best of 2017 – My Favourite Books of Last Year.

It’s something of a tradition to put together a “favourite books of the year” list around Christmas and New Year – I’m a little late with mine this year, but here’s the Best of 2017 list I put together for All About Romance.  Did any of them make your Best Books of 2017 list?

I had to make some really tough choices – here are some of the books that also deserved a place on the list, but which I just couldn’t fit in!

The Captain’s Disgraced Lady (Chadcombe Marriages #2) by Catherine Tinley

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When Juliana Milford first encounters Captain Harry Fanton, she finds him arrogant and rude. There’s no way she’ll fall for his dazzling smile! Her visit to Chadcombe House was always going to prompt questions over her scandalous family, so she’s touched when Harry defends her reputation. She’s discovering there’s more to Harry than she’d first thought…

A man so plagued by the demons of war, he’s sworn he’ll never marry, no matter how tempted…

Rating: C

The Captain’s Disgraced Lady is Catherine Tinley’s second novel, and tells the story of a young woman whose family history has always been shrouded in mystery and an army officer who is so haunted by the things he has seen and done that he believes himself defiled.  It’s not an especially original plotline, but it’s generally handled well – until Ms. Tinley decides to introduce a number of extraneous plot points that clutter up her canvas to the extent that everything starts to feel overly contrived and which, ultimately, led to an overall feeling of dissatisfaction on the part of this reader.

The book opens as Miss Juliana Milford and her mother, who normally reside in Brussels, have returned to England for a short time in order to visit Juliana’s dear friend, Charlotte Wyncroft, who has recently married the Earl of Shalford (Waltzing with the Earl).   Mrs. Milford has been greatly unsettled by the channel crossing and seems to Juliana to be unnerved by simply being back in England, but Juliana is used to her mother’s somewhat uncertain health and mental state, having run their household since she was twelve.  The ladies are settling into a private parlour at the nearest inn when they are interrupted by two military gentlemen, one of whom – who introduces himself as Captain Harry Fanton – assumes they will happy to share the parlour with them.  Infuriated by the captain’s arrogance – and concerned for her mother’s health – Juliana tells him what she thinks of him in no uncertain terms and sends him away with a flea in his ear.

Subsequent encounters with the terribly handsome but extremely annoying Captain Fanton only serve to reinforce Juliana’s opinion of him as conceited and rude – although she has to begrudgingly admit that she is grateful for his solicitousness towards her mother and eventually to acknowledge that perhaps she allowed her temper to get the better of her.  But as she is unlikely ever to see the captain again, Juliana doesn’t dwell on it – even though she finds it difficult to banish his handsome features from her mind.

A few days later sees the Milford ladies settled at Chadcombe House, the Earl of Salford’s estate, and Juliana happily catching up with all her friend’s news and reminiscing about their time at school in Brussels.  I’m not sure how Juliana fails to connect the name Fanton with Charlotte’s new husband, but in any case, Harry is the last person Juliana expects to see at Chadcombe, and she is astonished when Charlotte greets him and introduces him as her brother-in-law.

Juliana and Charlotte also make the acquaintance of their nearest neighbours, the social climbing Mr. and Mrs. Wakely who have recently taken up residence at Glenbrook Hall.  It seems there is a dispute as to the Hall’s ownership and the Wakelys  have been allowed to live there while the executors of the estate of the late Baron Cowlam (a relative of Mrs. Wakelys) establish her claim.

During their stay at Chadcombe, Juliana and Harry are thrown into each other’s company on several occasions and find themselves gradually warming to each other, enjoying their spirited discussions and verbal sparring matches.  Harry, who has determined never to fall in love, finds it increasingly difficult to ignore the truth of his feelings for Juliana, but he can’t bear the thought of tying her to a man as broken as he is. When the spiteful Wakelys make public some information they have learned concerning Juliana’s parentage – which, Juliana realises, must account for her mother’s nervousness at being back in England – Harry is forced to face the truth; he’s fallen irrevocably in love with a woman he can never marry.

With Juliana’s reputation now severely blemished, she and her mother arrange to return to Brussels, no matter that it seems as though England and France will very soon be at war once more.  Harry rejoins his regiment and finds himself in the thick of the battles of Quatre Bras and Waterloo…

As soon as I’d finished reading, I realised that the main thing I’d taken away from The Captain’s Disgraced Lady was that there was rather too much going on, which gave the impression that the author wasn’t quite sure what story she wanted to tell.  Is it an opposites-attract romance?  Is it the story of a young woman searching for the truth of her birthright?  Is it the story of a couple separated by war?  It’s all of those things, but the narrative feels episodic  – shifting from one plot point to the next – rather than cohesive with the various threads woven together throughout.  The final section – which sees Juliana returned to Brussels and Harry to the army – is the most gripping; before that I was only mildly interested in the romance because Juliana’s instant dislike of Harry has such a ridiculously flimsy basis and is so obviously a contrivance to kick-start an antagonistic relationship.  And the clues as to the identity of the missing heir and Juliana’s identity are so clearly telegraphed early on that there is no surprise when the reveal is finally made. On top of all that, we are informed – around a third of the way though – that Harry believes himself to be some sort of monster; and later that he’s too flawed and broken to deserve someone so innocent and pure as Juliana and the only thing to be done is to protect her by breaking with her without explanation.  The whole “I am not worthy, so must cut you from my life completely” plotline is one I dislike intensely, so that aspect of the story didn’t work for me at all; plus, Harry’s self-loathing and inner torment never really feel integral to the story (and vanish quickly), and instead come across as yet another contrived road-block on the path to happy ever after.

With all that said, there are things to enjoy in The Captain’s Disgraced Lady. Harry is an attractive, if somewhat stereotypical hero, and while I didn’t like Juliana that much to start with, she grew on me,  proved to be possessed of good sense and courage, and by the last part of the book I was rooting for her to succeed and to find her HEA with Harry.  The writing is solid, and the middle section of the story – in which Harry and Juliana begin to lower their defences and allow each other to see their true selves – is nicely done, with, as I said earlier, the final part being the most compelling.  Unfortunately, however, those things are overshadowed by the overabundance of plotlines which make the book feel overstuffed; and I can’t help thinking that perhaps a firmer editorial hand could have helped thin them out and develop the rest into a more cohesive story.

Scandal at the Christmas Ball by Marguerite Kaye and Bronwyn Scott


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One Christmas house party leads to two Regency love affairs! 

A Governess for Christmas by Marguerite Kaye 

At the glittering Brockmore house party, former army major Drummond MacIntosh meets governess in disgrace Joanna Forsythe, who’s desperate to clear her name. Both are eager to put their pasts behind them, but their scandalous affair will make for a very different future…

Dancing with the Duke’s Heir by Bronwyn Scott 

As heir to a dukedom, Vale Penrith does not want a wife, and certainly not one like Lady Viola Hawthorne. So why does London’s Shocking Beauty tempt him beyond reason? Dare he try and tame her, or is a Christmas seduction the best way to bring her to surrender?

Rating: B (B+ for the Kaye, C for the Scott)

Scandal at the Christmas Ball is the second collaboration between historical romance authors Marguerite Kaye and Bronwyn Scott, and, like their previous work, Scandal at the Midsummer Ball, takes place at the country estate of the Duke and Duchess of Brockmore, a widely liked, respected and highly influential couple who are regarded as powerbrokers within the ton and whose invitations are much sought after.

Among their guests this Yuletide are the duke’s nephew and heir, Vale Penrith, Lady Viola Hawthorne, a shockingly fast young woman who goes out of her way to do and say outrageous things, and a former officer of the Scots Guards, Drummond MacIntosh, whose army career ended somewhat ignominiously three years earlier, just after the Battle of Waterloo.


A Governess for Christmas by Marguerite Kaye (Grade: B+)

Ms. Kaye is one of the few authors of historical romance who regularly writes about untitled, non-aristocratic progatonists, and she continues that trend in this poignant, tender and sometimes heart-wrenching story about an ex-army officer and an ill-treated, down-on-her-luck governess who find each other one Christmas but who will face some difficult choices if they are ever to make a life together.

Drummond MacIntosh has lived a somewhat reclusive existence for the past three-and-a-half years owing to the huge scandal that attended his catastrophic fall from grace.  With his reputation in tatters, he has finally accepted that he needs help if he is ever going to claw his way back from ruin and carve out a new and useful existence.  No less a personage than the Duke of Wellington himself arranged Drummond’s invitation to the Brockmores’ Christmas house party, but as Drummond wryly notes, the Duke wouldn’t have done such a thing if it hadn’t been ultimately useful to himself; he needs a man of Drummond’s good sense, practicality and ability to lead men at his back and is presenting Drummond to Brockmore “for inspection” as it were.  The whole thing leaves a bitter taste in Drummond’s mouth; he doesn’t want to be beholden to Wellington (or to anyone) and certainly not on terms which attempt to brush years of exile under the carpet and blame Drummond for acting as his conscience dictated.

Drummond’s situation is mirrored by that of Miss Joanna Forsythe, a governess who has been invited to the party so she can meet a prospective employer.  Joanna had a comfortable position in the household of Lady Christina Robertson, but has been reduced to teaching at a ramshackle school in return for her bed and board, after she was wrongly accused of theft and dismissed without a character. Like Drummond, she has been invited to the Brockmores with a view to improving her situation, but also like him, the hoped for “improvement” falls short.  Joanna had hoped for an apology after her innocence was discovered and the real culprit owned up. But instead, her former employer wants to buy her off by the offer of an excellent new position and a sum of money.

Even before they know of the similarities of their respective situations, Drummond and Joanna are strongly drawn to each other and very soon find themselves exchanging confidences… and increasingly heated kisses.  I admit that the pair progresses to this stage rather quickly but Ms. Kaye creates such a strong emotional connection between them, and imbues their burgeoning relationship with such depth and longing that it’s possible to overlook its somewhat speedy beginning.  This is a pair of ordinary people in very difficult circumstances who demonstrate the importance of a spotless reputation to those who had to earn their living, for without it, there was little to no chance of their ever securing decent employment. But with Drummond on the verge of a prestigious appointment and a return from the cold, how can Joanna – and her tarnished reputation – stand in his way?

This is a beautifully wrought, heartfelt romance between two people in difficult circumstances.  I was completely gripped by Drummond’s story and applaud Ms. Kaye for the introduction of a character motivated by compassion whose actions were so misunderstood and reviled.  He’s not a character-type I’ve read in historical romance before, and I could be singing the author’s praises for that alone.  But added to a very well-crafted romance and a strong, determined heroine in the form of Joanna, A Governess for Christmas  makes my list of favourite seasonal reads.


Dancing with the Duke’s Heir by Bronwyn Scott (Grade: C)

In this story, a rather proper gentleman finds himself reluctantly fascinated by the most unsuitable sort of woman he could ever have imagined would attract him.  Vale Penrith, heir to the Duke of Brockmore, has still not recovered from the deaths of his father and older brother some years ago, and continues to find his role as a ducal heir somewhat ill-fitting.  He really would prefer to be left to his own devices in the library, but knows he will have to do his bit and take part in the various activities planned for the duration of the party.  He is also aware that while the Brockmores’ Christmas parties don’t have the same match-making reputation as their summer affairs, his uncle has a prospective bride lined up for him – something else he doesn’t want anything to do with.

Lady Viola Hawthorne, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Calton, is a determined, high-spirited woman whose deepest desire is to go to Vienna to study music.  “The Shocking Beauty” as she is known, has quite the scandalous reputation, all of it designed to put off any suitors so she can remain unwed and pursue her dreams of Vienna and a musical career.  She reckons that one final, massive scandal at the Brockmores’ party should do the trick once and for all and cause her parents to give up on their attempts to marry her off.  Hence her decision to climb a ladder to hang mistletoe from a chandelier in the hall while wearing no underwear; perched at the top, affording the crowd of young men below a glimpse of her ankles (and possibly other things besides) she manages to achieve her end just before the ladder wobbles and she falls – literally – into the arms of Vale Penrith, who is appalled and annoyed at such reckless, outrageous behaviour.

Viola likes what she sees, but Penrith, while gorgeous, is a stuffed shirt and not at all the sort of man she’d be interested in.  But when her friend, Lady Anne, tells Viola that her parents are trying to arrange a match with Penrith while she – Anne – is in love with someone else, Viola agrees to help her out by providing a distraction.  The problem is that she finds herself being distracted by Vale – who is not at all the cold fish she had first imagined – as much as he is distracted by her, and the more time they spend together, the more they discover about what lies behind their social masks and the more they are drawn together.

I have to say straight off that I really didn’t care for Viola in this story.  I admired her desire to forge her own path in her life, but her methods – which are, basically, to shock as many people as often as possible – are childish, and she behaves more like a mistress or courtesan than a duke’s daughter, drinking spirits, smoking and playing billiards with the men.  I’m sure not all young ladies at this time were as pure and virginal as fiction would have us believe, but Viola goes a little too far in the opposite direction for my taste.  Vale is much more likeable, but because I disliked the heroine, it was difficult to understand what he saw in her beyond the physical and I found it difficult to believe that two people possessed of such opposing personality types could forge a lasting relationship.

If you’re more tolerant of the spoiled and outrageous type of heroine than I am, this story might work better for you than it did for me.


Ultimately, Scandal at the Christmas Ball is something of an uneven read, but is worth it for the Kaye story alone.