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

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

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

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

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

Rating: B-

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

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

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

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

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

Someone to Remember (Westcott #7) by Mary Balogh

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It’s never too late to fall in love . . .

Matilda Westcott has spent her life tending to the needs of her mother, the Dowager Countess of Riverdale, never questioning the web of solitude she has spun herself. To Matilda, who considers herself an aging spinster daughter, marriage is laughable – love is a game for the young, after all. But her quiet, ordered life unravels when a dashing gentleman from her past reappears, threatening to charm his way into her heart yet again.

Charles Sawyer, Viscount Dirkson, does not expect to face Matilda Westcott thirty-six years after their failed romance. Moreover, he does not expect decades-old feelings to emerge at the very sight of her. When encountering Matilda at a dinner hosted by the Earl of Riverdale, he finds himself as fascinated by her as he was the first day they met, and wonders whether, after all these years, they have a chance at happiness together. Charles is determined to crack the hard exterior Matilda has built up for more than three decades, or he will risk losing her once again . . .

Rating: B

Someone to Remember is the seventh (and penultimate?) instalment in Mary Balogh’s Westcott saga, which has followed the fortunes of the various members of the large and close-knit Westcott family after the discovery that the late Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale, had committed bigamy and that his second marriage was therefore invalid.  This discovery naturally had serious repercussions; his son and two daughters lost titles, fortunes and status; his widow couldn’t even claim to have been a wife, and the earldom diverted to a cousin who didn’t want it. Through six books, readers have followed the fortunes of various family members in the wake of these events, and now we come to Matilda, Humphrey’s older sister, a woman of mature years – fifty-six – who has appeared throughout the series as the dutiful spinster aunt who fusses over her mother because it’s something to do and has gradually faded into the background.

In order to understand the relationship in Someone to Remember, it’s necessary to refer back to the previous book in the series, Someone to Honor, so please be aware that this review contains spoilers for that book. Lieutenant Colonel Gilbert Bennington returned from fighting at Waterloo to discover his late wife had left their four-year-old daughter in the care of her parents, who are now refusing to return her to his care. Although Gil was an officer, his illegitimacy and humble origins made him unacceptable to his in-laws; his father was a nobleman – Viscount Dirkson – but his mother was the daughter of a blacksmith who refused all offers of support from the viscount, and allowed Gil to believe that he had washed his hands of them.  When Gil joined the army, Dirkson purchased a commission for him, but after that Gil made it clear that he wanted nothing more to do with him.

But when Abigail Westcott married Gil, the entire Westcott clan naturally became interested in the situation; and when Matilda learned that Dirkson was Gil’s father, she took the unprecedented – and rather scandalous – step of paying a call upon the gentleman at his home in order to ask him to speak for Gil at the upcoming custody hearing.  It was clear from the moment Dirkson’s name was mentioned that he and Matilda had some shared history, and it’s soon revealed that they had once been in love and hoped to marry, but that Matilda’s parents had opposed the match and persuaded her to give him up.

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

Someone to Honour (Westcott #6) by Mary Balogh (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

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Abigail Westcott’s dreams for her future were lost when her father died and she discovered her parents were not legally married. But now, six years later, she enjoys the independence a life without expectation provides a wealthy single woman. Indeed, she’s grown confident enough to scold the careless servant chopping wood outside without his shirt on in the proximity of ladies. But the man is not a servant. He is Gilbert Bennington, the lieutenant colonel and superior officer who has escorted her wounded brother, Harry, home from the wars with Napoleon.

Gil has come to help his friend and junior officer recover, and he doesn’t take lightly to being condescended to – secretly because of his own humble beginnings. If at first Gil and Abigail seem to embody what the other most despises, each will soon discover how wrong first impressions can be. For behind the appearances of the once-grand lady and the once-humble man are two people who share an understanding of what true honor means, and how only with it can one find love.

Rating: Narration: A; Content: B-

The heroine of Someone to Honor, the sixth book in Mary Balogh’s series about the Westcott family is Abigail Westcott, the younger daughter of the late Earl of Riverdale. She was approaching her come out and her eighteenth birthday when her father was discovered to have married her mother bigamously, meaning that she and her siblings – sister Camille and brother Harry – were illegitimate and that Harry could not inherit the Riverdale title (which passed to their cousin, Alex). Abby is now twenty-four, and has spent most of the six intervening years resisting her family’s urging to resume her life in society and find a husband. Although at the time, the news of her family’s change of status was hugely upsetting, she now realises that what happened has set her free in a way she could never have imagined being before. Without the pressure of having to conform to society’s expectations of the daughter of an earl, Abby has been able to take the time to discover who she truly is as a person and to work out what she really wants in life – and has found that the idea of remaining unmarried is no longer as scary as it was six years earlier when she was expected to make a match befitting her status. As her mother and siblings had to forge their own paths to happiness, so Abby has begun to forge hers – the trouble is convincing her loving, well-meaning but sometimes misguided family that she knows what she’s doing.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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!)

While Thomas continues to be torn over his relationship with Rose, we learn something of what happened to him in the years he was gone.  He and a number of his crewmates were captured by Barbary pirates and sold as slaves after Thomas’ plea to his uncle for ransom was denied.  It took him years to escape, but now he has, he’s determined to find the men who were captured with him and free them – and to find out why his uncle denied him.  When Thomas visits his bank in London and discovers a number of irregularities in his finances, he realises that something underhand is going on; someone is stealing from him and it’s obviously been going on for some time.  But who?  And why?

Thus, what could have been a second chance romance about two people who married impulsively  getting to know each other after their enforced separation and really learning to love each other turned out to be a not-very-mysterious mystery with no romantic or character development whatsoever.  Thomas indulges in a lot of hand-wringing of the I-do-not-wish-to-sully-your-purity-with-my-degradation sort, while Rose is relentlessly cheerful and pretty much bulldozes her way through everything he says.  Thomas’ experiences as a captive and slave have obviously affected the way he treats servants and others who are regarded by those of his class as beneath them, and he clearly feels shame about what happened to him, but there’s not much depth to his character or Rose’s; neither is especially memorable or engaging and I didn’t connect with either of them.  I liked the relationship between Cal and Ned (heroes of the previous books) and the one that was developing between them and Thomas, but the ladies were thinly sketched and the identity of the wrong-doer was obvious.

Marry in Secret is an exercise in wasted potential in just about every way.  The romance is non-existent, the mystery is weak and the characterisation is uninspired.  I may pick up the next (and final) book in the series because I’m intrigued at the prospect of the pairing of the cold fish duke with the I’m-never-getting-married-and-handing-over-control-of-my-life Lady Georgiana, but I really can’t recommend this instalment.

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

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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.

Hadleigh has tried continually – and fruitlessly – to forget about Lady Penshurst, but no matter how many times he tells himself she’s not his problem, he feels the need to do something to help her.  So he’s bewildered when confronted by an annoyed Seb Leatham reaming him out for doing just that – until he learns that his actions may have unintentionally caused the lady some distress.  An awkward apology follows, and he promises not to attempt to interfere again.  But then an opportunity presents itself whereby Hadleigh can help Penny while at the same time enabling her to be independent, and in spite of his own misgivings, he has to take it.  In preparing for the Boss’ trial, he will need to consult and work with his star witness – Jessamine, Lady Flint – frequently, but with some members of the gang still at large, her husband is naturally reluctant to have her travel to London.  Hadleigh’s family home is just outside London, in Essex, so he suggests to thehead of the King’s Elite that Lady Flint be housed there until the trial.  With government approval, Hadleigh offers Penny a position as temporary housekeeper, explaining that he’s not paying her wages, and that she will in fact be doing him and the government a big favour by agreeing to take the post.

Even though Hadleigh has no intention of spending much time at the house – which holds too many unhappy memories for him – he nonetheless finds himself going there more often than he originally intended, seeking out Penny, talking with her and enjoying her company.  And as they start getting to know each other, Penny begins to see past the controlled, somewhat aloof Hadleigh, to the complex, thoughtful and charming man he truly is, and to allow herself to enjoy feeling desired and desirable.

The Determined Lord Hadleigh is a fabulous character-driven piece that works as both a beautifully developed romance and a clever character study as Ms. Heath takes a good, long look at what drives Penny and Hadleigh to act the way they do.  Penny isn’t afraid of her attraction to Hadleigh – in fact she welcomes it, and I loved that she wasn’t prepared to allow the misery she endured during her marriage prevent her from moving forward with her life.  I admired her strength and determination not to allow herself to be seen as a victim:

“… that is not the way I see myself.  It is such a small part of who I am, yet it appears to be the version of myself others are most content with accepting… Maybe I should have it written on my forehead to make it easier for people to decide how to view me? Poor, downtrodden Penny !  Rather that, than as that brave woman who spoke out in the dock. “

Penny is also extremely perceptive, and it doesn’t take her long to work out why Hadleigh so dislikes the house and why he acted as he did towards her. His character growth is substantial as – with Penny’s help – he is able to face and conquer his demons and accept that he can’t save everyone, and that a person is the sum of many parts.

“… simply because the cap fits, a person shouldn’t be expected to always wear it when the world is joyously filled with different hates and we, as individuals, have the right to choose, try them on for size and discard them as the mood takes us.”

The Determined Lord Hadleigh is a ‘quiet’ book about two emotionally bruised people learning to come to terms with tragedy and move forward together.  For my money, it’s the best and strongest book of the King’s Elite series, and although it could be read as a standalone, I’d advise reading at least book three (The Disgraceful Lord Gray) first. Virginia Heath’s writing is as warm, witty and insightful as ever, and she continues to be one of the best authors of historical romance around.  I’m looking forward to whatever she comes up with next.