Mine Till Midnight (Hathaways #1) by Lisa Kleypas (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

mine till midnight

Their lives defy convention . . .

When an unexpected inheritance elevates her family to the ranks of the aristocracy, Amelia Hathaway discovers that tending to her younger sisters and wayward brother was easy compared to navigating the intricacies of the ton. Even more challenging: the attraction she feels for the tall, dark and dangerously handsome Cam Rohan.

Their desire consumes them both . . .

Wealthy beyond most men’s dreams, Cam has tired of society’s petty restrictions and longs to return to his ‘uncivilized’ Gypsy roots. When the delectable Amelia appeals to him for help, he intends to offer only friendship – but intentions are no match for the desire that blindsides them both. Can a man who spurns tradition be tempted into that most time-honoured arrangement: marriage? Life in London society is about to get a whole lot hotter . . .

Rating: Narration – A; Content – C+

Mine Till Midnight is book one in Lisa Kleypas’s series about the Hathaway family; it was published in 2007 and an audio recording – with Rosalyn Landor at the microphone – was released in 2009. That version was never available worldwide however; only one or two of the series was actually available in the UK before now (the same is true of the earlier and perennially popular (pun intended!) Wallflower series.) Last year, I noticed first two or three titles in the Hathaways series appearing at Audible UK and immediately assumed that they were reissues of the 2009 recordings – but they’re not; they’re brand new recordings.

The five Hathaway siblings were not born to wealth and privilege. Instead, they were thrust into the upper echelons of society when Leo – the only male sibling – inherited a viscountcy from a distant relative, although unfortunately, the title comes with only a modest fortune. Leo has been in a downward spiral for the last year or so, since the death of the young woman he planned to marry, which is how come we first meet our heroine Amelia – the oldest of the four female Hathaways – as she is planning to drag Leo out of Jenner’s (the club owned by Sebastian St. Vincent). She’s accompanied by her adoptive brother Merripen – a Rom (here’s one change from the original – “Gypsy” has been changed to “Rom”) – and they pull up outside the club in time to witness an altercation between some obviously drunk patrons who are vying for the attentions of a prostitute. Before things can get nasty, the fight is broken up by another man – a younger one with dark hair, gleaming hazel eyes and the face of an angel who, for all he is dressed like a gentleman, obviously isn’t one. He’s Cam Rohan (also a Rom), the club’s manager – and just looking at him is enough to take Amelia’s breath away. But she quickly squashes the ripples of nerves and heat that run through her to focus on her reason for being there, irritated when Rohan waves off her concern for her brother as nothing to do with him. It’s only when Merripen speaks to him in their own language that he at last agrees to allow them inside to search for Leo, and on learning that Leo has left the club for a nearby brothel, and of Amelia’s intention to seek him out there, Cam arranges transportation and accompanies them to retrieve the errant viscount.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

My 2020 in Books & Audio

2020, huh? I don’t think I need to expound on that particular dumpster fire except to say that I feel lucky to be someone who has managed to read/listen to books pretty much as normal throughout it all. Books – and writing about them – have provided a much-needed escape from everything going on “out there”, and there have been times this past year when I don’t know what I’d have done without them.

So, what was I reading/listening to in 2020? Well, according to Goodreads (which shows an average rating of 4.1 stars overall), I read and listened to 269 books in total (which was 30 fewer than 2019) – although I suspect that number may be slightly higher as I sometimes forget to mark any re-listens I do. But just taking the new reads/listens, I listened to almost as many books as I read – 52.9% ebook and 47.1% audio, according to this new spreadsheet I’ve been using, and almost three-quarters of the total were review copies.

Of that total there are 77 5 star books, 152 4 star books – by far the biggest category – 36 3 star books and 6 2 star books. (Books sorted by rating.)

The 5 star bracket includes those titles I rate at 4.5 but round-up (which I equate to A-); the 4 star bracket (B) includes the 4.5 star grades I don’t round up (B+) and the 3.5 star ones I do round up (B-), the 3 stars are C+/C/C- and so on.  Of the 77 5 star ratings, only around 17 are straight A grades in terms of the story (in the case of audiobooks, sometimes a 4 star review will get bumped up because the narration is so fabulous), so the rest of that 77 are A minuses or audiobooks where A and B grades combined to rate a higher overall total. Looking back at my 2019 Books & Audio post, those numbers are fairly consistent, although I didn’t have any one stars or DNFs in 2020, which isn’t a bad thing!

The books that made my Best of 2020 list at All About Romance:

Reviews are linked in the text beneath each image.

As usually happens, I always have a few “also-rans”, books I could have included if I’d had the space:

If you follow my reviews, you’ll already know that in 2020, I awarded more top grades than ever to a single author, which isn’t something that’s ever happened before; sure, I give high grades to some authors consistently (Sherry Thomas, KJ Charles and Meredith Duran spring to mind) but those have been one every few months or per year – not nine in a single year! So, yes, 2020 is, in my head, the Year of Gregory Ashe 😉  I could have chosen any number of his books for these lists as they’re all so very good.

Sadly noticeable by its (near) absence on these lists – historical romance.  I said in my 2019 post that the amount of really good historical romance around had been declining for a while, and although there were some excellent  historicals around in 2020, they were fairly few and far between. Many of the best came from Harlequin Historical – Virginia Heath’s Redeeming the Reculsive Earl is a lovely, funny and warm grumpy-reclusive-hero-meets-breath-of-fresh-air-(and neuroatypical) heroine, while Mia Vincy continues to demonstrate her mastery of the genre with A Dangerous Kind of Lady, a sexy, vibrant, not-really friends-to-lovers story in which the leads embark on a difficult journey of self-discovery while coming to realise how badly they’ve misjudged each other. The “modern” historical is a term being coined for novels set in the more recent past, and Asher Glenn Gray’s Honeytrap, the love story between an FBI agent and Red Army office that spans thirty-five years, would proibably have made my Best of list had I read it in time.  Annabeth Albert is a big favourite of mine; Feel the Fire is book three in her Hotshots series, a second-chance romance that just hit the spot.


When I struggled to read something – which fortuantely, didn’t happen often – I could usually find something in audio that suited my mood, plus the fact that there are still back-catalogue titles coming out of books I haven’t got around to reading means that audio is always my preferred method of catching up!  I listened to a lot of pretty good stuff over the year, but for my 2020 Favourites for AudioGals, I stuck to titles to which I’d given at least ONE A grade (usually for the narration) and nothing lower than a B+.

So that was 2020 in books and audio.  I’m incredibly grateful to those authors and narrators who continued to provide me with such great reading/listening material through what has been an incredibly trying time for all of us;  I know some who have really struggled to get words on a page this year, and I just want to say that you’re worth waiting for and I’ll be here whenever you’re ready.

As for what I’m looking forward to in 2021… more of the same, really – lots of good books!  There are a number of titles I know are coming up in the first part of the year that I’m really excited about – the third Lamb and the Lion book from Gregory Ashe – The Same End – is out at the end of January, and I’m also eagerly awaiting new adventures with North and Shaw and Theo and Auggie. Then there’s book three in KJ Charles’ Will Darling Adventures, Subtle Blood, at least three (squee!) new books from Annabeth Albert, including the fourth Hotshots book; and a new instalment in Jordan Castillo Price’s long-running Psycop series (Other Half) due out in January, although I’ll be waiting for the audio because Gomez Pugh’s incredible turn as Victor Bayne is well worth waiting for.  (I really must catch up with JCP’s ABCs of Spellcraft books, in audio, too!).  There’s a new book in Hailey Turner’s  Soulbound series coming soon, a new instalment in Jay Hogan’s Southern Lights series, and later on, I’m hoping Josh Lanyon’s The Movie Town Murders will be out this year – I need more Sam and Jason! – and I’m looking forward to new books in her Secrets and Scrabble series.  I’m looking forward to more from Lucy Parker, Loreth Anne White, Garrett Leigh, Rachel Reid, Roan Parrish… There are new books slated from many of my favourite authors and narrators, and I’m looking forward to another year of great reading and listening.

I’ll be back this time next year to see if my expectations were fulfilled!

Restored (Enlightenment #5) by Joanna Chambers

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Eighteen years ago, Henry Asquith, Duke of Avesbury had to leave his kept lover, Kit Redford, in order to devote himself to raising his young family. Now, a lifetime later, his children are moving on and for the first time in years, Henry is alone.

During a rare visit to London, Henry unexpectedly happens upon an old friend of Kit’s and learns that Kit did not receive the financial pay off he was entitled to when Henry left him. Instead Kit was thrown out of his home and left destitute. Horrified, Henry begs Kit to see him and allow Henry to compensate him. But Kit, who now owns a discreet club for gentlemen of a certain persuasion, neither needs nor wants Henry’s money.

Kit thought he had put his old hurts and grievances about Henry behind him, but when he sees Henry again, he discovers that, not only is the old pain still there, so is the fierce attraction that once burned between them. When, in a moment of fury, Kit demands a scandalous form of penance from Henry, no one is more surprised than Kit when Henry agrees to pay it.

As Kit and Henry spend more time together, they learn more about the men they have become, and about the secret feelings and desires they concealed from one another in the past.

Henry realises he wants to build a future with Kit but can he persuade his wary lover to trust him ever again? And can two men from such different worlds make a new life together?

Rating: A-

Reading Restored was like a balm to the soul.  It’s a beautiful – and beautifully written – story of love, forgiveness and second chances that I practically inhaled and which left me with a warm glow and a book hangover of the best kind.  It’s book five in the author’s Enlightenment series, but it’s not necessary to have read the rest to be able to enjoy Restored, as it’s only loosely linked to them and works perfectly as a standalone. That said, if you haven’t read the other books in the series, they’re wonderful and you should add them to your TBR stat.

The central characters – club-owner Kit Redford and Henry, Duke of Avesbury – have appeared briefly in other books in the series, and readers will recall it being hinted at that Kit’s previous life wasn’t always an easy one.  Eighteen years earlier, Kit had been Henry’s ‘kept man’, set up in his own house and visited by his lover on a twice-weekly schedule, his contract brokered by the madam of The Golden Lily, the select brothel at which he used to work.  The year-long contract has another two months to run, and both Kit – or Christopher, as he was known then – and Henry realise that they have begun to feel a great deal more for each other than is wise.  Kit is a whore and Henry is a duke (and a married duke at that) and knowing that love was never supposed to be part of their agreement, neither man says anything about how he feels.

Henry inherited his title at twenty and takes his responsibilities very seriously.  He’s married to Caroline, with whom he has four children, although after the birth of their youngest, Caroline told Henry she no longer wished him to visit her bed and encouraged him to seek his pleasure elsewhere.  They are best friends and care for each other deeply – and when Caroline gives Henry the devastating news that she is dying, she asks him to take her and the children out of London to the family seat in Wiltshire immediately.  Henry can’t help but think of Kit; he wants a chance to explain and say goodbye, but Caroline is so distraught and has never really asked him for anything, so he agrees to leave town straight away, knowing that his contract with Kit stipulates that his lover will be well taken care of, given the house they’d used for their assignations and a large sum of money.

Henry takes his family to the country and rarely visits London after that, banishing all thoughts of Kit from his mind.  Caroline’s death just a few short months later shatters him, and leaves him with the sole responsibility for his children, who give him a reason to wake each morning, and who keep him going through some dark and difficult times.

Now, nearly two decades later, his children are grown, and Henry realises he has a lonely road ahead as they forge lives of their own.  A rare trip to the capital finds him thinking of Kit for the first time in years  – and when he learns that far from being well taken care of, Kit was left almost destitute when he they parted ways, he’s horrified.  Desperate to make amends, Henry gets a message to Kit that he’d like to see him – but Kit can’t see any point in their meeting again after so many years have passed, and refuses.

Henry knows he should let things lie; he learns that Kit is the proprietor of a highly successful and discreet club for gentlemen who prefer the company of other men, and that whatever happened in the past, he’s doing well now.  But Henry’s conscience won’t let him forget it.  He pays a call on Kit at his home, half expecting to be turned away – and is both relieved and a little shocked when Kit appears, still as beautiful as ever but with a new wariness and hardness about him, as though he’s holding himself back behind a mask of suspicion and barely suppressed anger.

Kit is astonished at the fury and resentment that rush through him at the sight of his former lover; he thought he’d put all that behind him long ago.  Even worse, however, he discovers that the attraction he’d also thought long dead and buried is still alive and kicking.  As he and Henry circle each other, prodding and testing each other’s truths and vulnerabilities, both men start to see a glimmer of possibility, a hope that perhaps there are some things that can be restored to the way they should have been all along.

Restored is a gorgeous second-chance romance which brilliantly charts the journey Henry and Kit take to find their way back to each other both physically and emotionally.  Old resentments and hurts are faced openly, engendering a new honesty between them and encouraging Henry especially to think seriously about the transactional dynamics and inherent inequality of their earlier relationship, and to realise that no matter how good he and Kit were together, no matter how he really felt about Kit, Kit was never in a position to make any choices for himself.  Adding that new clarity to the realisation he’s come to over the years that the desire he’d previously believed a weakness is actually a part of his nature he’s no longer willing to deny, Henry longs for the chance to convince Kit that they can have something different, something real where they can come together as equals with nothing between them but honesty and love.

There’s a well-written sub-plot featuring Henry’s younger son, and I really enjoyed the insight into Henry’s family life as a father, with its attendant ups and downs.  His relationship with the rebellious and often resentful Freddy is really well observed, and I liked the glimpses of the happiness shared by his daughter and her husband.  Henry’s eldest son George doesn’t appear on the page until near the end, but he has an important part to play in the story (and oh, my heart broke for him and his dad both!) and if Ms. Chambers decides to write a story for him one day, then I certainly won’t object!

Henry and Kit are fully-rounded, complex characters whose flaws make them that much more human and relatable; and there are some colourful secondary characters I’d definitely be interested in reading about in future. Restored is simply lovely, a poignant, emotional and immensely satisfying tale of two people finding one another again and choosing to make a life together on their own terms.  Happy sigh.

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

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A convenient bride

Can he be the groom she deserves?

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

Rating: B+

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

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

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

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

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

The Duke that I Marry (Spinster Heiresses #3) by Cathy Maxwell (audiobook) – Narrated by Mary Jane Wells

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Once upon a time there were three young ladies who, despite their fortunes, had been on the marriage mart a bit too long. They were known as “the Spinster Heiresses”….

Is it wrong for a woman to want more?

Not if she is a Spinster Heiress. They do not settle. Any young miss would be very lucky to find herself promised to a man like the duke of Camberly. However, Miss Willa Reverly has watched her friends marry for love. Camberly may be the prize of the season, but she will not be “sold” to any man. She wants his devotion or she wants nothing at all.

When is a marriage of convenience inconvenient?

Newly named to the ducal title, Matthew Addison is determined to discover the secrets behind Mayfield, the bankrupt estate he has inherited. He doesn’t have time to coddle a headstrong heiress who is determined to ditch him over something as silly as “love”. Little does he know that his questions will place her in jeopardy. Now, he must do what he must to save them both.

Could it be that in running from danger, they might be racing headlong into a truly unexpected fate: falling in love?

Rating: Narration – B+ : Content – C

The Duke That I Marry is the final book in Cathy Maxwell’s trilogy of Spinster Heiresses novels, which features a group of three friends, all of them with massive dowries. In the first book, we were introduced to Leonie, Cassandra and Willa as they passed the time at all the various events to which they were endlessly invited by playing a game in which they scored points for attracting the notice of the Ton’s most eligible bachelor, the young, incredibly handsome (and incredibly broke) Matthew Addison, Duke of Camberly.

Having failed to marry either Leonie or Cassandra, Camberly at last offered for Willa and then retreated to his country estate, partly to avoid the gossip surrounding the termination of his rather scandalous affair with a married woman and partly so he could get a firm grip on the management of his estate and finances.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Most Unsuitable Match (Sisters of Scandal #1) by Julia Justiss

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Shunned by the ton

How will she find a husband?

Part of Sisters of Scandal: After her mother’s latest outrageous affair, innocent Prudence Lattimar has fled to Bath. With her dubious background, she must marry a man of impeccable reputation. A clergyman with a title would be perfect. And she must steer clear of Lieutenant Johnnie Trethwell—his family is as notorious as hers, no matter how funny, charming and unfailingly honourable he is!

Rating: B+

Julia Justiss opens her new Sisters of Scandal series with A Most Unsuitable Match, in which a young lady tainted by a scandal not of her own making strives to obey every strict rule of society and to make herself into a pattern-card of propriety in an attempt to free herself from the unkind gossip that dogs her.  Prudence Lattimar and her twin sister Temperance (sisters of Christopher Lattimar, hero of the author’s last Hadley’s Hellions book, Secret Lessons with the Rake) are now in their early twenties but have yet to have a London Season.  There are various reasons for this – illness, mourning, a birth – but the most recent one is the worst of all; Pru and Temper’s reputations are already on very shaky ground thanks to their mother’s reputation for loose morals, and the fact that a pair of young bucks have just fought a duel over her promises to be the death knell of yet another Season. Lady Vraux is renowned for having had a string of lovers over the years and it’s common knowledge that all of her children have different fathers, only of them her husband – and gossip paints her daughters as chips off the old block.  Prudence wants nothing more from life than a husband she can at least esteem, a home and family, and to live far from the bustle of London society and its attendant gossip – but her mother’s notoriety condemns her before she so much as shows her face in society, and she despairs of ever being able have the sort of life she wants.

Unlike Temperance, who would much rather go adventuring abroad hunting antiquities than stay in England hunting a husband, Prudence decides to try her luck in Bath.  With the London Season starting, society in Bath will be a little thinner on the ground, but there will still be plenty to do and, no doubt, some eligible gentlemen who might prove to be to her liking.

Lieutenant Lord John Treadwell, youngest son of Marquess of Barkley, has recently returned from service in India and is visiting his aunt in Bath while he recuperates from a leg wound.  After seven years in the army, he’s planning on resigning his commission and going into business; as the fourth son of a spendthrift father, he has to support himself by his own efforts, in spite of society’s horror at the idea of a gentleman working for his living.  His aunt would be happier if he’d take the time-honoured approach of marrying an heiress, but Johnnie won’t hear of that.

“I happen to believe setting up a trading operation is a better route to wealth than sacrificing myself on the altar of some India nabob hoping to marry his daughter into the aristocracy.”

At his first sight of Prudence Lattimar, Johnnie is thoroughly smitten and engineers an introduction even though his aunt insists she’s precisely the sort of female he needs to avoid.  Word is already circulating that he’s a fortune hunter, and given he’s the scion of a family of rakehells and widely known to be something of a rogue, the last thing he needs is for his name to be coupled with a woman of Prudence’s reputation.  Yet right from the first, Johnnie gives no credence to the gossip, preferring instead to believe the evidence of his own eyes and ears – which have heard nothing to Pru’s detriment other than the scandal that is so gleefully circulated about her mother.

Pru is similarly attracted to the dashing young officer, but knows all too well that an association with him is something she can’t afford.  With her own reputation in such a precarious state, she has to appear above reproach at all times, and spending time with a known rake will only serve to reinforce the completely unfounded rumours that continue to circulate about her.  She recognises the longing he stirs within her as desire,  but forces herself to set it aside, instead concentrating on a far more promising matrimonial prospect, Lord Fitzroy-Price, the handsome youngest son of a duke who is waiting to be appointed an ecclesiastical living.  Being the wife of a clergyman would go a long way towards rehabilitating Pru in the eyes of society, so she determines to forget Johnnie and concentrate on realising her ambition to find a respectable husband.   But she quickly realises that hers is not the only reputation being misrepresented; Fitzroy-Price may seem charming, but he’s self-absorbed and his motives are mercenary, and while Johnnie might be a rogue, his heart is true and he never pretends to be something he’s not.

A Most Unsuitable Match is a warm, tender romance between two people dogged by scandal for most of their lives, who connect with and understand each other on an instinctual level  because of those shared experiences.  Pru struggles every day to suppress her intelligence, vivacity and wit and has to endure completely undeserved censure, and Ms. Justiss makes some incredibly relevant observations about the ridiculous double standards that continue to exist for women almost two hundred years after the time in which this story is set. The way Johnnie supports and champions Pru is wonderful to see, and I loved that she felt comfortable and able to be herself around him, finding the sort of freedom in his company she rarely experienced with anyone else.

The secondary characters add richness and colour to the story, especially the two aunts, who care deeply for Pru and Johnnie and only want what’s best for them; while Johnnie’s tales of his time in India are fascinating, showing clearly how much he respects and loves the country, its inhabitants and culture.  The predictability of an event that happens near the end kept the novel from DIK status by a whisper, but overall, A Most Unsuitable Match is a marvellous read. The leads are lively and charming, coming across as real people rather than two dimensional cyphers, the longing between them is palpable and the romance is very well developed.  Add in some very pertinent social comment and vibrant supporting characters, and you’ve got an engaging novel that’s well worth a few hours of anyone’s time.

A Lady Becomes a Governess (Governess Swap #1) by Diane Gaston

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Lady Rebecca Pierce escapes her forced betrothal when the ship she’s on is wrecked. Assuming the identity of a governess she believes has drowned, she enters the employ of brooding Lord Brookmore, who’s selflessly caring for his orphaned nieces. Inconveniently, she’s extremely attracted to the Viscount…but her only chance of happiness is tied to the biggest risk: revealing the truth about who she really is…

Rating: C-

In this latest offering from Diane Gaston, two women from very different stations in life swap roles and, as promised by the book’s title, The Lady Becomes a Governess . The premise intrigued me, but misgivings set in early on when the two ladies, Lady Rebecca Pierce and Miss Claire Tilson, who meet while on a voyage from Ireland to England, discover their uncanny (and hugely convenient) resemblance to one another. As I read on, I was confronted by a series of contrivances, unlikely circumstances and clichés; the characters were dull as ditchwater, the romance non-existent, and the only spark of life in the whole novel was provided by the hero’s horrid fiancée, a stereotypical evil-other-woman type whose machinations, while predictable and ridiculously hackneyed, did at least provoke a reaction other than boredom.

Lady Rebecca is being forced by her half-brother, the Earl of Keneagle, to marry the elderly Lord Stonecroft and is en route to England for her wedding. Needless to say, she’s not looking forward to her life as the wife of an elderly baron who only wants a young brood-mare, but the earl wants his half-sister off his hands and marrying her off is the easiest way to do it. As a caper to take their minds off the fates awaiting them, she and Clare – who is travelling to England in order to take up a post as a governess – swap clothes and pretend to be each other, even going so far as to fool Rebecca’s starchy maid (who is laid low by mal de mer) into believing that Claire is Rebecca. What larks!

Until, that is, the ship is hit by a terrible storm. Around three-quarters of the passengers are lost, and Claire is one of them. Rebecca remembers getting into a small rowing boat and then falling into the sea, but nothing more when she awakens in a soft bed in an unfamiliar room to find an equally unfamiliar gentleman sitting at her bedside. Assailed by guilt that she survived where others did not, Rebecca is at first not at all sure what to do, and then realises she has been presented with an opportunity to escape her unwanted marriage. Learning that the gentleman at her side is Garret, Viscount Brookmore, who had engaged Claire as governess to his two recently orphaned nieces, Rebecca decides to continue the deception she and Claire had practiced aboard ship. After all, she’s doing the poor little girls a kindness by not being yet another person supposed to look after them who has abandoned them by dying.

Rebecca has no idea how to be a governess, of course, not only because she doesn’t know what she should teach the girls, but also because she has no idea how a governess is supposed to act.  (Which, seeing she must have had a governess herself at some point, seems odd). Fortunately for her, Garret obviously has no idea either, which the author tries to excuse because he’s been away at war. Well, that doesn’t wash; he might not have had a governess, but a man born into the aristocracy would surely have at least some idea about how servants should speak and act.

A few days later, Garret and Rebecca arrive at his estate in the Lake District and she is introduced to nine-year-old Pamela and seven-year-old Ellen, who have been left to his care following the deaths of their parents in an accident.  Needless to say, Rebecca very soon gains the affections and respect of the motherless girls and the lustful admiration of her employer – who is, of course, completely captivated by her.

Garret hadn’t expected to inherit a viscountcy.  A younger son, he served in the army and fought against Napoléon until the death of his older brother, and he is foundering, not having been brought up to manage estates and a title, and guilty that he had to abandon his men in order to step into his late brother’s shoes.  His intention had been to bring back the governess and then leave for London to take his seat in Parliament and marry Lady Agnes, a coolly poised and polished earl’s daughter to whom he had proposed, believing she had all the qualities he would require in a viscountess.  However, upon discovering that his brother – whom Garret had always known was the preferred son – was not such a good master and that the estate is in difficulty, he is persuaded to stay longer in order to put things to rights.  Naturally, this makes his decision to stay away from ‘Claire’ more difficult, especially as spending time with his nieces means spending time with the governess – but the girls are flourishing in her care and that’s more important than his own growing desire for a woman he can’t allow himself to want.

There are some good points to be found in the story.  Garrett’s desire to provide a stable environment for his nieces is admirable, and his insecurity over his ability to fulfil his responsibilities is a nice touch.  But Rebecca is completely unbelievable as a governess, and Garret’s behaviour towards her is equally unlikely.  From the start, they act and converse together like equals; he provides her with a horse during their journey, he buys clothes and bolts of cloth for her (okay, so she needs clothes, but it’s still something he would have left to another servant), they dine together every night, she asks him about his life in the army and about estate business; and when, one evening after dinner, Garret has a glass of brandy and Rebecca asks for one, too, my credulity, which had already been precariously stretched, finally broke. Rebecca is selfish, naïve and silly, impersonating someone with no thought for how the deception will affect others; and when, near the end, she insists that in pretending to be Claire, she had not used her, but had lived life for her, I didn’t know whether to laugh or vomit at such a self-serving, self-righteous platitude.

The writing is simplistic and often choppy, the characters, as I said earlier, are bland, and there is no romantic chemistry between them whatsoever; Pamela and Ellen are a pair of plot-moppets who seem hardly bothered by their parents’ deaths and Lady Agnes is a crafty, manipulative bitch – although she is at least entertaining,  But it’s a sorry state of affairs when a walking cliché is more interesting than the too-good-to-be-true hero and heroine in a romance, and when her escapades are more entertaining than that romance.  The Lady Becomes a Governess isn’t a book I can recommend.

A Warriner to Seduce Her (Wild Warriners #4) by Virginia Heath

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A sensible schoolmistress…

Awakened by the notorious rake!

In this The Wild Warriners story, schoolmistress Felicity Blunt feels old beyond her years―and desperately dull. Meeting confirmed rake Jacob Warriner brings her gloriously alive, and yet no matter his allure she must remain immune to his obvious charms and unashamed flirtation. But is Jacob merely a mischievous scoundrel? Or is there much more to this Warriner than meets the eye…?

Rating: A-

This final book in Virginia Heath’s thoroughly enjoyable series featuring the four Warriner brothers focuses on the youngest, Jacob – or Jake, as he is more commonly known.  We’ve met him in the previous books in the series, and unlike his siblings – Jack, the Earl of Markham and head of the family, Jamie, a former soldier and Joe, a doctor – he’s a bit of a wastrel and spends most of his time amid the hedonistic delights of London, where he’s acquired quite the reputation as a ladies’ man.

Ms. Heath has dropped the odd subtle hint that there’s more to Jake than meets the eye, and in A Warriner to Seduce Her, we find out exactly what that is.  While his brothers eye him with fond exasperation and despair of his ever marrying and settling down, the truth is that Jake was recruited by the British Government when he left Cambridge and has been working for them ever since.  A member of a small team known as the King’s Elite, Jake and his colleagues have been tasked with discovering the identity of the man behind a large-scale smuggling operation that is trying to destabilise the British economy by flooding the market with illegal goods and channelling funds to an organisation determined to return Napoléon from exile.  But in spite of their best efforts, the identity of the lynch-pin remains as elusive as ever.

The last few months have been exhausting and Jake is looking forward to heading home to Markham Manor for some well-earned leave.  He’ tired, he misses his family a great deal and longs for:

Three months of being himself, no hidden agendas, no danger, no responsibilities and no web of lies.

(Except the one.)

… and feels keenly the gulf that has opened between himself and his brothers in recent years because of the secrets he has to keep.  So he’s none too pleased when his boss tells him that his leave is cancelled because there’s a new lead in their search for the boss of the smuggling ring.  Suspicion has fallen upon Lord Crispin Rowley, whose fortunes have recently taken  a sudden and unexpected upturn – and Jake is tasked with the seduction of Rowley’s niece, a country miss fresh out of Sister Ursuline’s School for Wayward Girls in Cumbria who will surely be an easy target for his masculine charms.

The letter summoning twenty-five-year-old schoolmistress Felicity Blunt to London came completely out of the blue.  It seems that her uncle, Lord Crispin Rowley, had finally decided to fulfil the promise he made her dying mother to give Fliss a Season – but she isn’t interested.  She doesn’t want a Season and she doesn’t want a husband, but Sister Ursuline insists she should travel to London and have an adventure – which has, so far, proved to be a huge disappointment.  Rowley hasn’t taken Fliss anywhere she wants to go, insisting instead on dragging her to boring balls and parties, but being leered at and squinting at blurry figures (Rowley insists she leave off her spectacles) from the sidelines of a ballroom isn’t exactly the type of adventure she had in mind.

Jake is pleasantly surprised when he discovers that the lovely woman he’d been observing from his vantage point at the edge of the ballroom at Almack’s is none other than the woman he’s been instructed to seduce.  He’d been expecting a dowdy, nunnish-type, not a lush beauty with honey-gold hair, a spectacular figure and a dry sense of humour, who is nowhere near as impressionable as he’d been led to believe.  They converse amiably for a short while, until Jake, still tired and annoyed at the cancellation of his leave, makes a misstep and attempts to soften her up too quickly. Fliss’ warm, friendly manner evaporates and she makes it clear she’s seen through Jake’s practiced charm and hackneyed compliments and has no further interest in conversing with him.

Jake is – reluctantly – impressed.  And intrigued.  And just a bit ashamed. For the first time, he feels an element of distaste about the fact that he uses sex as a means to extract information – although he can’t allow himself to dwell on it as he still has a job to do.  Fliss’ summary dismissal of him may have stirred the first genuine interest he’s felt in a woman in years, but he can’t lose sight of his mission; so over the next few days, he contrives to encounter her on several occasions in an attempt to wear down her resistance and to see what she can be induced to tell him about her uncle.

Fliss can’t deny that she’s been attracted to Jake since the first time they met, but she’s not interested in charming, sexy and gorgeous, she wants respectable and dependable.  She is determined to steer clear of him, but somehow, he’s always there when she needs help, and keeps turning up at the social events her uncle insists she attend… and the more time she spends with Jake, the more Fliss can’t help liking him.  She sees something – very occasionally – behind the suave, rakish façade that interests her, the possibility that there lies a man of more substance than he is willing to reveal to the world; he’s amusing, self-deprecating and genuinely charming, and she can’t help falling for him.

Jake is similarly smitten, finding Fliss’ lack of artifice totally refreshing and admiring her honesty – she’s “Blunt by name and blunt by nature” – even if it is a but brutal at times.  He finds it harder and harder to reconcile his growing feelings for her with his instructions to use her in order to get close to her uncle, but Rowley is obviously up to his neck in something both nefarious and dangerous, and Jake has no choice but to continue with his deception.

One of the many things I’ve really enjoyed about all the books in the Wild Warriners series is the family dynamic the author has created between the brothers.  They’ve not had it easy, courtesy of generations of scandalous, spendthrift relatives, and until recently, they’ve struggled to make ends meet – yet the love they bear towards each other is unstinting and permeates all their scenes together.  In the book’s prologue, we learn of a long-buried and painful secret Jake has carried since childhood, which has set him apart from his brothers to an extent and has obviously shaped the man he has become.  Ms. Heath doesn’t allow it to turn Jake into one of those ‘woe-is-me’ overly brooding types, but it has obviously informed many of his choices as an adult, and she very skilfully brings us full-circle towards the end of the novel as Fliss and Jake’s brothers finally help him to overcome it and put it to rest.

Boasting a strong plotline, two attractive central characters with scorching chemistry and a wonderful cast of secondary characters, A Warriner to Seduce Her is a superb end to an excellent series, and is the third (or fourth?) novel of Ms. Heath’s to grace my Keeper shelf.  And there’s more good news;  her next series, featuring Jake’s colleagues from the King’s Elite, is on the way – I can’t wait to meet The Mysterious Lord Millcroft in August.

No Other Duke Will Do (Windham Brides #3) by Grace Burrowes (audiobook) – Narrated by James Langton

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Julian St. David, Duke of Haverford, is barely keeping his head above water in a sea of inherited debts. Though he has a long-term plan to restore the family finances, his sister has a much faster solution: host a house party for London’s single young ladies and find Julian a wealthy bride.

Elizabeth Windham has no interest in marriage, but a recent scandal has forced her hand. As much as she’d rather be reading Shakespeare than husband hunting, she has to admit she’s impressed by Julian’s protective instincts, his broad shoulders, and, of course, his vast library.

As the two spend more time together, their attraction is overwhelming, unexpected…and absolutely impossible. With meddling siblings, the threat of financial ruin, and gossips lurking behind every potted palm, will they find true love or true disaster?

Rating: Narration – C+: Content – B

For this third book in her Windham Brides series, Grace Burrowes moves to Wales and the home of Julian St. David, Duke of Haverford, whose estate is so encumbered by the debts accrued by his father and grandfather – their passion for collecting books creating a massive library at equally massive expense – means he is one step away from bankruptcy.

As No Other Duke Will Do opens, Julian’s sister, Glenys, has organised a large – and expensive – house-party to which she has invited a number of eligible young ladies in the hopes of finding her brother an heiress to marry. Julian is a loving man with a lot to offer, but she knows he is unlikely to marry while the state of their finances remains so dire – ergo, she will find him a wife who has money. Julian, who has not been involved in the planning or even consulted about the party, is naturally horrified at the cost, but as he is presented with a fait accompli sees no alternative but to allow things to proceed as planned… and perhaps there will be a gentleman among the invited bachelors who will catch his sister’s eye. Just because – according to his calculations – he can’t afford to marry for another eight years or more doesn’t mean Glenys should be mouldering away at Haverford Castle with him, after all.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Duke in the Night (Devils of Dover #1) by Kelly Bowen

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Duke. Scoundrel. Titan of business. August Faulkner is a man of many talents, not the least of which is enticing women into his bedchamber. He’s known—and reviled—for buying and selling companies, accumulating scads of money, and breaking hearts. It’s a reputation he wears like a badge of honor, and one he intends to keep.

Clara Hayward, the headmistress of the Haverhall School for Young Ladies, on the other hand, is above reproach. Yet when she’s reunited with August, all she can think of is the way she felt in his arms as they danced a scandalous waltz ten long years ago. Even though her head knows that he is only back in her life to take over her family’s business, her heart can’t help but open to the very duke who could destroy it for good.

Rating: A-

In the years since the publication of her début novel, Kelly Bowen has become an auto-read author and has a few books on my keeper shelf. Her writing is assured and intelligent, she comes up with intriguing, well thought-out plots, and her characters are engaging and often just that bit different to the norm for the genre. In A Duke in the Night, the first book in her new Devils of Dover series, her gift for characterisation is showcased in her heroine, Clara Hayward, the headmistress of the Haverhill School for Young Ladies. In Clara, Ms. Bowen has succeeded where many authors of historical romance have failed; she has created an independent, forward-thinking, proto-feminist heroine who nonetheless operates within the boundaries of the society to which she belongs and feels like a woman of her time. Clara is comfortable in her own skin and knows who she is; she doesn’t feel the need to prove herself all the time or show every man she comes across that she’s just as good (if not better) than he is – she knows she is and doesn’t feel the need to flounce around reminding everyone around her (and the reader) that she is Spirited and Unconventional.

For that alone, Ms. Bowen merits All The Awards.

Of course, Clara deserves a hero who not only understands her but loves her for who she is, and I’m happy to say that in August Faulkner, Duke of Holloway, she finds just that, a man who is willing to listen, evaluate and learn.

August wasn’t born to be a duke. He and his sister spent their childhoods in extreme poverty, and when, by virtue of a keen mind and sheer hard work, he managed to find a way out, his one guiding light has been that his family – his younger sister, Anne – should never know such squalor and privation again. Even his unexpectedly acquired ducal status hasn’t stopped him from continuing with his business interests, although as his empire expanded, he took care to act through intermediaries, so the full extent of his holdings remains a mystery to all but himself and his trusted man of business.

After trying – and failing – several times to purchase the Haverhill School for Young Ladies and its surrounding lands, August’s most recent offer has been accepted and his plans to develop the property are now underway. But seeing Clara Hayward’s name on the deeds has sparked long-buried memories of the one time they danced together, a decade ago, when a much younger – and, he admits, stupider – August had invited the renowned wallflower to dance having been egged on by a group of similarly stupid and thoughtless young bucks. During the dance, August discovered something he had not expected; an intelligence, poise and confidence which completely captivated him and left him somewhat bemused.

Although ten years have passed since then, he still remembers how Clara felt in his arms, how his world had tilted on its axis in the middle of a ballroom floor… and he finds himself wondering why she has finally agreed to sell Haverhall. A few judicious enquiries by his man of business reveal that the Hayward’s shipping company is on the verge of collapse and that the proceeds of the sale of Haverhill will not be enough to save it. Seeing his chance, August decides to purchase the company as quickly and quietly as possible, before anyone else gets wind of the situation and pre-empts him. Learning that Harland Haywood and his sisters are usually to be found at the British Museum on Wednesday afternoons, August plans to ‘accidentally’ bump into the man and try to gauge his receptiveness to a possible buyout – but before he can find him, he sees Clara – and is instantly smitten all over again.

Clara Hayward hopes that once their ships come in (so to speak) she will be able find somewhere else to continue her life’s work of teaching. She is pondering the loss of the school that has been her life’s work on one of her regular visits to the British Museum when a voice she’d never thought to hear again intrudes on her thoughts and she turns to find August Faulkner, the man who’d all but stolen her heart a decade ago, standing by her. She has to struggle to maintain her composure as he rather clumsily apologises for his behaviour ten years earlier and then engages her in a somewhat awkward conversation about the piece of sculpture in front of them. She is puzzled, however, when he asks if he can call upon her the next day; each year, Clara hosts an out-of-town summer school for a hand-picked group of young ladies – and given that Anne Faulkner is one of the party, surely her brother must know that their departure is scheduled for the following day? Before Clara can say something to this effect, however, they are interrupted and part shortly after, but when August discovers, two days later, that Anne has gone to attend the Haverhill Summer School, he immediately assumes that Clara had deliberately kept the knowledge from him and is furious.

Never one to let the grass grow under his feet, August follows, determined to keep an eye on Anne and then take her back home, but also intending to speak to Clara’s brother about the shipping business and to persuade him to sell it… plus he can’t deny that the prospect of seeing Clara again is an extremely enticing one.

August’s arrival shakes Clara’s equanimity. She feels an intense attraction to him and knows it would be all too easy to succumb to it, but she can’t afford to jepoardise her position as an educator of young women – so an affair is out of the question. In any case, her first loyalty must be to her pupils – all of whom are exceptional young women to whom she affords the chance to engage in the study of professions not normally open to them. Her brother – a practicing physician – tutors those interested in medicine; another longs to be a landscape gardener, and Anne Faulkner wants to be an hotelier, but is constantly frustrated by the well-meaning but unwanted interference of her brother who insists she need never bother her head about anything ever again. Clara and August play a sensual game of cat-and-mouse as they dance around their attraction to each other and try (and fail spectacularly) to fight it. As they become closer, Clara patiently challenges him over some of his most deeply entrenched beliefs and encourages him to really think about the way he, as a man, has so many avenues and options open to him that women – and in particular, Anne – do not. He struggles and he makes mistakes, but he is intelligent enough and honest enough to admit the truth of much of what Clara says, and finally to see that by wanting to ensure his sister has the best of everything, he has been stifling her. A prison with golden bars is a prison nonetheless.

Clara and August are a perfectly matched couple; both fiercely intelligent, quick witted and determined – and the sexual chemistry between them is scorching. As I’ve already said, Clara is an exceptionally realised heroine, and August’s journey from ignorance born of male privilege and his almost single-minded drive to protect those he loves is extremely well done.

A Duke in the Night is a fabulous read and a terrific start to this new series. My one, small, quibble is that it’s just a teeny bit difficult to believe that Clara and August are able to connect so passionately and on such a deep emotional level based on just one dance ten years earlier, especially as they haven’t seen each other at all during that time. That said, however, Ms. Bowen imbues their connection with such fervour and obvious sincerity that there is never any question that these two are meant to be.

If you’ve never read one of Kelly Bowen’s books before, then this is a good starting point; and if you have, then be prepared to kick back and enjoy one of what is sure to turn out to be one of the best historical romances of 2018.