The Earl’s Countess of Convenience (Penniless Brides of Convenience #1) by Marguerite Kaye

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A countess in name only…

…tempted by a night with her husband!

Part of Penniless Brides of Convenience: Eloise Brannagh has witnessed first-hand the damage unruly passion can cause. Yet she craves freedom, so a convenient marriage to the Earl of Fearnoch seems the perfect solution! Except Alexander Sinclair is more handsome, more intriguing, more everything, than Eloise anticipated. Having set her own rules for their marriage, her irresistible husband might just tempt Eloise to break them!

Rating: C

It isn’t always easy to write a review of an average or sub-par book, and it’s even less so when it’s an average or sub-par book by a favourite author, so I’m sorry to say that The Earl’s Countess of Convenience, the first in Marguerite Kaye’s new four-part Penniless Brides of Convenienceseries is a – fortunately rare – misfire.

In it, we meet Eloise Brannagh, her twin sisters Estelle and Phoebe and their aunt-by-marriage and guardian Kate, Lady Elmswood (in whom I was immediately more interested than the heroine, which wasn’t a good sign), with whom they have lived since the deaths of their parents some five years earlier.

The book opens as Kate has received a letter from her absent husband (the girls’ uncle) in which he suggests that Eloise may wish to consider a friend of his, the Earl of Fearnoch, as a prospective husband. Fearnoch needs to marry quickly in order to secure his title and estates – and with no dowry and no social position to attract suitors, the sisters are not likely to be inundated with suitable offers of marriage, so the possibility of marriage to an earl – albeit a marriage of convenience – is not something to be sneezed at. Eloise agrees to meet the earl and to see if she thinks they will suit; she’s not prepared to sacrifice her life to misery and even though such a match would enable her to support her sisters and attain a degree of independence, she won’t go consent to it if she and the earl don’t get on.

When Alexander Sinclair arrives at the appointed time, Eloise can’t help but wonder why such a gorgeous man would need or want to marry a nobody like her – surely there must be ladies of quality queueing around the block to marry someone so eligible and handsome! Alexander quickly dispels that thought, and the conversation he and Eloise engage in here is refreshingly frank, which I liked; after all these are two complete strangers contemplating a lifetime arrangement for purely practical purposes, so I was pleased that they were both upfront with each other about their plans and motives. Alex explains that the nature of his work – he’s a Victualling Commissioner at the Admiralty – means that he spends a lot of time out of England, and he is adamant that Eloise should realise their relationship will never be anything other than a convenient arrangement for them both. He doesn’t expect or want them to develop feelings for one another, and children are categorically out of the question. Having seen her own parents’ marriage implode because of her mother’s infidelities, her father’s desperate love and their frequent rows, Eloise has absolutely no wish for love or intimacy, so doesn’t see those stipulations as in any way problematic. And because she has no experience of men and her only female role model is a woman living in a loveless, sexless marriage who hasn’t seen hide nor hair of her husband in the entire six years since they wed, she has no idea what those tummy flutterings at the sight of Alex’s smile might mean.

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: B-

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

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

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

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

Band Sinister by K.J. Charles (audiobook) – Narrated by Cornell Collins

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Sir Philip Rookwood is the disgrace of the county. He’s a rake and an atheist, and the rumors about his hellfire club, the Murder, can only be spoken in whispers. (Orgies. It’s orgies.)

Guy Frisby and his sister, Amanda, live in rural seclusion after a family scandal. But when Amanda breaks her leg in a riding accident, she’s forced to recuperate at Rookwood Hall, where Sir Philip is hosting the Murder.

Guy rushes to protect her, but the Murder aren’t what he expects. They’re educated, fascinating people, and the notorious Sir Philip turns out to be charming, kind – and dangerously attractive.

In this private space where anything goes, the longings Guy has stifled all his life are impossible to resist…and so is Philip. But all too soon, the rural rumor mill threatens both Guy and Amanda. The innocent country gentleman has lost his heart to the bastard baronet – but does he dare lose his reputation too?

Rating: Narration – A- : Content – A

Another 2018 favourite lately come to audio, K.J. Charles’ Band Sinister is, quite simply, a total delight. The author made no secret of the fact that it’s an homage to the works of Georgette Heyer, who practically invented the ‘modern’ Regency Romance single-handed, or that she employed a number of favourite tropes in terms of the characterisation and plot – and yet in spite of all that, there is no doubt whatsoever that this is a K.J. Charles book, through and through. On the surface, it’s the story of the country innocent seduced by the wicked lord, but in reality, it’s so much more than that, conveying important ideas about the nature of love and friendship, social responsibility and the importance of being true to oneself and of living as one’s conscience dictates.

Guy and Amanda Frisby were born into the landed gentry but have come down in the world. When their mother ran off with her much younger lover, their father took to heavy gambling and heavy drinking and died leaving them with nothing but scandal to their name. When the story opens, Guy is reading – somewhat apprehensively – the gothic novel Amanda has written and sent to a publisher, and in which she has modelled her villains on their near-neighbour, Sir Philip Rookwood (whose older brother was the man with whom their mother ran away), and his close friend, the devilish Lord Corvin, a man with quite possibly the blackest reputation in England.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Duke in Disguise (Regency Imposters #2) by Cat Sebastian

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

One reluctant heir

If anyone else had asked for his help publishing a naughty novel, Ash would have had the sense to say no. But he’s never been able to deny Verity Plum. Now he has his hands full illustrating a book and trying his damnedest not to fall in love with his best friend. The last thing he needs is to discover he’s a duke’s lost heir. Without a family or a proper education, he’s had to fight for his place in the world, and the idea of it—and Verity—being taken away from him chills him to the bone.

One radical bookseller

All Verity wants is to keep her brother out of prison, her business afloat, and her hands off Ash. Lately it seems she’s not getting anything she wants. She knows from bitter experience that she isn’t cut out for romance, but the more time she spends with Ash, the more she wonders if maybe she’s been wrong about herself.

One disaster waiting to happen

Ash has a month before his identity is exposed, and he plans to spend it with Verity. As they explore their long-buried passion, it becomes harder for Ash to face the music. Can Verity accept who Ash must become or will he turn away the only woman he’s ever loved?

Rating: B

Cat Sebastian returns to Regency London for the second instalment of her Regency Imposters series, A Duke in Disguise, in which an illustrator and a prickly publisher who have been close friends for a decade have to decide if friendship is really enough, or whether it’s worth risking what they have for the possibility of something more.  It’s a well-written story with a very strong sense of time and place featuring two engaging and complex principals; there’s a nod or two to the gothic novels popular at the time as well as some shrewd observations about the political situation, the lack of options open to women and the way the lives of well-born ladies were completely controlled by their menfolk.

Verity Plum and her younger brother Nate are joint proprietors of Plum & Company, Printers and Booksellers, which was left to them by their father.  Verity is the brains of the outfit in the sense that she takes care of all the practicalities (and then some), while Nathan, who is just twenty, indulges his radical sentiments by writing increasingly seditious polemics which she fears will land him in prison in the not too distant future.  Verity and Nate’s good friend, John Ashby – a moderately successful illustrator and engraver – has lodged with them on and off over the past decade, and although he and Verity are completely smitten with each other and have been for years, neither of them is willing to risk crossing the line into a romantic and physical relationship.  Verity doesn’t believe she’s cut out for romance in any case; her most recent love affair (with Portia Allenby, who appeared in the previous book, Unmasked by the Marquess) didn’t end particularly well, and she’s not one for dealing with complex emotions.  Verity guards her independence and sense of self very jealously, and she’s stretched thin as it is, what with the pieces of herself she gives over to worrying about Nate, and the business, and her friendship with Ash; and if she’s scared of anything, she’s scared of losing herself completely to all the other demands life makes of her.

Verity is desperately trying to prevent Nate landing himself in serious trouble, and with Ash’s help she manages to persuade him to leave England and travel to America to set up in business there.  She hates doing it, but recognises it’s the only way to keep his neck out of the noose.  Both Verity and Ash feel his loss, but aren’t sure how to comfort each other without crossing their very carefully preserved line, something which is become more and more difficult with each passing day.

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

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

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A spy on a mission…

Until he meets this heiress!

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

Rating: B

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

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

Oops.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lady Derring Takes a Lover (Palace of Rogues #1) by Julie Anne Long

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

A mistress. A mountain of debt. A mysterious wreck of a building.

Delilah Swanpoole, Countess of Derring, learns the hard way that her husband, “Dear Dull Derring,” is a lot more interesting—and perfidious—dead than alive. It’s a devil of an inheritance, but in the grand ruins of the one building Derring left her, are the seeds of her liberation. And she vows never again to place herself at the mercy of a man.

But battle-hardened Captain Tristan Hardy is nothing if not merciless. When the charismatic naval hero tracks a notorious smuggler to a London boarding house known as the Rogue’s Palace, seducing the beautiful, blue-blooded proprietress to get his man seems like a small sacrifice.

They both believe love is a myth. But a desire beyond reason threatens to destroy the armor around their hearts. Now a shattering decision looms: Will Tristan betray his own code of honor…or choose a love that might be the truest thing he’s ever known?

Rating: B+

Confession time: I still haven’t managed to read all of Julie Anne Long’s Pennyroyal Green series.  I’ve read four or five of the books, and the rest are on my TBR Pile of Doom; I think the series started before I got into romance reading in a big way, and I just haven’t found the time to catch up yet (and this isn’t the only author/series/book that applies to!)

Fortunately for me, though, I get to be in on the ground floor of the author’s latest series, The Palace of Rogues, which opens with Lady Derring Takes a Lover, the story of a young widow who takes a most unusual step in order to support herself after her husband dies and leaves her swimming in debt.  It’s clever, well-written and sharply observed; the author makes a number of very pertinent comments about women’s lack of agency and the expectations placed on them by society during the period at which the book is set, but she does it in a wonderfully subtle way that is never heavy-handed or preachy, which makes her heroine simultaneously refreshingly different and of her time.

Delilah, Countess of Derring, was married off to the much older Earl when she was barely out of the schoolroom.  Her marriage wasn’t happy but wasn’t terrible; her husband wasn’t cruel or abusive, he was just… mostly disinterested.  When he dies and the creditors start circling, Delilah doesn’t know what to do; she only knows she has no intention of dwindling into a ‘poor relation’,  passed from house to house, always a little out of place, a little in the way.

She visits her husband’s solicitor in order to find out if there really is no money for her – and while she’s there, her meeting is interrupted by a striking blonde woman, also in mourning… who turns out to have been the late Earl’s mistress, Angelique Breedlove.

The first sign that Delilah is going to be something of a remarkable heroine is that she actually feels some sort of kinship with the Other Woman and doesn’t freak out at the knowledge of her existence.  In fact, later in the day, they find themselves in the same dingy pub near the docks, and end up sharing a drink… and then agreeing to pool their remaining resources and go into business together.  The only thing Derring left his wife was a building in the East End near the docks, and Delilah has the idea of turning it into a boarding house – The Grand Palace on the Thames – but more than that, she wants to make it somewhere their (hopefully many) guests will feel truly at home, and where she can foster a sense of togetherness and family.

Captain Tristan Hardy is Captain of the King’s Blockade, and has the reputation of having almost single-handedly shut down every smuggling ring operating on and around British shores – except one, and it’s pissing him off royally. He’s currently on the trail of some most unusual and staggeringly expensive cigars he knows are being smuggled into England by the ruthless Blue Rock gang, but has so far been unable to stop their transportation from the coast to London.  His one lead is that the late Earl of Derring used to smoke them exclusively – and Tristan now decides he needs to find the man’s widow to find out what she knows.

This works as the springboard for the romance between Delilah and Tristan, but as a mystery it isn’t particularly compelling.  It’s competently done, but there’s no real sense of urgency about it; Tristan is described as the “King’s attack-dog” a man who will leave no stone unturned in pursuit of answers, yet his investigation into the cigars seems somewhat laissez-faire.

The romance, however, works a great deal better.  Delilah and Tristan are well-matched and their tentative steps towards each other are really well done; she’s never experienced desire or sexual pleasure but is no blushing virgin either, and doesn’t leave Tristan in doubt about her interest in him.  She’s a terrific heroine, one who gives the impression of being naïve and wholesome – people don’t expect her to be funny or to take a stand on things (a mistake even Angelique makes about her) – but really, she’s clever and witty, as well as being incredibly kind, and genuinely wanting to make people feel comfortable and happy.  Tristan is a hard-nosed individual with a job to do; fiercely self-contained, he doesn’t let people know him easily but he simply can’t help being drawn to Delilah, and right from their first, inauspicious meeting, the chemistry between them sizzles.  Like Delilah, he has a dry sense of humour and fun that is unexpected, and the moments he allows that snarky, devilishly teasing side of him out are among the best things about the book.  Their romance is a slow-burn, full of longing glances and slightly risqué flirtatious comments, and it’s simply delicious.

The other relationship in the book – that between Delilah and Angelique – is unusual and superbly done; I don’t think I’ve ever come across anything quite like it before.  Not just because it’s the wife and the mistress, but because it’s two equally strong female characters, albeit from different social strata, with strengths and weaknesses that play off each other and who are bonded through their relationships with – and impoverishment by – the same man.  It’s one of the best, most satisfying female friendships I’ve ever read in a romance novel – but the downside is that they’re so well set-up, and the focus is so firmly on them for the first part of the book that I felt Tristan was rather underdeveloped by comparison.  And following on from that, while Ms. Long does a great job setting up her motley crew of secondary characters and boarding house guests, (Tristan’s relationship with his Lieutenant provided some wonderful insight into his character) I felt some things could have been omitted without diminishing the overall story and that time and page-count could have been spent with Delilah and Tristan.

Those niggles aside, Lady Derring Takes a Lover was a really entertaining read. Delilah is an engaging heroine and I enjoyed her relationship with the pragmatic Angelique very much; and while Tristan is perhaps a little underdeveloped, he’s still a hero worthy of All the Swoons. The set up for the next book has me very intrigued and I’m looking forward to it immensely.

Welcome back to the world of historical romance, Ms. Long.  You have been sorely missed.

Dare to Love a Duke (London Underground #3) by Eva Leigh (audiobook) – Narrated by Zara Hampton Brown

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

For a dashing duke and the proprietress of a secret, sensual club, passion could lead to love. Thomas Powell, the new Duke of Northfield, knows he should be proper and principled, like his father. No more duelling, or carousing, or frequenting masked balls. But he’s not ready to give up his freedom just yet. Lucia – known as Amina – manages the Orchid Club, a secret society where fantasies become reality. Yet no member of the club has ever intrigued her…until him, the masked stranger whose heated looks sear her skin. After months of suppressed longing, do they dare to give in to temptation?

Rating: Narration – B : Content – B+

Dare to Love a Duke is the third book in Eva Leigh’s The London Underground series, in which the three heroines are not as respectable as the debutantes, governesses and worthy widows that litter the pages of historical romance. Eva Leigh presents a trio of spirited, independent women who know how to play men at their own game and who have made lives for themselves on their own terms – and pairs them with men who fully appreciate them for what and who they are.

Following the recent death of his father, Thomas Powell, the new Duke of Northfield decides it’s time to leave his misspent youth behind him. The late duke was one of the most conservative members of society, and while Tom doesn’t aspire to emulate him, he has no wish to continue to inspire the sort of gossip that will embarrass his mother and sister or tarnish the family name. In any case, his dissolute lifestyle has begun to pall somewhat and he’s ready for a change – but his one regret is that his decision will mean no more visits to the Orchid Club, the clandestine sex club that allows all who attend to indulge their secret sexual desires and fantasies in complete anonymity. Tom has attended the club’s weekly gatherings for the past year – his fascination with the place far more to do with the sense of freedom his anonymity brings and with the club’s beautiful hostess, the mysterious Amina, than with any of the many offers of sexual gratification that come his way.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.