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

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

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.

Mrs Sommersby’s Second Chance (The Sommersby Brides #4) by Laurie Benson

This title may be purchased from Amazon

She’s played Cupid for others

Now she’s met her own unlikely match!

Widowed society matchmaker Mrs Clara Sommersby thinks handsome self-made businessman Mr William Lane is just the man for her neighbour’s overlooked daughter. He’s successful and confident, if somewhat emotionally distant, until suddenly—shockingly—his attention turns to Clara herself! She thought her days of romance were over, but is this dashing younger man intent on giving her a second chance?

Rating: B

Since we ran our feature on Seasoned Romances over at AAR, I’ve been keeping an eye out for romances featuring more mature heroines, who seem to crop up less frequently in historical romances than in other sub-genres.  I was pleased to learn that Laurie Benson’s Mrs. Sommersby – eponymous heroine of the final book in her Sommersby Brides series – is an independent widow in her forties.  Having spent the previous books in the series seeking out suitable matches for her beloved nieces, in Mrs. Sommersby’s Second Chance, she gets her own happily ever after with a handsome and successful businessman eight years her junior.

William Lane has travelled to Bath in order to pursue an investment opportunity and goes to the famed Pump Room to do a bit of research.  He owns the coffee house next door to the popular Fountain Head Hotel (where he is staying while in the city) and recently having discovered the existence of an underground (and capped off) hot spring in the coffee house’s cellar, intends to make the hotel’s owner an offer to purchase the establishment so he can develop both properties into a spa. Bath may not be the magnet it once was for members of the ton, but the new and upcoming middle classes are visiting in increasing numbers and Lane is keen to attract a wealthy investor or two.

In the decade since she was widowed, Mrs. Clara Sommersby has discovered she possesses sound business sense and the ability to make shrewd decisions.  Married for a number of years to a man who was hopeless with money, they were on the verge of financial ruin when he died, and Clara is determined never to find herself in such a position again.  After her husband’s death, she decided to invest the money she had left rather than dwindle into the life of a paid companion or dependent relative, and purchased the Fountain Head Hotel.  For the sake of her reputation as a gentlewoman, Clara keeps her ownership of the hotel a secret, and the day to day management is undertaken by her cousin, Mr. Edwards.

She and Lane meet in the Pump Room, where she observes him closely scrutinising his glass of mineral water and after they catch each other’s eye, they strike up a conversation about the health benefits of the spring water and the hot baths.  There’s a definite frisson of attraction between them  but they are separated before they can learn each other’s names or how they might find each other again.

Both Lane and Clara find themselves dwelling on that meeting over the next few days, and luckily for them, fate – in the form of Clara’s boisterous puppy, Humphrey – brings them together once more when Lane is able to help untangle Clara from a too-long leash and some bushes when her dog becomes a little too enthusiastic on his walk.  From then on, both of them find themselves consciously looking out for each other at the various events and entertainments they attend; even though Clara insists she’s too old for Lane, and that she has no intention of marrying again and surrendering her hard-won independence to a husband, she can’t deny her growing attraction to and desire for him.

Mrs. Sommersby’s Second Chance is a low-drama, character-driven romance between a mature couple who have a lot in common, despite the personality and class differences lying between them.  Clara isn’t titled, but she moves in the best social circles while Lane is a foundling – an illegitimate orphan – who is in trade; she’s outgoing and bubbly while Lane is perhaps a little too serious – yet they have both worked hard for what they have and are determined to succeed in their future ventures.  The chemistry between them simmers nicely, the romance evolves subtly and naturally as their friendship deepens and while the single love scene near the end is fairly brief, it doesn’t lack heat. The reader knows from the start that there’s conflict on the horizon and wonders how Clara and Lane will handle it, and I was pleased when Ms. Benson wisely opted not to put them through some big bust up when they find out the truth – that Clara is the owner of the hotel key to Lane’s business plans, and that he is the man behind the purchase offer.  After their initial shock, they talk things through and find a way forward together – but then, a couple of chapters before the end,  an eleventh-hour conflict is inserted which is based purely on an assumption made by Clara which has very little foundation and is certainly not rooted on something Lane has ever said.  So I had to knock a grade point or two off for that, which is a shame, as it was the only false note struck in the book.

Mrs. Sommersby’s Second Chance is a charming historical romance featuring an engaging secondary cast and a pair of attractive, down-to-earth leads.  If you’re looking for a story devoid of overblown drama and characters who act their ages rather than their shoe-sizes, it’s definitely worth checking out.

One Night of Temptation (Wicked Dukes Club #6) by Darcy Burke

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Faced with a marriage she can’t abide, Lady Penelope Wakefield takes drastic measures to preserve her freedom. Her brilliant plan is foolproof until a sexy but imperious rector “rescues” her.

Rector Hugh Tarleton has no patience for the Society philanthropists who seek to bestow their pity—and not much else—on his oppressed flock in one of London’s worst neighborhoods. When the daughter of a marquess is kidnapped and brought to the rookery, he vows to protect her, but the temptation to surrender to their mutual desire will certainly ruin them both.

Rating: C-

I’ve enjoyed a number of Darcy Burke’s historical romances in the past and have reviewed a number of them favourably, but I’m afraid I can’t do that for her latest release, One Night of Temptation.  The book is the sixth in the Wicked Dukes Club series which Ms. Burke has co-authored with Erica Ridley (they have written alternate books with Ms. Ridley penning the odd numbered ones and Ms. Burke the even) – featuring a group of friends, not all of whom are dukes, who meet regularly at their favourite watering hole in St. Giles – The Wicked Duke.  I haven’t read any of the other books in the series, but they’re designed to work as standalones, so potential readers can jump in anywhere and not have to worry about feeling lost.

What they do need to worry about with this book, however, is its utter flimsiness.  One Night of Temptation is short for a novel, coming in at under two hundred pages, but there’s not even enough plot to fill that short a page count.  The romance is basically love at first sight, the principals are bland and there’s little to no chemistry between them, and the whole story is wrapped up in about a week.

Lady Penelope Wakefield, daughter of the Marquess of Bramber is fleeing an unwanted marriage to an unpleasant lecher old enough to be her grandfather.  She’s hatched a plan together with a young woman she met and befriended on a charitable errand at a church in St. Giles; Penelope is going to be abducted (but not really) and spend a night away from home which, when word gets out, will be enough to ruin her reputation, and the old goat won’t want to marry her after that.  But it turns out that poor naïve Pen was duped, and the woman she thought of as a friend had made plans for a real kidnap and ransom.  Fortunately for Pen, the men trying to hustle her away are prevented from doing so by the timely intervention of Hugh Tarleton, Rector of the parish of St. Giles who, learning of her situation, takes her to a decent inn he knows and arranges for them both to spend the night there (in separate rooms of course).  But while the inn is decent, the area is rough and after a fight breaks out downstairs, Hugh decides it would be safest if they shared a room – Pen taking the bed, he in the chair by her side, naturally.  They work out a plan by which Pen can be returned to home and safety now that she’s been publicly ruined, and even though her father will be furious and will probably send her to the family’s remote estate in Lancashire, that’s better than being married to the obnoxious Earl of Findon. During the course of the evening, however, she becomes aware that an even better alternative would be marriage to Hugh… but of course, that’s impossible.  She’d never be allowed to marry so far beneath her, even if Hugh were interested.

About half the book is taken up with the Night of Temptation that Pen and Hugh spend holed up at the inn.  They talk and get to know each other a bit, and Pen realises she’s experiencing attraction for the first time.  Hugh is good looking, yes, but he’s also kind, strong and exudes confidence – and he’s unlike any man she’s ever met.   Hugh is smitten as well and longs to protect Pen from her unfeeling parents, but knows he can’t possibly aspire to the hand of the daughter of a marquess.

One Night of Temptation was a quick read, but a dull one.  Caring, stalwart Hugh (who, incidentally, is described in the blurb as “imperious” but is nothing of the sort) had the potential to be a lovely hero, but Pen was almost a blank slate; all we knew about her was that her parents were shits, she was afraid of her father and she liked embroidery and cream cheese.  She seems to have no relationships outside her immediate family and to have led a very sheltered life – yet of course she has the instincts of a temptress.

Ultimately, I’m afraid I was bored, and the only temptation I experienced while reading was to put the book down and not pick it up again.

The Rake’s Enticing Challenge (Sinful Sinclairs #2) by Lara Temple

the rake's enticing proposal uk

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

The rake has a proposition…

Will she accept?

Part of The Sinful Sinclairs. When globe-trotting Charles Sinclair arrives at Huxley Manor to sort out his late cousin’s affairs, he meets practical Eleanor Walsh. He can’t shake the feeling that behind her responsibility to clear her family’s debt, Eleanor longs to escape her staid life. Chase can offer her an exciting adventure in Egypt… But that all depends on her response to his shocking proposal!

Rating: A-

This second instalment of Lara Temple’s three-book Sinful Sinclairs series focuses on Charles – known as Chase – Sinclair, whom readers met briefly in the first book, The Earl’s Irresiststible Challenge. Rather like his older brother Lucas, Chase is handsome, witty and charmingly self-deprecating, but behind the nonchalant, rakish façade he shows to society lies a man with emotional scars that make him restless and unwilling to make real and deep personal connections with anyone other than the siblings he loves so dearly.  Until, that is, a cryptic deathbed message from the man who was more of a father to him than his own father ever was sends Chase to Huxley Manor – and (almost literally) into the arms of a most unusual young woman.

Ellie Walsh comes from a family almost as frequently beset by scandal as the Sinclairs.  Thanks to her wastrel father, who gambled away a fortune and then died, drunk in a ditch, her family is in danger of losing its home. For the last five years, Ellie has managed to keep Whitworth afloat and keep the creditors at bay, but following a poor harvest there are no more funds and the banks are about to foreclose.  As a last-ditch attempt at saving her home and staying out of debtor’s prison, Ellie has agreed to a three-month fake betrothal with her friend Henry – the new Lord Huxley – who believes he can help her to raise the funds necessary to save Whitworth.  In return, she’ll be his ‘shield’ against his formidable Aunt Ermintrude’s plans to marry him to one of her nieces.

When Chase arrives in response to his late cousin’s missive, he makes a short detour to the old Folly tower on the estate, and is surprised to find a young woman within, looking through some papers on the late Lord Huxley’s desk.  Chase can’t help wondering if the man’s message – “There is something I have but recently uncovered that I must discuss with you” – relates to some newly discovered and unpleasant revelation about his family, so finding a complete stranger looking through Huxley’s personal papers is a most unwelcome sight.  He makes his presence known and challenges the woman, who he can now see is a little older than he’d thought, and whose demeanour is that of a very proper governess or schoolmistress; calm, a little impatient and intractable – and is surprised when she introduces herself as Henry’s betrothed and then challenges Chase to explain his own presence there.  Chase is immediately intrigued – and more than that, something about her sets him off-balance and makes him feel at a disadvantage – which he dislikes intensely.

 

When the high-handed Lady Ermintrude decrees that, as she has nothing better to do, Ellie should help Chase to go through his late cousin’s papers and possessions, Ellie knows there’s no point in objecting, and soon finds herself fascinated by the baron’s travel journals and collections of ancient artefacts.  She also finds herself just as fascinated by Chase Sinclair, who, during their many conversations – some serious, some not – gradually reveals himself to be a very different man to the one his reputation had led her to expect, an extremely sensitive, perceptive man with a great capacity for love and affection he seems to want to deny.  At the same time, Chase comes to appreciate Ellie’s strength, her wit and her determination – and also to sense that there’s a deeply passionate woman lurking beneath her tightly controlled exterior, a woman who longs to reach for more, to escape the rigidly confined life she’s currently living.

The Rake’s Enticing Challenge is character-driven romance at its best. Chase and Ellie are wonderfully drawn, wonderfully real, complex characters who are wary of opening up and who have cultivated the art of masking their thoughts and feelings to a very high level.  They deflect deeper questions using sharp barbs or dry humour, always circling around each other and never saying what they mean for fear or rejection or worse; what if they do get what they want and it’s not enough?  Ms. Temple does a terrific job of developing their romance, slowly building a strong and genuine rapport between them as they move from initial wariness to gentle teasing and then to a greater level of intimacy as they start to reveal things about themselves they’ve never shared with anyone else.  At the same time, their physical awareness of each other grows, the air between them becoming charged with longing and want and desire in a way that’s almost palpable and is far sexier than many full-on love scenes I’ve read;  it’s incredibly well done and extremely poignant, Ellie realising that she’s falling in love for the first time in her life while Chase steadfastly refuses to acknowledge he’s head-over-heels because of the danger he believes love brings with it.

The scenes set in Egypt are richly detailed and evocative, and the secondary plot line, concerning Chase’s search for whatever Huxley discovered before his death, is nicely done and also (I suspect) forms part of the set up for the next book, which will feature Lucas and Chase’s widowed sister, Samantha.

Featuring a pair of engaging, strongly characterised leads, intelligent, insightful writing and a superbly developed romance, The Rake’s Enticing Proposal is intense, heartrending, gloriously romantic and easily one of the best historical romances I’ve read this year.

When a Duchess Says I Do (Rogues to Riches #2) by Grace Burrowes (audiobook) – Narrated by James Langton

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Duncan Wentworth tried his hand at rescuing a damsel in distress once long ago, and he’s vowed he’ll never make that mistake again. Nonetheless, when he comes across Matilda Wakefield in the poacher-infested and far-from-enchanted woods of his estate, decency compels him to offer aid to a lady fallen on hard times. Matilda is whip-smart, she can read Duncan’s horrible penmanship, and when she wears his reading glasses, all Duncan can think about is naughty Latin poetry.

Matilda cannot entrust her secrets to Duncan without embroiling him in the problems that sent her fleeing from London, but neither can she ignore a man who’s honourable, a brilliant chess player, and maddeningly kissable. She needs to stay one step ahead of the enemies pursuing her, though she longs to fall into Duncan’s arms. Duncan swears he has traded in his shining armour for a country gentleman’s muddy boots, but to win the fair maid, he’ll have to ride into battle one more time.

Rating: Narration: B+; Content: B-

This second book in Grace Burrowes’ Rogues to Riches series takes place about five years after the events of book one, My One and Only Duke, and focuses on Duncan Wentworth, cousin of Quinn, Duke of Walden. When a Duchess Says I Do is a quiet, tender romance between a mature, well-matched central couple underpinned by an intriguing mystery, in which the author once again exhibits her talent for writing close-knit loving families and gently understated romances.

Scholar and former curate Duncan Wentworth has spent the last few years as tutor and companion to his cousin Stephen, younger brother of the Duke of Walden. Duncan is quiet, kind, knowledgeable and well-travelled, but owing to past disappointment and something he regards as a dreadful youthful mistake, he tends to eschew personal connection. In an effort to bring him out of himself somewhat, his cousin Quinn has directed Duncan to undertake the management of one of the dukedom’s less well-run estates – Brightwell in Berkshire – and to make it profitable within a year. If Duncan can achieve that, Quinn will take over the management of the properly, freeing Duncan to return to his studies and his travels, but if not, then Duncan will continue to manage it indefinitely, whether he wants to or not. Not surprisingly, Duncan isn’t all that happy about the situation, but he’ll nonetheless do the best he can for his cousin.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.