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.

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

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.

TBR Challenge: The Devil You Know by Sophia Holloway

‘This is madness, my lord. Here we are, riding in the Park, and you are calmly discussing whether it would be advisable to seduce me, your wife. I should also say it does not sound very impulsive.’

‘I do not know about “advisable”, I was thinking more “desirable”. I have the advantage of you, my dear. You have no experience of seduction, and I have a lot.’

The Honourable Catherine Elford – Kitty – is presented with an awful choice.

Either she is cast off, penniless, by her penny-pinching step-brother, or she marries the handsome Earl of Ledbury, who would be perfect were he not a serial womaniser, and the very man Kitty idolised when she made her debut in Society; idolised right up until she found him in a compromising situation with a married lady.

Ledbury has only ever courted other men’s wives, and does not want a wife of his own.

However, Kitty’s generous dowry, which will keep him from selling his beloved racehorses, proves too tempting.

Following a swift ceremony and a disastrous wedding night, Kitty believes her only chance of survival is to make her head rule her treacherous heart.

If she doesn’t fall in love with Ledbury, his waywardness cannot hurt her. For his part, Ledbury has spotted a spark in his ‘dab of a wife’, especially when he discovers their mutual love of horses, and sets out to woo her in the only way he knows.

As Kitty begins to succumb to his seduction and believe that they have a chance of happiness together, Ledbury’s past starts to catch up with them.

Kitty feels that all of London is watching her, gossiping about her, pitying her. Meanwhile, as Fate conspires to keep the couple from love and a proper consummation, Lord Ledbury becomes ever more frustrated and desperate, and his temper worsens. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Rating: B

The “historical” prompt in the TBR Challenge always used to be something of a busman’s holiday for yours truly, because in the past, I read historical romance almost exclusively.  But the scarcity of really good HR on offer over the past couple of years has seen a bit of a change in my reading habits, and I’ve turned more and more often to other sub-genres to find what I crave from romance novels.  Still, HR remains my first love and when looking through my Kindle for likely prospects, I decided on a relatively new release, Sophia Holloway’s The Devil You Know from 2017, which, while having a few flaws and treading a well-worn path, was nonetheless an enjoyable read from an author with a distinctive voice and a deft touch.

Kitty Elford, half-sister of Lord Bidford, is furious when her brother announces he’s basically sold her hand in marriage to a notorious rake because his – Bidford’s – betrothed refuses to set foot in the house until Kitty leaves it.  Kitty is given no choice in the matter, and reasons that marriage to George Anstruther, Earl of Ledbury, is preferable to remaining under her obnoxious, penny-pinching brother’s roof, so when the prospective groom arrives to make his offer, Kitty makes no bones about accepting.

“I do not consider myself a romantic, my lord.  I do not think that rakes reform, so I am unlikely to be shocked by your behaviour, however disappointing.”

Ledbury isn’t completely sure how he ended up conversing with Bidford and agreeing to offer for the man’s half-sister – having  been a little foxed at the time – but he needs an heir and the lady’s generous dowry is certainly not something to be sneezed at. He has to marry someone, so why not the Honourable Catherine Elford?  Being married won’t change anything much; he can continue to cut a swathe through the beds of the married ladies of the ton and “a sensible woman who would let him continue in his way of life without fuss” will be just the thing.

The bulk of the story deals with how these two complete strangers set about navigating the waters of their marriage, and it’s charming for the most part, watching Kitty and Ledbury forge the beginnings of a relationship.  After a disastrous wedding night (which is simply referred to – this is a ‘closed door’ romance) – for which Ledbury is brought to see he should take most of the blame, seeing as his bride is (or was) a complete innocent – Ledbury determines to try to do better, determining that if he’s to have that ‘comfortable’ marriage he’s envisaged, he should perhaps try to be friends with his new wife.  In order to do that, however, he’ll need to approach Kitty in a completely different manner to all the other women who have fallen under his spell and into his bed.

Kitty is indeed a sensible young woman, but is also well aware of how easy it would be to fall in love with for her handsome, charming husband, and of what a disaster it would be were she to let that happen.  She could only ever be a temporary diversion for him before he returns to his philandering ways, and she’s determined not to let him break her heart.  She’s quick-witted, poised, competent and possessed of considerable insight; she says what she thinks, often with comical results, but sometimes goes a little too far, especially when her instinct for self-protection kicks in, and steers her towards making the wrong assumptions.

The author does a terrific job of showing Kitty and Ledbury gradually falling for each other – even if, on his part, Ledbury has no idea that’s what’s going on.  They talk, they take long rides together and they’re both refreshingly honest with each other; Ledbury knows he can’t erase his past and Kitty knows it would be unfair of her to hold it against him, but he understands how society works and is at pains to ensure that Kitty is able to hold her head up as she takes her place as his countess.  Sometimes in stories like this one, the heroine can be too good to be true, but that’s not the case here, because while Ledbury can be self-centred and ill-tempered (and is very well aware of both those traits), Kitty has her faults, too.  Sometimes, her witticisms are barbed and too waspish and, in the later part of the book especially, she can be somewhat ‘holier-than-thou’.  But these faults just make both of them that bit more human and endearing.

The tone of the book is fairly light and breezy – dare I say that there’s an almost Heyeresque quality to it overall?  The dialogue sparkles, the characters are engaging and the author imbues the novel with a strong sense of time and place, but I found myself knocking grade-points off for a late-book plot-point that felt overly contrived and really out of place.  There’s also a scorned former mistress out to make trouble – she made quite a juicy villain, actually – and her machinations, together with Ledbury’s tendency to over-react at times would have been enough on their own to create the tension needed to keep moving the story forward.

The fact that there are no sex scenes in the book may be off-putting for some, but I honestly didn’t miss them, because Kitty and Ledbury have great chemistry and the heated moments they share (while fully clothed!) are nicely done and provide just the right sort of frisson to fit the story.  In short, The Devil You Know was an entertaining read in the vein of the Traditional Regency and I’d certainly recommend it.

The Brooding Duke of Danforth by Christine Merrill

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Stranded at a house party…

…with the mysterious Duke…

When a storm hits, outspoken Abigail Prescott is trapped at a house party with Benedict Moore, the Duke of Danforth—the very man she was once betrothed to! Wishing to know the man she’s to marry, Abigail had called off their sudden engagement. But reunited once more, Benedict seems determined to win her back and make her his Duchess. His method: irresistible seduction…

Rating: C-

You know that feeling when, after finishing a book, you sit and wonder what on earth you just read?  That’s me after finishing Christine Merrill’s The Brooding Duke of Danforth.  It had the potential to be an engaging second-chance romance/courtship story played out against a look at the way gossip and rumour affected the relationship between the two principals; he, a wealthy duke who, by virtue of his gender and title is practically bullet proof, she the product of a union between drunkard and a social–climbing cit who has to care about what people think and say.  The trouble is that the book is… well, a bit of a mess.  There’s a Big Mis that could (and should) have been cleared up before the story even started but which isn’t really tackled until almost the half-way point and even then, isn’t completely cleared up until the second half; the romance is almost non-existent, the heroine’s willingness to jump into bed with the hero is out of character and even when the pair talk out their differences, they still manage to screw things up at the eleventh hour.

In the book’s prologue, we’re introduced to Benedict Moore, Duke of Danforth, and his long-standing friend, Lenore, the widowed Lady Beverly.  Benedict has decided it’s time he married and is thus attending Almack’s Assembly Rooms with the intention of looking about him for a suitable bride.  His attention is captured by a lovely and poised young woman who is accompanied by her loud, obnoxious father and overdressed mother.  Danforth immediately determines to rescue her from her father’s obvious tirade by dancing with her, but is impressed when he realises she doesn’t need rescuing at all, handling her father’s anger with coolly controlled aplomb.

Chapter one opens three months later, and we find Abigail Prescott and her mother taking refuge from a broken-down carriage and some terrible weather at Comstock Manor, home of the Earl and Countess of Comstock.  It turns out that Abigail did indeed receive – and accept – a proposal of marriage from the Duke of Danforth, but that she jilted him on their wedding day, realising she couldn’t marry a man who hadn’t spoken to her since he asked for her hand, and had shown no signs of being interested in her or of wanting to get to know her.  Sadly, the weather and carriage problems aren’t the only bad news Abigail is destined to receive that day – Danforth is one of the Comstocks’ guests, and meeting him again is going to be unavoidable.

When Danforth sees Abigail again, it’s with mixed emotions – anger that she left him at the altar without explanation, but admiration and attraction, too.  Realising he still wants to marry her, he determines to court her properly while they’re stuck at the mercy of the weather, and I settled in for a story of courtship and re-awakening love. But what could have been a cute and enjoyable romance took that wrong turn at Alburquerque and became a series of episodes that simply jumped from one to the next rather than giving the feel of cohesive and organic development.  The characters are poorly developed and not very interesting; all we really learn about them is tied up in how they react to being gossiped about. Danforth’s famous implacability is something he’s cultivated since a young age; having grown up with a father who was constantly berating and yelling at him, he learned that the best way to do with it was simply not to react.  Thus, he learned not to care what people said of him, while for Abigail, it’s the opposite; her father’s frequent drunken rages push her “to megrims and nausea” and although, like Danforth, she’s learned not to show any reaction, she detests gossip and has done everything she can to avoid it.

The other big stumbling block in the story surrounds the Big Mis I mentioned at the beginning. Early on in the story, we learn that one of the reasons Abigail jilted Danforth was because of his relationship with Lenore, who is widely presumed to be his mistress.  Abigail couldn’t face the prospect of being dogged by gossip or finding herself an object of pity because her husband’s affections lay elsewhere. But – and this isn’t a spoiler because it, too, is made clear early on – Lenore isn’t Danforth’s mistress and never has been, but the pair of them encourage that perception because Danforth doesn’t care about gossip and is content for Lenore to use him as a cover for the affairs she really does have.  While this was actually quite interesting, it’s problematic for a number of reasons.  Firstly, Danforth and Lenore allow Abigail to continue under this misconception for almost half the book – and even when they do tell her the truth, they do it so obliquely that she still isn’t sure what to believe until well into the second half.  And secondly, neither of them seems to understand (or care) that their continuing to act as they have in the past will still be a problem for Abigail if she marries Danforth;  that even though Lenore isn’t Danforth’s lover, the appearance of it will still cause the sort of gossip Abigail jilted him to avoid in the first place.   I thoroughly disliked both of them for being so completely wrapped up in their own concerns; when Abigail actually asks “When, precisely, will my needs take priority over hers?” Danforth still can’t see the problem and actually proves the truth of what Abigail has said by arguing with her about the need to end the charade!

There are some nice moments between Abigail and Danforth earlier in the book where they do actually talk and he’s able to show Abigail that he was never indifferent to her and begins to win her over – so well, in fact, that while her reservations about marrying Danforth don’t disappear immediately, she’s happy to have sex with him.  For one thing, I couldn’t believe that a young woman so careful of her reputation would do that, and for another, there’s no real relationship development and little to no chemistry between them.

Ultimately, the bland characters, inconsistencies in the story and the sadly underdeveloped romance in The Brooding Duke of Danforth combine to make it a below average read and I can’t recommend it.

A Rogue by Night (Devils of Dover #3) by Kelly Bowen

a rogue by night

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Baron. Physician. Smuggler. Sir Harland Hayward is living a double life as an aristocrat by day and a criminal by night. As a doctor, Harland has the perfect cover to appear in odd places in the dead of night, a cover he uses to his advantage to bring in all sorts of illicit cargo from across the English Channel. He’s chosen this life to save his family from financial ruin, but he draws the line at taking advantage of the honest and trustworthy Katherine Wright.

Katherine has returned to Dover to find that her family is working for a mysterious new crime boss. Growing up in a family of smugglers, she knows it’s only a matter of time before they are caught—and killed. So after her brother is shot, she convinces her family to move away and start over. After they honor their last contract, of course. With her injured brother and elderly father unable to work, Katherine reluctantly steps back into the life she had left behind. And straight into the path of the merciless Harland Hayward.

Rating: B

I’ve read and enjoyed a number (nearly all?) of Kelly Bowen’s historical romances, and have particularly admired her ability to create strong, determined heroines who manage (mostly) to operate within the conventions of the time period in which her novels are set.  Yes, they have unusual professions or ambitions – a fixer, a bounty hunter, a professional gambler – but they’re not generally obvious about it and don’t go about proclaiming their unconventionality.  The same is true of the heroine of A Rogue in the Night, Katherine Wright, a young woman born into a family of smugglers who became very good at that particular ‘craft’ until she fell in love and followed her lover to war, where it appears she developed her knowledge of the healing arts to become a highly competent surgeon.  But this time around, I couldn’t quite buy into it.  I know there were women who disguised themselves as men in order to train as doctors, so I’m not saying it could never have happened; my problem with it here is that I was just asked to accept that she’d been a battlefield surgeon and was told nothing about how she became one other than that the army surgeons were grateful for the help so hadn’t minded that she was a woman – which seemed rather… convenient.  It was easier to believe that the hero – having two independent sisters and, as both a peer and a doctor, being unconventional himself – could so quickly and unquestioningly accept Katherine’s abilities, but the fact that he insisted on introducing her as Dr. Wright, when he surely must have known no woman could actually hold that moniker (and anyway, surgeons in the UK are addressed as Mr./Miss not Dr.) came across as gimmicky.

Harland Hayward, Baron Strathmore, is an unusual peer of the realm in that he is a doctor and surgeon who served on the battlefields during the Napoleonic Wars.  Society frowns upon the idea of a nobleman actually having a profession, but Harland doesn’t care – being a doctor is more than a job to him, it’s who he is. Faced with the ruin of his family’s shipping business after a number of terrible losses, Harland made a deal with King, the enigmatic, ruthless crimelord who has appeared in several of Ms. Bowen’s other books (and whose story I continue to await with bated breath!), which saved the business and his family, but at quite a cost.  Harland now works for King, co-ordinating smuggling runs off the Kentish coast and secretly acting as a liaison between the smugglers and purchasers.  Katharine’s brother Matthew is a member of one of these gangs, and when he’s shot while on a run, she’s surprised when Harland – Lord Doctor, as she calls him at first – turns up at their cottage to offer his help.  She’s suspicious of titled men and she’s wary of him, even though she’s attracted to him, too.

But when Harland not only helps treat her brother but also hides him from the soldiers who arrive to search the cottage, Katherine starts to unbend a little, and agrees to allow him to transport Matthew back to Avondale House (where the summer school run by his sister Clara, Duchess of Holloway operates) so he can be properly cared for.  He hits on the idea of asking Katherine to teach the medical students at the summer school – an idea Clara supports enthusiastically – and Katherine, after her initial surprise, is pleased to accept.

Not long after this, however, Harland receives a dangerous commission from King, and knowing he’s likely to need a skilled medical practitioner to help him, asks Katherine to accompany him.  The pair embark upon an adventure which carries them from London to the French coast and back as they dodge bullets, hide from soldiers and face up to past mistakes. The plot is fast-paced and well-executed, but ultimately, all the action in the story detracts from the romance between Harland and Katherine, which is of the insta-love variety and not nearly as well-developed as I’ve come to expect from this author.

I liked both characters, particularly Harland, a dedicated professional who is determined to do his best for his family no matter the heavy price.  (And I would completely dispute the adjective “merciless” applied to him in the synopsis!) Katherine is similarly motivated, her talent and competence making her a good match for Harland, but there isn’t a great deal of chemistry between them and the sex scenes seemed forced and ‘for the sake of it’ as a result.

Given the current deplorable state of the historical romance sub-genre, it was a pleasure to read a novel featuring well-developed characters and an intriguing plot by an author capable of penning focused, satisfying prose. I enjoyed A Rogue in the Night and liked it considerably more than the previous book (Last Night With the Earl), but the under-developed romance was a disappointment.

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

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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.

I’m a huge fan of marriage-of-convenience stories, but this one just didn’t work for me for a number of reasons. Firstly – and to get this out of the way – I was disappointed that Ms. Kaye, whose research is usually impeccable, chose to base the story on an erroneous premise, namely that Alex would lose his title and inheritance if he wasn’t married by his thirtieth birthday. British inheritance law doesn’t work like that. Add to that Alex’s insistence that he and Eloise should act like besotted newly-weds in case his dissolute cousin worked out the real reason for their marriage and then moved to challenge Alex’s right to the earldom… again, nope, for the same reason. But okay, taking that as a springboard for the rest of the story and moving on, I found the characters hard to warm to, especially Alex, who is too blow hot/blow cold towards Eloise and doesn’t seem able to make up his mind and then stick to his choices. Eloise is a very down-to-earth kind of heroine, but I have problems with characters – and to be fair, it’s normally heroes – who eschew relationships because their parents were miserable together, so I found it difficult to believe that an intelligent young woman would decide love and marriage weren’t for her because she didn’t want to turn out like her mother, a self-professed “slave to passion” whose selfishness wrecked her marriage.

There’s a sub-plot concerning Alex’s relationship with his mother and his suspicions about his birth which is resolved in the blink of an eye; his secret job isn’t secret at all given all the times we’re told about Alex’s ability to lie – the nature of Alexander’s real endeavours required him to be an accomplished fabricator – or that in his line of work he wasn’t even supposed to have a wife; and the past mistake which has him so dead set against falling in love is anti-climactic when finally revealed. There’s so much going on here that the story quickly loses focus. Eloise’s conviction that romance isn’t for her melts away fairly easily; and the introduction of Alex’s boss, who drags Eloise off for a private chat at their first meeting and then proceeds to drop all sorts of heavy-handed hints about Alex’s job while at the same time making it clear it’s – shhhh! – a Big Sooper-Seekrit, was just really, really odd.

The best part of the book – and the reason I’ve not gone lower with the grade – is the way in which the author allows Alex and Eloise time to talk and get to know each other, both before and after their marriage. Apart from one thing (Alex’s not-so-secret job) they’re honest with each other about their expectations and I liked the way in which they entered into their bargain with their eyes wide open – even though their belief that they would be the same people with the same wants and needs ten, twenty or thirty years down the line was perhaps a little naïve.

I’m a big fan of Marguerite Kaye and have given a number of her books DIKs and high grades, but sadly, The Earl’s Countess of Convenience isn’t among them. Even the best of us is entitled to an off-day, so I’ll chalk this one up to experience and hope that the next book in the series, A Wife Worth Investing In, sees the author returned to form.

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

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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.

Catarina Neves is desperate to escape marriage to the older, abusive man her father has chosen for her simply because he’s equally desperate to get her off his hands.  The father of five daughters, the custom that the younger cannot marry until the elder does infuriates him, because Catarina is so independent and outspoken that no man will have her – making it impossible for his other daughters to marry.  Catarina has no wish to hold her sisters back, and having glimpsed Draven out riding with his men, and then watched him for a few days, has decided he is well able to stand up to her father and a far better prospect than the man chosen for her.  And in any case, once they are married, they can go their separate ways and need never see each other again.

Of course, Draven refuses Catarina (having guessed the gun isn’t loaded) and sends her on her way, but has reckoned without her tenacity.  When he finds her in the camp again, he’s about to turn her away, but when sees the horrible bruises on her arms inflicted by her would-be suitor, a strong  protective instinct kicks in and he decides to help her in the only way he can; they’re married later that night and then part ways.

Five years later, Draven (now retired from the army and working for the British government) is surprised – to say the least – when Catarina shows up at his rooms to ask for an annulment.  Their marriage is on shaky ground anyway seeing that she’s Catholic and he isn’t, but regardless of that, Draven is suspicious of Catarina’s explanation for her sudden appearance (that she’s fallen in love with and wants to marry someone else), and finds he isn’t prepared to let her go that easily.  They may not have seen each other for five years, but he hasn’t forgotten her or the sweetness and heat of the kiss they’d shared after the hasty ceremony – and seeing her again, realising she’s scared and lying to him brings back all the old protectiveness and more.  In five years he hasn’t been able to look at another woman – but now she’s back, Catarina is all he can think about.  All he has to do now is remind her why she trusted him all those years ago, and hope that she will ask him for the help she so obviously needs.

I liked both central characters a great deal, and the age gap between them – twenty years – didn’t bother me, although Draven refers to it quite a few times.  He’s a thoroughly decent man, strong, protective and deeply loyal, he can be stubborn but isn’t afraid to admit when he’s wrong, and his disinclination to waste time playing games or denying his desire for Catarina is very refreshing.  Catarina, too, is an attractive protagonist, a determined, spirited woman who works hard to make a good life for herself and becomes a much sought-after maker and designer of lace.  I enjoyed Draven’s gentle courtship, and the author writes the attraction between them well, but there’s an element of insta-love in Draven’s sudden realisation that he doesn’t want an annulment that really didn’t work for me in the context of the whole novel.  Also, Catarina’s decision that he’s the man she wants to marry is based pretty much on what he looks like on horseback  – and from a distance: “she’d seen this officer and known instinctively that she could trust him.”  – and I found it too flimsy a reason to buy into.

The plot – Catalina is being blackmailed by a business rival – is nicely handled, and I was relieved when Ms. Galen sidestepped an obvious plot-manœuvre towards the end.  Unfortunately, she then proceeds to manufacture a last-minute conflict which happens so quickly that it feels completely fake and there-for-the-sake-of-it, and I found it rather jarring and it pulled my final grade down a bit.  All in all though, The Claiming of the Shrew is an easy, undemanding read featuring an intelligent, independent heroine and a loving and devoted hero. Despite its missteps, it makes for an engaging continuation of The Survivors series.