TBR Challenge: Autumn Bride by Melinda Hammond

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When Major Lagallan suggests to Miss Caroline Hetton that she should marry his young brother, she can hardly believe her good fortune, and at first sight Vivyan Lagallan seems to be the perfect bridegroom; young, charming and exceedingly handsome. Yet upon closer acquaintance, Caroline is disturbed by his wild, restless spirit and discovers that he has a taste for excitement that eventually endangers not only his life, but hers, too.

Rating: C+

I went the obvious route to fulfil March’s TBR Challenge prompt of “seasons” by choosing a book with one in the title!  Autumn Bride is a Traditional Regency originally published in 1983, and Melinda Hammond is a pseudonym used by Sarah Mallory, one of my favourite Harlequin Historical authors, so I picked it up in hopes of an enjoyable read.

The story is a simple one.  Miss Caroline Hetton had to become a governess after her father lost everything at the gaming tables, and is currently employed by the Seymour family. The children’s mother is critical of practically everything Caroline does, and Caroline (who is just twenty) is well aware that a life of drudgery and constant criticism lies ahead of her.

She is most surprised to receive a visit from Major Philip Lagallan, the son of a former neighbour, and even more surprised to learn the reason for his visit.  While he was away at war and his younger brother Vivyan was away at school, Caroline’s mother had formed a friendship with Mrs. Lagallan (the Major’s step-mother) who became an invalid following the death of her husband.  When the lady died, she willed money and property to Vivyan, but recognising his volatile, impetuous nature and high spirits, stipulated that he could not come into his inheritance until he is twenty-five OR married to a suitable bride.  Caroline is incredulous when the Major asks if she will marry his brother; in fact, his mother even went so far as to name Caroline in her will:

She proposed that Vivyan should not take early possession of his inheritance except in the event of his marriage to Miss Caroline Heston or another young lady, deemed suitable by both trustees.

Stunned she may be by this, Caroline is a sensible young woman not stupid enough to dismiss such an arrangement out of hand.  To be treated with kindness and respect and to be mistress of a comfortable home are considerable inducements compared to the prospect of spending her life at “the beck and call of others and at the end of it, to eke out an existence with whatever one has managed to save”, and she agrees to think about it.  The Major proposes that she should visit the Lagallan House for a month in order to become properly acquainted with Vivyan – to which Caroline agrees.

She is welcomed by all – including the housekeeper Mrs. Hollister (who is a cousin of the Major’s and clearly has a status above that of housekeeper as she dines with the family, but that’s how she’s referred to) and Vivyan, who quickly assures Caroline that he will do his best to be a good husband and make her happy – if she will marry him as soon as possible!  The house his mother left him is currently occupied by his uncle Jonas (his mother’s brother and other trustee) whom he dislikes intensely and wants to send packing.  When Jonas comes to visit, Caroline can see why Vivyan dislikes the man so much. He’s condescending and makes every attempt to insult and provoke his nephew’s quick temper… and worse, he seems intent on making sure Vivyan isn’t going to be able to claim his inheritance.

Autumn Bride is a quick and enjoyable read, although I can attribute that enjoyment to the writing – which is concise, clear and really engaging  – and the engaging, well-written characters, rather than to the romance, which is almost non-existent.  This has been something of an issue with many of the Trads. I’ve read over the years, especially older ones; they are almost always told from the heroine’s PoV and the hero is practically a secondary character; in this one, Caroline and the Major spend little  time together on the page, and although the author does try to indicate a growing connection between them when they do, the attempt is not particularly successful.  Their first kiss comes pretty much out of the blue, and Caroline’s confession of her reciprocal feelings comes similarly out of left field.

But while the book doesn’t work all that well as a romance, there was something about it that kept me reading.  I appreciated that Vivyan wasn’t some petulant, nasty brat who is clearly being pushed in a direction he doesn’t want to go.  He’s somewhat spoiled, yes, but he’s handsome, charming and outgoing, and perfectly on board with his brother’s plan to find a wife to steady him.  That said, it’s also clear that he isn’t prepared to put himself out for anybody, and that if Caroline were to end up married to him, her life would be pretty lonely while he went off and did his own thing.

Caroline is a likeable heroine; she’s young but she’s got a good head on her shoulders, she’s sensible and keeps her wits about her in difficult situations, and rather than finding her mercenary for considering marriage to a man she doesn’t love, I found her clear-sighted practicality refreshing.  Vivyan is a charming rogue, but makes more of an impression than Philip which pushes the romance even more into the background, and it’s easy to see where the sub-plot about the local highwayman is going.

I enjoyed Autumn Bride in spite of my criticisms, but my grade reflects the fact that I tend to prefer more interaction and chemistry between the leads in the romances I read.  However, I suspect it’s a book that fans of the Traditional Regency will enjoy.

The Tempting of the Governess (Cinderella Spinsters #2) by Julia Justiss

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His new Governess…

Is getting under his skin!

Infuriating, impertinent…just some of the words Colonel Hugh Glendenning could use to describe Miss Olivia Overton! She’s insisting he spend time with his orphaned wards – which has forced him to admit he’s been keeping the world at arms’ length since losing his wife and baby son. That’s not all that’s disturbing him. It’s the new temptation Olivia’s sparking in Hugh to live again – with her!

Rating:B

I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for master/governess romances – probably a result of my long-time love for Jane Eyre – so the synopsis of Julia Justiss’ The Temptation of the Governess caught my eye. It proved to be a charming, character-driven romance featuring two likeable characters forced by circumstances to make big changes in their lives.

The first Cinderella Spinsters book, The Awakening of Miss Henley, introduced the three heroines of the series, young ladies who had decided never to marry and instead to set up house together and pursue charitable endeavours and the political causes close to their hearts.  This story opens as Miss Olivia Overton’s plans for her life are turned upside down when she learns that the inheritance she had planned to use to support herself has been lost in a series of unsuccessful speculations made by those who were supposed to have been looking out for her best interests.  Unwilling to live as a dependent relative upon her cousin, Olivia instead decides she can follow only one of two paths in order to earn a living; she can become a lady’s companion or – her preferred option – a governess.

Widower Colonel Hugh Glendenning returned from India eighteen months earlier, following the death of his elder brother, to find the family estate of Somers Abbey in Yorkshire had been run almost into the ground.  He has spent his every waking moment ever since working hard to repair the damage, and at last is starting to see the fruits of his labours.  Money is still tight and the Abbey boasts only a skeleton staff, but Hugh believes that the next few months should see things easing up a bit.  When a couple of travellers arrive at the Abbey with two young girls in tow and explain that the girls, Elizabeth (eight) and Sophie (six) are his wards, the daughters of his recently deceased cousin, Hugh is taken aback.  He had agreed to stand as guardian, yes, but had thought he would be responsible at a distance, expecting them to remain at their home on St. Kitts in the Caribbean while he managed their affairs from England.  There’s nothing to be done but to ask his female relatives if one of them is able to take the girls, and in the meantime he must find a governess for them.

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

A Wicked Kind of Husband (Longhope Abbey #1) by Mia Vincy (audiobook) – Narrated by Kate Reading

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

It was the ideal marriage of convenience… until they met.

Cassandra DeWitt has seen her husband only once – on their wedding day two years earlier – and this arrangement suits her perfectly. She has no interest in the rude, badly behaved man she married only to secure her inheritance. She certainly has no interest in his ban on her going to London. Why, he’ll never even know she is there.

Until he shows up in London too, and Cassandra finds herself sharing a house with the most infuriating man in England.

Joshua DeWitt has his life exactly how he wants it. He has no need of a wife disrupting everything, especially a wife intent on reforming his behavior. He certainly has no need of a wife who is intolerably amiable, insufferably reasonable…and irresistibly kissable.

As the unlikely couple team up to battle a malicious lawsuit and launch Cassandra’s wayward sister, passion flares between them. Soon the day must come for them to part…but what if one of them wants their marriage to become real?

Rating: Narration – A; Content – A-

Mia Vincy’s début historical romance, A Wicked Kind of Husband, came out in the middle of 2018, but I didn’t get around to reading it until December – and was so impressed by it that it was a last-minute entry into my Best Books of 2018 list. Historical romance has been in a bit of a slump for the past couple of years, so it was a huge relief to find this gem, a very well-written, funny, tender and poignant marriage of convenience story featuring complex, well-drawn characters and peppered with superb-one liners and humour that never feels forced. In fact, even as I was reading it, I just knew that if the book ever came out in audio format, Kate Reading would be the ideal narrator; that dry wit and banter was just crying out for her wonderful deadpan delivery – and what do you know? Sometimes wishes really do come true!

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Beastly Kind of Earl (Longhope Abbey #2) by Mia Vincy

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An outcast fighting for her future…

Thea Knight loves a spot of mischief. She especially loves her current mischief: masquerading as her sister, while finalizing her scheme to expose the dastardly knaves whose lies ruined her life.

Then big, bad-tempered Lord Luxborough upends her game by maneuvering her into marriage. But it’s her sister’s name on the license, so the marriage won’t be valid. Thea’s idea? Keep pretending to be her sister until she can run away.

A recluse haunted by his past…

Rafe Landcross, Earl of Luxborough, has no love for mischief. Or marriage. Or people, for that matter. The last thing he wants is a wife—but if he marries, he’ll receive a large sum of much-needed money.

Then he learns that Thea Knight is using a false name. Rafe’s idea? Pretend he doesn’t know her true identity, marry her, and send her packing once the money is his.

A compelling attraction that changes their lives

But as passion ignites and secrets emerge, the mutual deception turns tricky fast. Rafe and Thea face irresistible temptations, unsettling revelations, and a countdown to the day when Thea must leave…

Rating: A

When I read Mia Vincy’s début historical romance, A Wicked Kind of Husband, near the end of last year, I was impressed and utterly captivated – it made my list of Best Books of 2018.  With its likeable, complex characters, witty dialogue and wonderfully perceptive writing, it stood out like a a highly-polished gemstone amid the generally poor showing made by HR last year, and I, like many fans of the genre, have been eagerly awaiting the author’s next book, hoping for more of the same.  So I’m delighted to report that with A Beastly Kind of Earl, Ms. Vincy is two-for-two; this story of a young woman determined to salvage her reputation after two so-called gentlemen maliciously ruin it, and a reclusive earl carrying a whole shedload of guilt is funny, charming and deceptively insightful, featuring two wonderfully rounded protagonists, an engaging secondary cast and a beautifully developed romance that just oozes sexual tension and chemistry.

About three years before the story opens, Thea Knight, the daughter of a wealthy tradesman, is disowned and sent away to live in quiet obscurity as companion to an elderly termagant after she is labelled a “sly, scheming seductress” and accused of attempting to trap a young gentleman into marriage. With her reputation in tatters, the only people not to turn their backs on her are her sister, Helen, and her friend, Lady Arabella Larke; even Thea’s own parents – a pair of social climbers – believe the lies told about her and are adamant that her blackened name must not be allowed to ruin her sister’s marital prospects. They wash their hands of her.

But Thea is not one to be so summarily squashed.  Somehow, she has retained her sense of fun and her natural optimism, and is determined to make sure that society learns the truth about Percy Russell, the son of Lord Ventnor – and to expose his lies.  To this end, she has been saving money in order to have a pamphlet telling her side of the story printed and circulated throughout society, and when the story begins, hopes to soon be able to make plans for its publication.  But first thing first; she has to aid Helen in  her scheme to elope with the young man she loves and has been forbidden to marry… who happens to be Beau Russell, Percy’s brother and Lord Ventnor’s eldest son. Helen and Thea meet at a small coaching inn in Warwickshire in order to switch places; Thea will join a small house-party at Lady Arabella’s home while Helen and her intended make for Gretna to be married.

Rafe Landcross had no thought of inheriting the title of Earl of Luxborough, and certainly didn’t want it at the cost of the lives of his father and two elder brothers.  A large, dark and dour man, he bears the scars of a Jaguar attack sustained in the forests of New Spain (part of Mexico today) and, a keen botanist, much prefers the company of his plants to society.  His reclusiveness and curt, abrasive manner have led to all sorts of rumours circulating about him – including one that he murdered his wife, Lord Ventnor’s daughter.

The subject of nasty rumours herself, Thea is sure this cannot be true, but even so, has no desire to meet Luxborough – which is unfortunate as he, too, is to be a guest at the small party at Arabella’s home. Even though he rarely – if ever – leaves his estate, the earl has been tempted to do so by the prospect of obtaining some rare plant specimens being conveyed there by Lord Ventnor.  But Ventnor wants a favour in return, namely that Rafe should keep Beau away from that “social-climbing seductress Helen Knight”.  Having an agenda of his own, Rafe agrees to this, telling Ventnor that he will marry Helen – but he is fully aware of Thea and Helen’s scheme and has no intention of preventing the match between Helen and Beau.  Instead, he will go along with the deception and marry Thea (as Helen) and gain control of the ten thousand pounds left in trust by his mother.  Because Thea will marry him under a false name, she will not actually be his wife, so Rafe gets what he wants – money to continue his botanical research – doesn’t get what he doesn’t want – a wife – and Ventnor will be apoplectic with rage into the bargain.  Win win.

But he’s reckoned without Thea, her vitality, her enthusiasm and optimism, which are undimmed even in the face of the unkind and unjust treatment she’s been subjected to by those who should have been her staunchest supporters. He initially believes her to be the scheming jezebel gossip says she is, but he cannot reconcile that picture with the winsome and mischievous young woman who gives back every bit as good as she gets.

“We’ve barely met and you’re not very nice.”

“True, but I am an earl.”

“And?”

“Are you saying you do not find me interesting?”

“Not nearly as interesting as you find yourself.”

And Thea can’t help but be fascinated by Rafe, who is as different from the gossip about him as she is from the gossip about her.  He’s gruffly charming and adorably grumpy in a way that makes her yearn to know more about the man she glimpses only briefly, one who is kind, affectionate and funny – and to know why he locks that side of himself away.  His backstory is one marked by tragedy; he blames himself for his first wife’s death and genuinely grieves the father and brothers whose deaths paved his way to the earldom.  The heir who inherits unexpectedly is a frequently seen character in historical romance, but this is one of the few times I can recall that character being so eaten up with grief and guilt and convinced of his own unworthiness.

A Beastly Kind of Earl could be described as one of those buttoned-up-hero-loosened-up-by-free-spirited-heroine tales, but the author has once again managed to put her own spin on a familiar and well-used trope in such a way as to come up with something refreshingly different that transcends it.  The writing is clever, insightful and delightfully nimble, the dialogue sparkles with wit and humour and the author’s shrewd observations about the social conventions that constrained female behaviour are accurate and conveyed with amazing subtlety.  I laughed out loud at Thea’s reaction to mansplaining:

“Oh. You’re going to educate me. Very well.”

She folded her hands and waited politely.

“You don’t sound thrilled,” he remarked.

“On the contrary, my lord. I’m always thrilled when a man wants to tell me all the important things he knows… and if I’m very lucky, you’ll explain at length how you know more about it than anyone else.”

Then this had me laughing even harder;  Rafe and Thea discuss the etymology of the word ‘orchid’ – which is apparently derived from the Greek word for testicles!

“Allow me to confirm that I have understood correctly,” she said, her puzzlement overriding her nerves. “Here is this gorgeous, magnificent flower, and some man – who for unknown reasons is put in charge of naming it – he looks at this gorgeous, magnificent flower and he says ‘By George, that looks like my bollocks’.  And then he says, ‘You know what the world needs now? The world needs more things named after my bollocks.’ So he names this gorgeous, magnificent flower after his bollocks and all the other men look at it and say, ‘How excellent.  It is named after our bollocks.’”

His expression was unreadable as he studied her.  She would not be surprised if he stalked off in disgust at her unladylike speech.

“I must admit,” he finally said, “that us men are immensely fond of our bollocks.”

This is a funny book no question, but the humour never upstages the serious situations faced by the principals or the emotional connection between them.  Thea’s helplessness in the face of the determination of the men who ruined her reputation is a horrible realisation, and Rafe’s backstory, revealed gradually, is truly heartbreaking.  But watching these two wronged people find each other, fall in love and realise they belong together is pure joy; and the icing on the cake is the fact that the chemistry between them is simply scorching.

If you read Ms. VIncy’s début novel, then you’ll probably need no convincing to pick this one up.  But if you’re a fan of historical romance and haven’t yet read her work, then you should get on it right away!  Although this is listed as the second book in the Longhope Abbey series, it works perfectly well as a standalone, and the books can be read in any order.  A Beastly Kind of Earl is, without doubt, one of the best books of 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: B-

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

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

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

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

Jonah Chandler is the eldest son of Sir William Chandler and, since the illness that has confined his father to a wheelchair, has taken over many of the duties involved in running the family business.  Unlike his siblings Nathaniel and Kate (whose stories were told in the previous books), Jonah has been the one to stay at home, to follow the path laid down for him, going from home to school to the stud farm and while he loves his work, he wants more from his life.  Four years earlier, at Newmarket, he found that something – or rather someone – when he met Irene Baird (in rather unusual circumstances).  After a whirlwind courtship, they married quietly, but haven’t lived together since, only meeting a few times a year when they could both snatch the time to spend a few days or hours together – because Irene needed to remain in London and at her post until her younger brother was thirteen and old enough to be sent away to the prestigious boys’ school at which she has, with Mrs. Brodie’s help, secured him a place.  With those four years almost up, Jonah comes to London in order to ask Irene to return to Newmarket with him as agreed.  He loves her and misses her and wants to make a family with her; he’s a decent, steady and compassionate man and had been content to be Irene’s convenient husband, but now he wants to walk his own path… and he wants to do it with his wife at his side.

Irene is horribly torn.  She loves Jonah and wants to be with him, but she’s also reluctant to give up the life she’s built for herself and worries that she is in danger of losing herself if she does so.  Theresa Romain does a terrific job of articulating Irene’s many shifting thoughts and emotions; is she being selfish by wanting things to stay the same; how she can give up teaching and her missions when there are always going to be people who need help; how can she be fair to Jonah and to herself; is she good enough for him? – presenting Irene as a multi-faceted and very real character as she wrestles with these and many other problems.

Jonah is a lovely beta hero who has never wanted Irene to be anything but herself and has recognised – and admired – her spirit and independence and appreciated the importance of her work. But now he has seen what she does with his own eyes, and sees the difference she makes, he understands, more than ever, how difficult a choice he has presented to her.  But a choice is inevitable.  And he doesn’t want to “not be your choice anymore.”

Ms. Romain has clearly done a lot of research into horse breeding and training and into the London of the 1820s, presenting it as a cosmopolitan place, with areas of the City of London and East End home to many businesses owned, operated by and employing people from all over the world, and people of colour specifically.  She has clearly given a lot of thought to depicting the way Irene and her family members are viewed by some and the casual prejudice they encounter – which, while distasteful to read, was – and sadly, continues to be – found in people from all walks of life.

But even with the number of very positive things the book has going for it, I can’t deny that it fails to deliver one really important thing.

A romance.

Irene and Jonah met before this story starts, so the falling-in-love part of their story is over and done by the time we meet them.  I liked the fact that they’re a couple who isn’t estranged for the usual reasons found in romance novels (family pressure, infidelity, deception etc.) and that they are both as in love with one another now as they were when they first met.  Most romance novels end at the HEA and readers rarely glimpse those couples again (other than in cameo roles in other books in the same series) and once again, I applaud Ms. Romain for tackling a situation that doesn’t crop up all that often in the genre.  But the problem – for me – is that I am recognising all these really good things with my head and my brain; the writing is excellent, the dilemmas faced by the characters are really well put forward, the research is impeccable… but I didn’t FEEL anything of the romantic chemistry and spark I look for between the principals when reading a romance.  I also can’t deny thinking that perhaps Irene didn’t love Jonah as much as he did her; she has set aside ideas of her own happiness in favour of securing the happiness of others, which, in turn, gives her a sense of purpose and satisfaction – but when the ‘other’ whose happiness she could secure is her own husband’s… well, she doesn’t give him the same consideration she affords everyone else.

There are several sub-plots in the book  – all of which are tidily wrapped up – one might say too tidily – by the end, some of which have little bearing on the overall story and are, I think, loose plot threads from earlier in the series that needed to be tied up.  In fact, one of them felt as though it belonged in a completely different book.

To sum up… I came away from His Wayward Bride unsure as to how I felt about it.  It’s got a lot going for it, but the superb insight and beautiful prose can’t quite disguise the fact that, for me at least, the book lacked an emotional centre and real… for want of a better word, ‘heart’.  That said, I think there are many out there who will enjoy this tale more than I did, and for that reason, I’m giving it a qualified recommendation.

 

One Perfect Rose (Fallen Angels #7) by Mary Jo Putney (audiobook) – Narrated by Siobhan Waring

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Can a woman with a past and a man with no future find lasting love?

Stephen Kenyon, Duke of Ashburton, has always taken the duties of his rank seriously – until a doctor’s grim diagnosis sends him running from his world of privilege. Traveling incognito, he yearns to experience life to the fullest in what time he has left.

When Stephen rescues a drowning child, he is drawn into the warm embrace of the Fitzgeralds, a family theatrical troupe brimming with laughter and affection. And their enchanting, compassionate daughter, Rosalind Jordan, stirs emotions he’s never known before.

Widowed young, Rosalind is happy organizing her exuberant, close-knit family. She doesn’t expect to fall in love with a quiet stranger, whose wit and kindness speak to her heart. When Stephen tells Rosalind the truth of his condition and proposes marriage, she accepts despite the shadow of inevitable loss.

Together, they find profound passion and companionship. Yet neither dares speak of love, for only a miracle will give them the future they desperately desire…

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B+

One Perfect Rose is the seventh and final book in Mary Jo Putney’s Fallen Angels series, and was originally published in 1997. Audiobook versions of the first two books appeared a few years ago (Thunder and Roses in 2013, and Dancing on the Wind in 2014), but the narration was fairly poor in both (I reviewed Dancing on the Wind, and it was horrible!), and production halted until earlier this year, when four of the remaining books were released (I can’t see that book four has been recorded), thankfully with a much better narrator at the helm. As a result, listening to One Perfect Rose was a pleasure rather than a chore!

Stephen Kenyon, Duke of Ashburton, is a quiet, reserved man who has always done what was expected of him. He’s taken his duties and his responsibilities towards family, dependents and title seriously, and he married – and was faithful to – the woman chosen for him, even though he didn’t love her nor she him. Now aged thirty-six, and with his stentorian, exacting father dead, his dukedom prospering and the mourning period for his late wife ended, Stephen is finally able to think about living for himself for a change. He plans to travel, to do things that make him happy – until his physician informs him that he has a tumefaction of the stomach and liver and has, at best, only three to six months to live.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Someone to Remember (Westcott #7) by Mary Balogh

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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

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

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

Rating: B

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

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

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

When Someone to Remember opens, Alex, the Earl of Riverdale, announces that he has invited the viscount to dinner by way of thanks for his help and support in the custody case.  Matilda is profoundly unsettled by this turn of events, but puts a brave face on it, telling herself that she can manage to spend one evening in company with the man with whom she’d once been deeply in love.  She already knows he has aged well, that he’s still handsome and vital, whereas she herself has become somewhat drab and disregarded, especially by her mother, who almost never has a kind word to say to or about her.

Dirkson is hugely conflicted over seeing Matilda again.  On the one hand, he’s angry with her for stirring up emotions he’d thought long dead and buried, but on the other, he can’t seem to stay away from her.  But his anger soon turns from being directed towards Matilda to anger on her behalf when he realizes how invisible she has become to her family.  They don’t mistreat her or ignore her, but none of them really see her:

She was a person by God, even if she was past the age of fifty.  Even if she was a spinster.  She deserved a life.

Someone to Remember is a gentle, charming story of love lost and found.  There’s not a lot of plot, but Mary Balogh excels when it comes to exploring emotions, character and relationships, and she packs quite a lot of that into the short page-count as Matilda and Charles think back on their youthful relationship, ponder their mis-steps and how their choices have shaped their lives ever since.  The best thing about the story, though, is watching Matilda transform from a woman who had dwindled into a shadow of her former self into one revitalised by love and happiness. When we first met her earlier in the series, she came across as a rather stereotypical spinster aunt, somewhat fussy and always on the verge of reaching for the smelling salts, but as the series has progressed, she has been revealed to be a more complex character, one with a dry wit and sense of humour that is perhaps a little rusty from disuse, and a woman with a mind of her own who is compassionate and deeply loyal to her family and those she loves.  Fellow reviewer Janet Webb wrote an interesting piece on Matilda’s presence and influence throughout the series, and if you’ve read it, many of the pointers to the things that have brought Matilda to this point in life have been dotted throughout the series like a trail of breadcrumbs, and it’s been masterfully done.

Dirkson’s backstory isn’t one filled with sunshine and roses either.  After Matilda rejected him, he went off the rails a little (and had the affair that produced Gil) and earned himself a reputation as a rake of the first order.  His marriage was arranged and while not unhappy, was not one in which either party felt love or passion for the other (he was wayward and she had no real interest in men) but the connection he feels to Matilda has endured and starts coming back to life as he realises that he very much wants to take advantage of the second chance life is offering him.

There’s an engaging secondary cast consisting of the younger generation of Westcotts, I enjoyed watching Matilda’s mother admit to having made a mistake when she talked her daughter out of marrying Dirkson -and for anyone wondering about the state of Gil’s relationship with his father, there’s more on that, too.  Someone to Remember is a quiet story but a satisfying one that shows it’s never too late to find – or rekindle – love.

Note: The Amazon listing says this is 272 pages (and it’s priced accordingly), but Someone to Remember is a novella of around 110 pages; the rest of the page count is taken up with sample chapters of other books in the series.